Is it 2004 again, or is it just me? The Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in a similar situation once again. Phil Jackson is leaving as head coach, with the replacement yet to be confirmed. The Lakers are coming off of a shocking loss after being favorites to win. All of the Lakers’ players on the starting line-up are questionable to return to the team next year, as they are likely to be on the trading block. Kobe Bryant is the only exception to the previous scenario and whatever the team will look like next season, it will still be built around Bryant. A big trade could involve a team from Florida. There are questions surrounding the Lakers’ teamwork, passion, and commitment.
Of course, some things are different. First, Kobe Bryant’s maturity is worlds above what it was in 2004. Bryant now has developed as a strong, proven leader who is no longer focused on self-satisfaction, but rather on the team’s success and performance. This is a topic that Phil Jackson wrote about in his book, Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons from a Hardwood Warrior. The Lakers of 2004 did not play as a collective unit in that season, especially in the 2004 Finals.
The talent of Bryant, Shaq, Payton, and Malone got them to the Finals, but the team imploded from within there, losing to Detroit. However, Kobe Bryant learned from this experience, and he hasn’t been the same player since, which has had a positive effect on the Lakers since then. He did not grow physically from this experience, but rather mentally and spiritually. As long as Kobe remains a Laker, this sentiment will be preached, passed down, and practiced.
Second, the Lakers’ fan base and the entire basketball community know that if any team has the ability to bounce back in a relatively short amount of time, it is the Lakers. When you think about it, the Lakers have been responsible for five of the last ten championships in the NBA.
The Lakers are one of the most successful professional sports organizations in the world. This organization knows how to win, even when they are coming off a disappointing season. Jerry Buss and the acting General Manager, whether it was Jerry West or currently Mitch Kupchak, understand when things aren’t working and going to plan, and they know how to fix those problems.
Third, the NBA if changing. The youth of the league is starting to take over and will be in full stride next year. Phoenix could not pass the finish line, Boston looked exhausted, San Antonio couldn’t keep up, and the Lakers are starting to buckle. Teams like Oklahoma City, Chicago, Memphis, Atlanta, and Portland are starting to dominate and are staying around longer and longer into the playoffs. The Lakers need to make changes in order to keep up and compete with these youthful teams and with Kobe being Kobe, climb to the top once again.
So, the Lakers are now in a place that looks familiar but feels different. There are new obstacles for the team to hurdle over, which is absolutely possible with the right plan. Once the postseason concludes, the Lakers need to hire the replacement for Phil Jackson. A team without a head coach locked down can scare and turn away possible acquisitions. Knowing who the coach is and how he operates not only is reassuring for current players, but can also attract players to come knocking on your door.
Further, the team needs a complete makeover. The old saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” does not apply here. The Lakers need speed, youth, defense, and at least one more pure shooter. The Lakers need to pull the trigger on either Dwight Howard or Chris Paul. Acquiring both does not look likely due to a possible lockout. The Lakers need speed, especially off the bench. Steve Blake seemed hopeful last season, but has not panned out. With Fisher getting older, he cannot keep up with the younger point guards in the league.
The times are definitely changing for the Lakers. Change can be a great thing. With the right blueprints, the right players, and the right coach, the Lakers could begin a new era that could last well into the future. Laker fans need to remember that the organization has dealt with this pressure before, and have come out stronger than ever.