Can Lakers make the spinning stop?
Time to face big, franchise-defining questions after dizzying 2013-14 season
It's scary. Up is sideways. Down is backward. After an hour, all you want is to make the spinning stop.
"It feels like you're seasick," Gasol said on his walk out of Staples Center after a recent game, "like you're floating in a cloud."
His eyes were glassy. Staying upright wasn't easy. A security guard walked with him, just to make sure.
There is a clarity that forms in desperate moments like this, a distillation of what matters and what doesn't. After the worst season in Los Angeles Lakers history, one that's left everyone in the franchise and the city feeling as dizzy as Gasol, this feels like one of those moments.
The Lakers have missed the playoffs just three times in the past 30 years, but they've never bottomed out with as little to build back up with as this season.
"Things didn't work out," Gasol said as he stopped for a moment to steady himself. "It's not just about talent sometimes. It's about getting your pieces to work together in one direction and having good chemistry, and obviously it didn't happen.
"I'm not big on thinking on what if. Things happen, and then you just move on."
How the Lakers do that, how they move on and use this moment, will set the course of their future for years to come.
Do they make a coaching change? Do they make a run at a superstar via free agency or trade this summer? Do they have the stomach to wait until 2015, when there will be a deeper, more talented free-agent class? Is the answer as simple as drafting the right player in the lottery or getting Kobe Bryant back healthy next season?
This is either as bad as it's ever going to get for the Lakers or the start of a long, slow decline. The end of a miserable season or the beginning of a new era.
Challenging as those questions are, they are easier to answer than the existential ones.
How will the franchise evolve after the passing of legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss last February? His children learned from him, but will that be enough? Is replication really the right play?
Contrary to popular belief, many of the recent events happened on Buss' watch. He was involved in every major decision through the hiring of Mike D'Antoni as coach, and even the ones -- like Bryant's contract extension -- that came after his death he had discussed at length with either his daughter, Lakers president Jeanie Buss, or son, Lakers executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss.
In many ways, his presence still guides Lakers decision-making, as if everyone at some point asks, "What would Jerry do?"
That should be a comforting thought. It certainly seems like a great compass. Yet sometimes genius loses something when you try to replicate it.
The programmers and designers who worked with Steve Jobs at Apple during the company's ascension to the top of the computing world came to understand his vision -- that design matters, that every element of a device should be lovingly developed to its most perfect, user-friendly state and that the only way to be different than the competition is to "think different." But understanding and believing in a vision is different than having your own. Apple has learned to do that in the wake of Jobs' death in 2011.
The challenge is the same for the six Buss children. They understand that they need to find their own voice and make their mark on the future of the organization. But when do you start? And for whoever goes first, whenever that happens, won't that upset the equilibrium their father established?
There was an opportunity a few months ago to punt on it all and hand things over to Phil Jackson before he left for the Knicks. But Jerry Buss had wanted his children to stand on their own. That day has come.
The decision on D'Antoni is the first one they will have to make. Even if the head coach might deserve another chance, considering all the injuries and lack of talent on this season's team, it will be difficult to give it to him. He has become the symbol for Lakers fans of all that's gone wrong these past two years, and the mob wants vengeance.
But D'Antoni is not just a victim of circumstance or bad luck on injuries. He also struggled to control or connect with the outsized egos on his team. In Phoenix, when he had a strong leader like Steve Nash who was intimately involved in both the creation and execution of the team's vision, those issues sorted themselves out. He never had to cajole anyone into seeing the world as he did.
Bryant and Gasol have won titles playing a very different way. Dwight Howard had little appetite for stepping outside of his comfort zone on the court. D'Antoni never figured out how to persuade them to do things his way, which ultimately was part of the job.
At heart, he is nonconfrontational. He believes deeply that once players see the benefits of his style of play and experience how "the ball finds energy" when it is shared, they will become true believers. It is a beautiful vision, one that has been borrowed and copied all over the NBA since his glory days with Nash in Phoenix. But nobody has run it quite like those "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns did.
Still, the Lakers plan to take their time making a decision on D'Antoni's future. A few weeks, perhaps even a month. There are those in the organization who support him and believe he can do better with a healthier, more talented roster. He's also popular with some of the superstars the Lakers have eyes for in the future, from his time as the offensive coordinator with USA Basketball.
Then there is the question of whom they could get to replace him, should they choose to. There are some credible names available at the moment. But the best, most exciting choices are either busy coaching in the NBA playoffs or happy in a top collegiate job. It's also tough to know which free agents will actually be available this summer. And it will be another month before the Lakers know just how good their lottery pick will be, before choosing whether to keep it or dangle it in trades.
With so many dominoes still to fall and so much information to weigh, the Lakers are inclined to take some time before making a final decision on D'Antoni. At that point, the question becomes whether he is OK with that scenario. When you preside over the worst season in franchise history, you lose quite a bit of leverage. The man has considerable pride, and it's obvious this has been a miserable experience. It's hard to imagine D'Antoni leaving with $4 million remaining on his contract, but it's also hard to imagine his coming back under similar circumstances next season. Why would anyone sign up for another season like this one?
The Lakers already made the big decision on Bryant in November when they signed him to a two-year, $48.5 million extension. They could have waited to see how he came back from his ruptured Achilles before offering him a new contract. They could have asked him to take a huge pay cut to make it easier for them to fill out the roster with higher-priced talent this summer and next. They could have let him become a free agent.
But it was important to the Buss family that Bryant have the opportunity to retire as a Laker and be rewarded for all the contributions he's made to the franchise in his 18-year career. This had been discussed with Dr. Buss before his death. Jeanie Buss was the first to argue for it publicly, in a radio interview with ESPNLA 710 in July. Jim Buss concurred but asked her to let him find the right way to structure the contract that would work for both the team and Bryant.
Yes, they gave him more than he would have got anywhere else as a free agent. But the Lakers felt comfortable with it for two reasons: 1) They still had enough salary-cap space to pursue a superstar player via free agency or trade in each of the next two seasons; and 2) In a league where the maximum salary is the essentially the same for all players, a contract like the one they gave Bryant is a signal to superstars that the Lakers will keep finding ways to honor their iconic players, just as Dr. Buss did with Magic Johnson in the 1990s.
Keeping Bryant and keeping him happy are two different things, however. It's no secret he's been miserable this season. He's rarely been seen in public since the All-Star break, preferring to watch games from inside the Lakers locker room or training room.
A few weeks ago, Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak went to Bryant's office in West Los Angeles to meet with him. They wanted his input and thoughts on the future. But mostly they wanted him to feel heard.
Bryant's question was the same as everyone else's: How does this get fixed?
For years, the Lakers have positioned themselves to be exactly where they are now -- with the flexibility to go in whatever direction they need to, as quickly and nimbly as necessary.
Now they just have to do it. Or do something. Anything to make the spinning stop.