This is a long diagnosis and subsequent political rant, but it is comprehensive: so pour yourself a cup of coffee (or, if you're a Lakers fan, a stiff drink - preferably bourbon):
What's wrong in Lakerland?
Well, let's see...Mike Brown is on the books for another 3 years ($17 mil).
D'Antoni is on the books for another 3 years (~$12 mil?).
If the Lakers' 1st round pick this year (2013) is a lottery pick, then Phoenix will automatically receive the L.A. Lakers' 1st round pick.
Their 2015 first-round pick is owed to Phoenix (but it is top-5 protected for 2015, and top-3 protected for the two years after).
Assuming they aren't horrible enough to make good on giving their pick to Phoenix for the previous two years (and I seriously cannot believe I'm typing this about the LOS ANGELES 'EFFIN LAKERS); their 2017 first-round pick is owed to Orlando (but it is top-5 protected for 2017, top-3 protected for 2018, and unprotected for 2019).
The Lakers are guaranteed to be over the cap this year (by $40+ million) and next (by at least $20 million). That's $40 million in penalties for this year and at least a guaranteed $45 million in penalties for 2013-2014 (new CBA rules). This is actually the Lakers "best case" cap scenario - if they re-sign a bad-back, disillusioned Dwight Howard (even at a reduced backloaded rate; say he only makes $15 million next year in the first year of his new contract), they would still be forced to pay a whopping $73 MILLION in penalties. Also beginning next year, the Lakers will have a smaller MLE allocation (one of the many penalties associated with being a taxpaying team). This limits the ability of the Lakers to sign impact sixth men (Lou Williams, Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford all signed under $5 million MLE) and puts them in Mirza Teletovic territory (note: Ray Allen and Jason Kidd were also signed under the reduced $3 million MLE, but you've gotta think the Lakers wouldn't double down on more old players. Maybe).
Kobe Bryant is owed $30 million next year (2013-14), which is the last year of his contract. To put this in perspective: Imagine Dirk Nowitzki's current situation, but with no draft picks, a far worse coach (Carlisle is proven), no young prospects and - most importantly - no cap flexibility to improve the team via free agency (unless Kobe is willing to sink his 2014-2015 year - which, at age 36; previous statistics dictate will be just about his last year of potential high-level output for this particular high-volume high-usage isolation player).
Pau Gasol is owed $19 million next year (2013-14), which is the last year of his contract. The Lakers would like to trade him; but they are expecting fair value - which, in Lakerland, entails receiving a proven All-Star/All-Quasar type player (i.e. Rudy Gay, Monta Ellis, Marc Gasol) in return. No team is going to do that.
A realistic example of a "fair" trade in the eyes of the other 29 teams in the league would be Pau Gasol + Jordan Hill + Steve Blake to the Raptors for Andrea Bargnani + Jose Calderon + draft picks/cash considerations. Problem being, getting draft picks in return is sort of redundant when you've mortgaged so many of your future first-rounders away in the first place. This year's draft is weaker than most, and 2014 projects to be the strongest in a while - so if the Lakers could snatch a lottery pick for 2014 in combination with their own 2014 1st round (probably lottery) pick, then they could feasibly begin to reload. This is an example of something that a rational owner and his GM would pursue, because it makes the team far more viable in the long-term despite essentially tanking for the next couple years. Bear in mind that the tanking process - should the Lakers go down that path, whether wittingly or otherwise - will take longer than usual for the Lakers (and their fans), given that teams that "tank" tend to stockpile high draft picks for consecutive years (e.g. Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, Golden State, Charlotte, Washington, Orlando, Phoenix) as opposed to being stuck in limbo (e.g. Knicks under Isiah Thomas, Ming-McGrady Rockets).
The problem here is that the Lakers' timing couldn't really be worse. The day of reckoning that Lakers fans (and the Lakers front office, for that matter) have been saying they'd be okay with after Kobe retired with 7 rings is coming around sooner than we thought. The current iteration of the Lakers that you see before you is likely the most championship-eligible outfit that they will trot out for the next five years (at least).
Of course, there is one redeeming option. They could try and make it happen again next year with a 27-year-old Howard, a 32-year-old Gasol, a 35-year-old Bryant, a 39-year-old Nash and no bench. So essentially a slower, less athletic iteration of this year's slow and unathletic outfit. Although the team would undoubtedly benefit next year from an increase in chemistry gained from having spent a year together learning each others' styles, it is unlikely that this uptick in cohesiveness would meaningfully offset the steep physical decline of three of their All-Stars (and it is almost laughably far-fetched to suggest that this newly-acquired "chemistry" will put this team in serious championship contention anywhere outside of a home gaming console).
