The Los Angeles Lakers have created the perfect mess.
One of the two most storied franchises in professional basketball — once a model for the rest of the NBA and pro sports at large — is now so utterly incompetent that a historically awful season has not become the most humiliating and depressing problem on the organization’s radar screen.
Laker fans had a right to be at least somewhat optimistic not too long ago: Coach Byron Scott was finally playing the young guys the extended minutes they needed all along. D’Angelo Russell was finally getting a chance to learn on the job the way all young NBA players must: by getting substantial fourth-quarter minutes and navigating the rigors of crunch time around the league.
The Lakers’ season — in terms of making the playoffs — had ended for all intents and purposes in November after a humiliating start. Just three weeks into this five-and-a-half-month regular season, everyone around the league knew the Lakers had no chance. Scott had ample time in which to get Russell accustomed to the nuances of NBA competition. He delayed far too long, but at least he came to his senses with at least some time left in the regular season, enough to promote growth and development in the No. 2 pick’s game.
The Lakers were still staring at a rebuild in 2016-2017, but the ball had begun to move forward. Progress — even if incremental — always beats pure stagnation and, of course, regression.
Yet, it’s now clear that Scott’s treatment of Russell — combined with the Lakers’ empty shell of an organization, focused on Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour more than anything else — has taken a toll more severe than anyone first realized.
On a team whose wise veteran is riding into the sunset — and therefore doesn’t have to be accountable to the organization next season — where is the collection of veteran voices to nurture D’Angelo Russell and shepherd him into his NBA future?
The three non-Kobe veterans of any (remote semblance of) stature on the Lakers’ roster are as follows:
* Roy Hibbert, whose weird behavior with the Indiana Pacers during the 2014 playoffs has marked him as something less than a rock of locker-room stability.
* Metta World Peace, all-around oddball and former NBA instigator par excellence, whose best skill from a psychological standpoint is unnerving the opposition, not calming his own team’s inner sanctum.
* Lou Williams, the one guy who combines an appreciably impressive career resume with next-season accountability AND a reputation for being a positive locker-room teammate.
Other veterans on the roster are either too peripheral to make much of a difference or are trying to find their own way on the team. The leadership vacuum on the Lakers has been considerable, which is why Scott and the front office both needed to set the strongest possible example for Russell and the other young players in need of guidance.
It is hardly an idle coincidence that while D’Angelo Russell exercised spectacularly bad judgment and bears responsibility for what happened, Nick Young became part of the leaked video which has disrupted the Laker locker room. No, this isn’t so much about failing to notice (or at least suspect) that he might have been recorded — that’s not meant for this piece, and it’s not the sort of intrigue worth caring about. The relevant point to make is that among all the players on the Laker roster, few are less mature than Young, a man who revels in celebrity and represents the most off-putting aspects of the modern athlete.
It’s stereotypical and lazy to think that Nick Young is the representation of the present-day professional athlete, but it’s not lazy to identify Young as the embodiment of the stereotype itself. A stat-collecting, shot-hunting player interested in having a good time and feeding his own ego without devoting the same level of energy to team-based interests and concerns, Young is the last person who should be in D’Angelo Russell’s orbit.
It is not an accident or a product of mere happenstance that Russell was in a position to embarrass himself with Young, and not anyone else. Because Byron Scott treated Russell like a child for so much of the season — with no one else in the Laker organization intervening to give him wise counsel — it’s only natural that Russell would act like a child, and that Young would be the unwitting subject of Russell’s ill-advised video.
The Lakers were already going to have little to no luck attracting big names in free agency, but for a time, they had at least begun to show signs that they were building in ways that might have made them a more realistic landing spot for free agents in 2017. Now, any recent degrees of growth in the organization — manifested most primarily in the win over the Golden State Warriors a few weeks ago — have been undercut by this video incident.
By failing to fire Byron Scott as soon as he started saying negative things about D’Angelo Russell; by not surrounding Russell with wiser veterans; and by not having an internal organizational culture in which its No. 2 pick could be nurtured in a positive way, the Los Angeles Lakers poured gasoline on themselves.
This video lit and dropped the match.
The saddest part of all? No one in the league should be the slightest bit surprised.
The House of Laker had already burned down, we thought.
Clearly, that was the summer home. The main suburban residence is now on fire as well.
That’s what life is like when a 15-59 record is not the worst aspect of a given season for a franchise, even one as soaked in tradition and glory as the Los Angeles Lakers.