- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- For the first time in a long time, the Los Angeles Lakers are in a bit of a rut. For a franchise that has won 16 championships, a first-round playoff exit via sweep -- punctuating a three-year stretch in which the team failed to make it out of the second round -- is the equivalent of a band known for its epic encores ending a set after playing only a few songs.
How did the Lakers get here? Some occurrences were out of their control, of course. The litany of injuries that depleted the roster this past season couldn’t be anticipated. And the new collective bargaining agreement that went into effect before the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season has severely affected the way the Lakers go about their business.
That said, the Lakers’ management team hardly has been innocent bystanders over the past two years. As with any professional sports team, the Lakers have had to make major decision after major decision in order to maintain their current relevancy while simultaneously keeping an eye on the future. String together a handful of successful decisions in a row -- such as the way the Indiana Pacers picked up Tyler Hansbrough, Paul George and Lance Stephenson in consecutive drafts -- and it can take your franchise to new heights.
However, a couple of wrong moves can snowball, and instead of having that perennial success that once seemed preordained, you’re suddenly like the Bluth family on “Arrested Development.”
Here’s a look at the 10 major decisions the Lakers have made in the past two years that got them to where they are today.
1. Hiring Mike Brown
Following Phil Jackson’s retirement, the Lakers had a short list of candidates to replace him as head coach: Brown, Rick Adelman, Mike Dunleavy and Brian Shaw. The Lakers were blown away by Brown’s interview because of his preparedness and attention to detail, and chose the defense-minded coach who was almost the polar opposite of Jackson in terms of age and coaching style. Brown’s hasty dismissal the following season, just five games into the second year of a four-year contract, is grounds to play the “What if?” game.
What if Shaw had been handed the reins, continued to run the triangle offense and maintained strong relationships with Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol? Maybe Bynum doesn’t have the breakout season he had under Brown’s post-up oriented system, but maybe Gasol’s career doesn’t sputter either. What if Adelman had come in with all that playoff experience from Portland and Sacramento under his belt and kept the group from skipping a beat?
2. Letting go of longtime support staff in conjunction with the lockout
Again, the lockout might have been out of the Lakers’ control, but how they responded to it wasn’t. The team parted with nearly 20 longtime employees in summer 2011 -- assistant general manager Ronnie Lester as well as a collection of experienced scouts among them -- and it was a very public glimpse for the outside world into the inner workings of the Lakers.
“You think of the Lakers and you think they are a great organization,” Lester told the L.A. Times. “But if you work inside the organization, it’s only a perception of being a great organization. It’s probably not a great organization, because great organizations don’t treat their personnel like they’ve done.”
The Lakers have since promoted Glenn Carraro to assistant GM and have hired new scouts, but the layoffs certainly took some of the Lakers’ luster -- and they could have angered the basketball gods, if you believe in that sort of thing.
3. Trading Derek Fisher
In the 43 games Fisher played in his final season in L.A., the veteran guard averaged 5.9 points and 3.3 assists while shooting 38.3 percent from the floor and 32.4 percent from 3-point territory. In the 53 regular-season games he has played with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks since then, Fisher has averaged 5.2 points and 1.4 assists on 34.2 percent shooting overall and 35.7 percent from deep, so it’s not like the Lakers missed out on the final glory days of Fisher’s career. They even got Jordan Hill out of the deal with the Houston Rockets, but moves aren’t always about what’s on paper.
By parting with Fisher, the Lakers got rid of a strong leadership presence in the locker room and also one of the few people on Earth with the power to sway Bryant. Teams across all sports have to cut ties with aging players on a regular basis, so the Fisher move wasn't unprecedented, but it was still jarring to say goodbye to a captain who was an integral part of five championships. In conjunction with losing Fisher, the Lakers acquired Ramon Sessions from Cleveland in a separate trade, thinking the 26-year-old could be their point guard of the future to contend with the NBA’s new wave of talent at that position.
4. Not retaining Ettore Messina and Quin Snyder
The Lakers’ five-game flameout in the second round of the 2012 playoffs against the Thunder was hard enough to swallow, but not long after the team learned it was also losing two of Brown’s top assistants in Messina and Snyder, who were going overseas to coach Messina’s former team, CSKA Moscow. The lucrative salary Messina was commanding to be a head coach once again in Europe made it more his decision than the Lakers’ to part ways. However, the departures of Messina and Snyder -- along with the reclassification of John Kuester to East Coast scout -- pretty much erased any rapport that Brown’s staff had developed with the team and ensured another season of new faces and ideologies for 2012-13.
5. Hiring Eddie Jordan to coach the Princeton offense
With Brown’s original staff gutted, he chose to go in a different direction by bringing in Jordan to run the Princeton offense. Brown was smart enough to get Bryant’s blessing on the move in Las Vegas during USA Basketball camp, before the Olympics and before Jordan officially came to the Lakers, but ultimately the offense proved to be too complicated for the team to run and too much of an ill fit for the pieces the Lakers would eventually acquire.
