LOS ANGELES -- The only thing achievers hate more than failing is being told that their failure isn't all that devastating relative to the norm. They want to shoot better than par on a friendly course and for people who enjoy constant success, life is a friendly course.
In the broader context of history, the Los Angeles Lakers are undeniably an achiever franchise. We can debate their exceptionalism, or whether they’ve deployed a sound investment strategy while building their current roster. What’s irrefutable is that the Lakers derive more value from mystique than any franchise in the NBA. Much of that value is largely symbolic, but a considerable amount of it is very real.
Mystique is built with championships, but maintaining that mystique comes with expense. When the Lakers reupped Kobe Bryant for two additional seasons at a sum of $48.5 million, they were vesting in mystique: The Lakers are the kind of organization that takes care of its legends.
It’s a short list of icons -- on average, one is born only about every 10 years. When their time is up, they’ll be honored with the best-produced farewell in sports, even if it defies good sense and costs a couple of seasons of contention. Let the aspirational franchises worry about something as transient as cap management; the Lakers are engaged in the long game of brand management.
Bryant on Wednesday performed his weekly media duties. He spoke in measured tone about the recovery process, the trials of being an observer on an afternoon like this and the desire to see younger guys like Nick Young appreciate the rigors of preparation and grow into more complete players.
Out on the floor, the depleted Lakers acquitted themselves nicely. They played possession for possession with the Miami Heat for 40 minutes and were within an arm’s distance during the closing possessions before falling 101-95. Even with a rusty Jordan Farmar returning to the lineup completely out of sorts, the Lakers cobbled together enough offense in their spread half court to compete and entertain.
“I think we moved the ball well enough,” Pau Gasol said. Gasol grumbled a couple of weeks back that Mike D’Antoni’s offense wasn’t maximizing his talent, while D’Antoni responded that Gasol in the post is one of the least favorable bets on the table for these Lakers.
Following the game, Gasol was far from ecstatic, but he seemed reasonably satisfied with the offensive schemes. Asked if he got the ball where and when he likes it in the half court on Wednesday, Gasol hedged.
“Sometimes,” he said. “It’s going to happen that way. Sometimes you’re going to get it where you like it. Sometimes it’s not going to happen that way.”
Gasol, who finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds and three assists, was a focal point early down low in a big first quarter. The Lakers went to him five times over the first seven minutes -- a sampler platter of isolations against Chris Bosh on the left block, isolations farther out at the off-the-right elbow and a slip screen for an open foul-line jumper. The total yield over those five possessions was six points. Gasol would've liked to have seen more of it, but such is life.
“Didn’t go to it as much as we did in the first quarter, I guess, or the first half,” Gasol said. “We kind of went away from it a little bit.”
Gasol’s right. The Lakers moved the ball sufficiently well, despite moving away from Gasol. And when they didn’t, the team’s one-dribble bandits found decent looks. Though there wasn’t much pace to the offense, the Lakers still managed 36 attempts from beyond the arc, making 14 (38.9 percent). This is a recipe D’Antoni can live with: Placate Gasol early to pressure the defense, then expand the floor with the shooters.
So the Lakers acquitted themselves well on Christmas, unlike their big-market brethren earlier in the day across the country. A team with an average collection of talent put up a spirited challenge against the league’s reigning champions.
This is part of the life cycle for pro sports franchises -- even the merchants of mystique. There will be seasons when bad luck befalls a prestige team and the bar is set at playing .500 ball. When this happens, an organization, players and fan base can get sucked into a cycle of eternal kvetching that pollutes the whole experience.
Alternatively, they can do what the rest of the sports world learns to do: Embrace the team’s limitations, then get really excited when it overcomes them. The Lakers are a likable team playing an entertaining brand of basketball. They have no transcendent players, and they’re going to have trouble beating a trapping defense like Miami’s so long as they have no healthy ball-movers on the perimeter. The Lakers can’t control whether Bryant is healthy, but they can deliver a fun product that’s better than their individual parts.
D’Antoni’s comments on Monday suggesting disheartened fans find another team came across as imperious -- he conceded as much in apologies on Tuesday and again on Wednesday -- but there was a thoughtful context: These are good guys doing hard work in adverse conditions. And often they'll lose.
Glad you could join the rest of us, Lakers Nation.