The Mark Cuban approach of maintaining cap flexibility through one-year contracts and speculative multi-year investments (a la OJ Mayo) is currently the only blueprint out there for rebuilding big-market teams with aging stars. The Brooklyn Nets tried an explode-reload strategy by locking down Williams/Johnson/Wallace/Lopez, but their situation might be even less enviable than that of the Lakers (at least the Lakers have the option of rebuilding in a year and a half; the Nets are capped out until the 2016-2017 season and will likely be the poster child for the brutality of the new CBA's repeater penalties for serial cap excession. The Nets' cap situation is the financial scaphism to the Lakers' crucifixion). I don't think Cuban's approach is the best one or even necessarily a good one - but it sure as shit beats the tar out of the Jim Buss Plan as it currently stands.
There's a reason why big-spending big-market owners fought the new CBA tooth and nail - because unlike contemporary American society, teams will no longer be able to compensate for blubbering incompetence by simply throwing money at the problem until it goes away. The Lakers (as well as organizations that take all-in, now-or-never approaches) are in a bad way something awful. It's going to be a painful decade for those that bleed forum blue and gold.
So why does any of this matter? The NBA's most famous and storied team is experiencing a dramatic, precipitous, and entertaining decline. Why should any of us care? If you're a fan of a long-suffering or oft-afflicted franchise, you should be cracking open the bubbly and enjoying your medium-rare cutlet of schadenfreude, correct?
Well to me, the current situation of the Los Angeles Lakers is an almost too-perfect microcosm of our country's current fiscal situation and deeply flawed mores. A former giant who pounds relentlessly on the drum of former accomplishment Let's look for a moment at the three biggest stakeholders in the Lakers' ownership:
First, we have the pauper (and, unsurprisingly, my favorite) out of the three, Dr. Jerry Buss - whose net worth is valued at a paltry $600 million. By all means, I consider him to be a person with deep ties to the California sporting culture and someone who has maintained a serious interest in providing his valued fanbase with a championship-caliber squad capable of giving them maximum value for their hard-earned dollar. How else to explain his repeated willingness to go over the cap in pursuit of top-level talent? The man was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010, and any Laker fan not currently suffering from Alzheimer's will sing his praises (and for those unfortunate souls currently stricken by the disease, the Lakers' run of dominance in the 80s and 2000s are likely to be some of their most permanent and enjoyable memories). He's a shining example of what the story of wealth used to be about in this country - working hard, getting a few lucky breaks (ask Ross Perot Jr. how he feels about his purchase and resale of the Dallas Mavericks), and using that money to provide those below you with something great, something that really improves their lives and gives them something to be positively passionate about. Something to take pride in when the world around you is becoming increasingly hostile.
But the mistake he made is the mistake just about every father fortunate enough to provide his son or daughter with a trust fund makes - he afforded Jimmy a position envied the world over by virtue of his son's...um...business acumen? Of course I'm kidding. It's nepotism.
Now there are people out there that will say "it's his team and he has the right to do that". Clearly. Donald Sterling was entirely within his right to drive the Clippers into the ground for two decades. The right to do something does not imply that the "something" done will be wise, intelligent, or - as seems to be the major sticking point with the sybarite class these days - immune from popular criticism. This is a concept that Mitt Romney never really understood or was ever forced to come to terms with - and it's a large part of the reason for why he came off as so (ironically) entitled and off-kilter when he came under fire in both the Republican primary and in the general election (quantum politics notwithstanding). As someone bred into a life of wealth and status, he surely had no problems dealing with criticism or conflicting opinions - he wouldn't have been so wildly successful at Bain Capital if his skin were universally thin. It's that Romney and people like him too often think themselves to be either above or beyond plebeian ridicule; as if heftier wallets universally beget heftier common sense.
Now Jimmy Buss has, unsurprisingly, made a string of decisions ranging from considerably sketchy (firing Mike Brown) to wildly incompetent (hiring Mike Brown) over the course of his management of team affairs. This also marks the first time in modern American history that a son riding the coattails and legacy of his father was elevated to a position beyond his capacity within which he succeeded in not only dismantling the very entity that his father had worked so hard to preserve and maintain, but also placing said entity in such a state of financial and functional disrepair that even the most miraculous of outside interventions could, at best, merely begin the process of undoing the damage the predecessor had managed to wreak in such a short period of time.
Remember, Jerry Buss is my favorite Lakers owner.
Next on the list we have Philip Anschutz; the titan of industry whose net worth in 2010 was estimated at $7,000,000,000.00. That's "billion", with a "b". He is, by all reasonable metrics, a complete sack of shit. According to Wikipedia, he hasn't granted a formal interview in over 30 years - so I don't think it's much of a stretch for us to infer that his views on racial and sexual equality have evolved over the years; since self-identified Evangelical Presbyterian conservative Christians aren't typically the most vocal subscribers to the theory of evolution.
Like most billionaires, he has philanthropically bankrolled things that pretty much no sane person would object to - for example, $100 million to the University of Colorado's interestingly-named Anschutz School of Medicine. And, like most billionaires, he has philanthropically bankrolled a number of right-wing organizations aimed at entrenching his stranglehold on the national economy, keeping gay and lesbian Americans defined as second-class citizens, and funding think tanks (using this phrase liberally here; not sure how much thought is in that tank up at the Discovery Institute in Seattle) that promote intelligent design and criticize evolution. And, like most billionaires, he probably uses the former as an excuse or justification that somehow morally offsets the unquestionable baseness of the latter.