6. Not re-signing Ramon Sessions
After struggling in the playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder (averaging 6.8 points and 3.0 assists while shooting 35.3 percent, down from 12.7 and 6.2, respectively, on 47.9 percent shooting from the field in the regular season with L.A.), Sessions opted out of the final year of his contract in search of a multiyear commitment. The Lakers would have been amenable to bringing Sessions back had he opted in, but didn’t feel the young point guard had showed them enough to commit for the long term. Sessions received a two-year, $10 million deal from the Charlotte Bobcats and went on to average 14.4 points and 3.8 assists per game as an effective substitute off their bench.
7. Trading for Steve Nash
With Fisher gone and Sessions making it clear he was seeking a commitment the Lakers weren’t willing to give, the story goes that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak called up agent Bill Duffy at the start of the official free-agency period and Duffy happened to be sitting next to Nash at the time. Kupchak was surprised to hear about Nash’s interest in becoming a Laker and so began the negotiation process, which ended with a three-year deal worth about $27 million for Nash and four draft picks -- two in the first round, two in the second -- going Phoenix’s way. The Lakers addressed two major needs -- experienced point guard play (especially after Sessions wilted in the postseason) and shooting -- but also went from a 37-year-old guard in Fisher to a 26-year-old in Sessions back to a 38-year-old in Nash (now 39). Nash went on to average 12.7 points and 6.7 assists while missing 32 games because of injuries in his first season in L.A. and was paid $8.9 million, nearly double what Sessions made (although Nash shot 49.7 percent for the Lakers compared to Sessions’ 40.8 percent for the Cats).
It was a swing-for-the-fences move by the Lakers, who ended up acquiring a Hall of Fame-bound point guard just seven months after being thwarted in their attempt to get Chris Paul. Kupchak and Lakers vice president of player personnel Jim Buss had no way of knowing that Nash would miss so many games because of a fracture in his left leg and nerve damage in his right hip and hamstring, but they knew quite clearly the risk involved in pursuing a guard who was approaching 40 years old.
8. Trading for Dwight Howard
No matter what Howard decides to do this offseason, L.A.’s management deserves credit for bringing him in for Andrew Bynum, who didn’t play a single game in 2012-13 because of his knees, rather than extending a long-term offer to Bynum after he was an All-Star for the first time in 2011-12. When healthy, Howard is right there with LeBron James as the most impactful two-way player in the game. Despite everything that went down in L.A. this season, he was the linchpin in helping the Lakers finish the season 28-12 over the final 40 games of the regular season.
The Lakers traded for Howard not knowing if he planned on signing a max extension to stay with them and figured a season wearing the purple and gold would persuade him to want to put down roots.
Even with the disappointment of Howard’s first season in L.A., it is hard to second-guess the trade made by the Lakers to acquire him. When you can add the best defensive player in the game, you have to do it. However, in adding yet another major contract to the books (to accompany Bryant, Gasol, Nash and Metta World Peace), the Lakers were fully committing to the plan to be a top-heavy team that relies on rookie deals and veteran minimum contracts to fill out the bulk of the roster outside of the mini midlevel exception. This strategy has its upside, clearly, but if any of the talent at the top gets injured or underperforms (which happened across the board this season) it puts severe stress on the rest of the Lakers to play above their heads to reach expectations, which isn’t a reasonable scenario and is a testament to why depth is so important in the NBA.
9. Firing Mike Brown
Hiring Brown was the tipping point to get the Lakers to the state they are in and you could argue that they fired him without giving him a chance to implement what he promised to do. After an 0-8 preseason and 1-4 start to the regular season, Brown was relieved of his duties as head coach. If Brown had been given the time to have Howard get healthy and have Nash return from his leg injury, maybe he would have gotten through to the group and had the success the Lakers were banking on when they hired him. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but by firing Brown the Lakers' management was admitting it made a major mistake on one of those major decisions.
10. Hiring Mike D’Antoni
The same decision that started the cycle two years ago –- hiring a coach –- was the last major move made by Lakers management to date. The front office claimed Mike D’Antoni was a better fit for the current personnel than Phil Jackson was, and didn’t await an answer from the 11-time championship-winning coach before moving forward and offering the job to the former Suns and New York Knicks front man. The Lakers were a far cry from “Showtime II” this past season. D’Antoni even admitted to ESPNLosAngeles.com late in the season that, “We're not running anything that I would normally run.”
Kupchak took that as D’Antoni being adaptable and endorsed the coach as having earned the right to keep his job for next season. While D’Antoni was able to maneuver through injuries and personality conflicts to help guide the Lakers into the playoffs, their season came to a screeching halt with an embarrassing 4-0 sweep to the Spurs once there.
So, that’s how the Lakers got here. The next major decision won’t be the franchise’s, but rather Howard’s to figure out if he wants to remain a Laker. Following that, there will be more franchise-altering choices to make -- whom to trade, whom to amnesty, whom to draft -- that could be either the start of building something in the right direction or the continuation of this difficult period in the team’s history.
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