The Glorious Schadenfreude of the Lakers' Train-Wreck Season
For anyone but the team's fans, there's an evil delight in watching the NBA's most overblown franchise fail this spectacularly.
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss the Lakers' humiliatingly bad season—and why it's just so damn fun to watch.
Forget laughing at Lance Armstrong, or Manti Te'o, or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo (Jon Stewart seems to have the last one covered anyway). Sports fans in need of a good chuckle at someone else's misfortune need only look to Los Angeles, where the Lakers are doing their best impersonation of a slow-speed train wreck.
After adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the offseason, the Lakers were supposed to be unleashing Showtime 2.0 by now. Instead, the Clippers have raced to one of the the best records in the league while the Lakers look a lot like the Clippers did about 10 years ago. A 17-25 record has coach Mike D'Antoni's team 12th in the Western Conference—realistically, the Lakers have to go 29-11 or better the rest of the way to make the playoffs. That's not going to happen, no matter what midseason trade magic GM Mitch Kupchak tries to pull off.
Unless you live in L.A., this is a perfect storm of schadenfreude. The Lakers are the Yankees of basketball, universally loathed by everyone who's not a fan. Their team is full of unlikable stars, from the whiny, petulant Howard to the possible rapist Kobe Bryant (yeah, I went there). To watch them implode in such spectacular fashion, culminating in Wednesday's team meeting where Howard reportedly would not respond to Kobe's direct criticism, is way better than sneering at the apparent naiveté of a 21-year-old.
Who's to blame for the Lakers' horrific season? There's enough to go around! D'Antoni's to blame for trying to impose his up-tempo system on the league's oldest team and failing to coach defense once again. Howard's to blame for being an insecure whiner and refusing to stand up to Kobe. Pau Gasol is to blame for grousing about his removal from the starting lineup (to be fair, he has a point). Kobe himself is to blame for trying to fix the issues with his biting, critical leadership style. Owner Jim Buss is to blame for letting his feelings about Phil Jackson's relationship with Buss's sister Jeannie keep him from hiring Jackson over D'Antoni.
They're all to blame to some extent. Or should I say they all deserve credit for this glorious train wreck of a season?
You guys as happy about this as I am?
Ain't it grand?
Nothing is more satisfying than watching an overrated, over-hyped team get their comeuppance. That's doubly true when the roster is a collection of high-priced, big-name talent. That's triply true, as with the Lakers, when the team is in a city that everyone loves to hate for being superficial.
Laker fans, after all, virtually invented the courtside seat as a photo-op—just so we could all know how Miley feels about a sweet Kobe dunk. These are the fans who are also famous, in supposedly mellow California, for setting their city on fire after big games, win or lose. There is also no question that the Lakers have the most fairweather fans—who never mention their supposedly beloved players in November, but get all decked out in team gear and scream at the TV during a playoff run—of any major sports team in the country. Maybe it's just the trendy nature of LA, but it's true. Just wait. LA is about to see an onslaught of Clippers gear.
So, yes it's fun. Delightful from the start of the year, when Jim Buss inexplicably snubbed Brian Shaw. Everyone knew Shaw was the guy to coach this team. He won rings in LA. He preaches the triangle offense. Instead, for reasons still unclear, Buss hired Mike Brown, which was bad. Then Buss fired Brown five games into the season, which is almost worse. Hiring D'Antoni—a coach whose up-tempo offense seems explicitly designed to exploit an aging team's weaknesses—was definitely worse. Simply baffling. By the way, in the team-meeting/bickering session you cited, Jake, the LA Times reported that D'Antoni told the team to start playing better defense. Try to stifle your guffaws.
It's difficult to believe that Buss would let his feelings for Phil Jackson, whatever they may be, carry over into a hatred for the triangle offense. Maybe Buss is just one of those owners, like Dan Snyder, who seems to run his real world team like a fantasy roster, adding and subtracting big name players as if he thought he could plug in stats, never taking the human element into account. Maybe Buss just had too much faith in the surgeons who worked on Dwight Howard's back. Oh well. At least someone in the Buss family likes Phil Jackson. Jeanie Buss recently announced on Twitter that she's about to become Mrs. Zen Master.
Patrick, is this fun for you, too? Surely you're a guy who loves to hate the Lake show.
The cover of Sports Illustrated's NBA season preview issue featured Nash and Howard, palms out, mugging for the camera, looking half-happy, half-constipated. The caption? Now This Is Going To Be Fun.
Is it ever. Though probably not in the manner that the magazine—and many basketball observers—expected. Like you, Jake, and non-bandwagon fans everywhere, I've been enjoying the Fall of Hoops Rome in the West. My personal favorite moment? The decadent, mildly pathetic spectacle of Bryant live-Tweeting his thoughts while watching video of his 2006 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors, which brings to mind: (a) old, pajama-clad Michael Jordan in Washington watching older game tape of his glory days in Chicago; (b) that time The Who played the Super Bowl halftime show, except it was 2010.
Moreover, I know we're not alone. Our colleagues in the rest of the media are digging this, too—not because they necessarily care about Los Angeles winning and losing, but because the Lakers' unexpected mediocrity and apparent dysfunction makes for great copy. There's an old adage among sports journalists that you either want to cover a great team or a terrible one; if the amount of what's-wrong-with-the-Lakers? coverage on ESPN and everywhere else is any indication, it's an old adage for a reason. The Lakers aren't totally terrible—more like relatively terrible—but they're far from good, and they can't seem to stop the bleeding. Which brings to mind another hoary news chestnut.
If it bleeds, it leads. Unless, of course, you're D'Antoni's defense and the bleeding involves giving up points to the other team, in which case, you're probably trailing.
All of that said, a word of caution: This won't be a joyride for long. Oh, sure, it's satisfying to see the big, bad Lakers get some overdue comeuppance. But if they stink for a whole season ... or two ... or five ... then they'll end up worse than lousy. They'll become irrelevant. And that would be a shame. Jake, you compared the Lakers to the Yankees, and in one important way you're exactly right. They're both polarizing franchises, big-spending, big-results glamour squads that non-fans love to hate. And ultimately, that's good. Sports spectators cannot live on scrappy underdogs and inspiring heroes alone. We need Goliaths. We need villains. We need something and someone to root against. Laugh now, Lakers haters, but be careful what you wish for—today's glorious, flaming train wreck is tomorrow's rusty debris strewn across an overgrown field, unremarkable, and forgotten. Or, as we call it here in the nation's capital, the Washington Wizards.