He also donates significantly to "Enough is Enough", which is an organization dedicated to, among other things, "lighting the way to protect children and families from the dangers of Internet pornography"; which is perhaps the strongest argument anyone can come up with for why his taxes need to be higher.
(Quick note: the easiest way to identify that you were born before 1970, voted for Reagan, and have no idea about technology in general is to capitalize the word "Internet".)
In short, this man has no problem investing in toxic industries that are harmful to public welfare (deforestation, oil, gas, the Los Angeles Lakers) so long as they bring him money.
The last guy on our list of enviable Lakers owners is Patrick Soon-Shiong, who is somehow only the 39th richest billionaire (there's a phrase I wish didn't exist, but whatever) in the United States with a net worth of $7.2 billion. So apparently there are 38 other people in this country that are worth more than $7.2 billion, and remember that it is necessary for us to raise the retirement age and cut Social Security and Pell Grants so that we can make sure these people don't pay higher taxes because lower taxes on middle-class billionaire families create jobs.
I actually don't have too much of a problem with this guy outside of basketball. He seems like a decent enough fellow (with the caveat that he is the wealthiest American in the healthcare industry, so make of that what you will). His wife was in MacGyver, which is cool. And he's pledged $100+ million to revitalize the MLK hospital in LA, which (like most things named after Martin Luther King, Jr.) helps the underserved (translation: minority) populations of the LA area. I've never seen a Malcolm X Hospital. Maybe someday.
But I'm not quite sure as to how hands-on he is with the whole "making the Lakers not terrible" decision-making process outside of bankrolling Buss' luxury tax fees.
So to recap, the three people running the Lakers are: a clueless beneficiary of nepotism, a douchebag who views the team as an investment and nothing more, and a not-douchebag (I'd say "nice guy", but it's admittedly difficult for me to do that about someone who's profited most egregiously from a system in which children with preexisting conditions can be denied insurance) who views the team as an investment and nothing more. The Sacramento Kings' Maloof brothers have a similar approach, but with extra douchebag.
When I was a tyke, I didn't understand the concept of singular or even tripartite ownership. I thought the people of Dallas owned the Dallas Cowboys, and that's why they supported them. I though the people of Chicago owned the Chicago Bulls, and that's why they supported them. And I thought that Los Angeles was split in half, where 50% of the people owned and supported the Lakers and 50% of the people owned and supported the Clippers. I thought the Bulls were really good because they had the most money. I thought the Mavericks were really bad because my hometown was poorer.
(I was kind of stumped by Utah, I'll admit.)
It's not that I lament the rebuilding process itself - aside from Pop-Tarts and Mountain Dew, nothing can be incredible forever. But in this day and age it seems as if the Mark Cubans, the Jerry Busses, the Paul Allens - these passionate owners that open not only their wallets but their hearts to the citizens of their towns - these owners are an endangered species. A rare and dying breed to be sure.
And if we're speaking honestly? The slow death of the emotionally-involved owner is reflective of contemporary American values (or, for the progressive-minded optimists out there; the dominant media narrative which projects these values as a national identity and not just a regional screed). Just as those frustrated with gridlock on Capitol Hill are overly quick to jump to the hallmark truism of false equivalency - i.e. "both sides do it" - each of the three labor disputes of the last two years has been grossly oversimplified as "millionaires arguing with billionaires over who gets more money". I wish that I could dismiss this as merely a product of our nation's frustration with a lagging economy, but I'm not so sure; because you see the same sort of twisted logic and anti-labor sentiment when it comes down to thousandaires arguing with millionaires not just over who gets more money, but whose priorities are most important.
It seems as if in today's political landscape there's just no love lost on the thousandaire. If my boss complains that he has job openings that no applicants are qualified to fill, and then I suggest that the company provide training for those applicants so that they can do those jobs - well Fred, it looks like I'm a communist. If the company's profits are down and my union asks the board of directors to freeze CEO bonuses if they're going to freeze pay raises for workers on the floor, I'm a socialist. And if I have the audacity to vote for the representative who says I'm getting a raw deal, I'm simply un-American.
Only in America would the ability to provide for yourself and your family be seen as a privilege and not an inherent right. As every good American knows, when we start granting rights to people, they start getting uppity and entitled; thinking that they deserve things like healthcare and non-toxic air by virtue of just being an American citizen. Next thing you know, they'll be saying that the student loan bubble is entirely the result of everyone not deciding to major in computer science or engineering. Oh wait, they already do that. Never mind.
The Lakers are in trouble, America is in trouble, and it's only a matter of time before both organizations decide to blow it all up and rebuild. The only question before us today is whether we'd like to rebuild on the fly, or whether we'd prefer to have it all crumble down first.