On the NBA: Even Purple and Gold Fade

The NBA of recent memory traffics in uncertainty, perhaps more so than ever before. Fans are being sold on the promise of entirely new teams full of rosters of unknown young men, surely preparing to go invade the newest nearby Cheesecake Factory, and somehow, this has worked. Marketing departments have begun to understand that selling a roll of the dice seems significantly easier than trying to preach slow, steady progress to fan bases already on the brink of riot, leaving teams like the New Jersey Nets and Golden State Warriors extolling the virtues of Jordan Farmar and Louis Amundson, if only for a summer. Those teams secure (or stubborn) enough to stick to the plan better have good reason for doing so. This offseason’s most prominent example of such, the Orlando Magic, had the incoming primes of both of its best players, Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson, to which to look forward, a fine reason for standing pat, sitting tight or whichever weird position-dependent expression you like. With no significant acquisitions (if a man has changed teams five times in the last year, his acquisition defines insignificant), the Magic stood tall as an example of the anti-Triumvirate, a collection of people who’ve actually played with each other for more than All-Star games and international competitions. On the West Coast loomed its tormentor and more frightening parallel, the returning champions; though moves were made, the Lakers similarly scoffed in the face of the Summer of LeBron, adding depth for general edification and not as a part of a misguided arms race. As has been common knowledge for a couple of years, the West belongs to the Lakers, and those punks that jump up at the chance to threaten Phil Jackson’s awkwardly trumped up, but ridiculously impressive fourth three-peat will be beaten down. Unless, of course, things are a bit messier in LaLa Land.

In the most literal sense, the Los Angeles Lakers towers over its competition. Where other era-definingly brilliant squads have generally been built around transcendent talent at the pivot, Mitch Kupchak built a forest of a Lakers team, one that seemed omnipresent thanks to its sheer size and skill, leading wayward men into the branches never to be seen again. When teams want to get big, they do so as a response to this amassment of behemoths, praying that undersized forwards (and everyone is undersized when matched up against L.A.) can use craft and prayer to somehow make their shots enter the airspace above the skyscrapers. That is only the strength of the Lakers’ embarrassment of riches, completely ignoring the dual presences of Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, two men who know how to win better than just about anyone. Per usual, this team remains favored among all to emerge from the mire in June, greedily clinging to its third straight, sending its gigantic sage off into the sunset with his 12th ring.

Ignoring all tempting references to Hollywood endings, though, the Los Angeles Lakers that NBA fans have finally learned to respect immensely, even if hoping for Kobe Bryant’s quick and (assumingly) fitting downfall, will not take the court anytime soon, if ever, this season. Us writers, a notoriously plump and lazy lot, love the indomitability of a perennial like the Lakers; teams like them make us look cynical but smart every year by ripping out the hearts of upstarts in the early summer annually, negating the need for any kind of “research” or “work”. The Lakers’ placement atop this year’s influx of Superteams, therefore, doesn’t surprise anyone jaded enough to still read the expert polls with eyes rolled, but the team’s performance out of the gate will shock and appall because it hasn’t gotten better enough to excuse two of the more significant injuries in the NBA: the weary knees of the venerable Kobe Bryant and the hilariously short-sighted Andrew Bynum. While teams like the Portland Trailblazers and Houston Rockets must endure caveat after caveat in season previews by guys tired of making trendy picks undermined by some giant’s broken bone, those same writers stopped noticing that this team is just that: a veteran outfit desperately hoping that it can keep this jumble of loose sockets and drained knees rollicking along for a few more years. The Triangle can only do so much, especially for a team that seemed to be going in the worst direction offensively last season; without Kobe’s occasional game-winning robberies via fadeaway 16-footers and the “Oh my God, I can’t see anything”-type interior defense, the Lakers does not seem like a powerhouse swatting flies away from the crown. No, the jeopardy is much greater, the stakes much higher. Though no one wants to discuss it, the Lakers may have found itself in the midst of the Celtics and Spurs of the world: trying to recapture greatness for “one last run”.

Last runs aren’t supposed to be preceded by back-to-back titles, but neither are they supposed to begin with two of the team’s three best players nursing knee injuries and wondering if they’ll ever regain their “true” form. That is the even sadder truth: no matter how great Pau Gasol is or how badly Jackson may want this ring, too much may have already been lost to reasonably expect a title. Celtics fans find themselves already crossing their fingers, praying for some sort of fountain-of-youth/hyperbaric chamber solution to that 2001 All-Star team’s ills, and that is with a budding superstar in tow in Rondo. The Lakers’ future rides on the stability of two knees that doctors expect to fail in the near future, and its present dominance has been spearheaded by a shooting guard who has played 1,219 games over the course of 14 NBA seasons. I’m not guaranteeing failure here, just bringing up the very notion of it, somehow foreign not just to the purple and gold contingent, but to the rest of us too self-impressed and indolent to keep an eye out for warning signs.

The 2010-2011 Los Angeles Lakers will still likely vie for a title; when has it not? But people have to understand that that is not enough. Being inured to something doesn’t mean that it will always be, a shame given how beautiful and graceful the Lakers offense can make basketball look at times. The way the team plays the game of basketball at its best will always draw in believers, and maybe we’re all just being led off the trail by a worried, but poised Jackson, trying to alleviate a bit of the pressure off of his team that’ll need some time. But that time is running short. The injuries, the internal worrying, the gift-wrapped Western Conference title from pundits‒ the requisite omens have already arrived. Instead of expecting continued dominance, appreciate this Lakers team for what it is. Because no one ever knows when “one last run” has already passed.

Featuring philosophizing on league-wide issues, ‘On the NBA’ is the new Red94 general NBA column.  Recent posts can be accessed via the sidebar.  Follow Red94 on Twitter and Facebook for new post updates.

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