In the sociology world (yes, it’s awesome), there is a term called social capital: the idea that increased human networks allow for greater productivity among people groups. Alex de Tocqueville noted in the 19th century that Americans often meet in groups to discuss all realms of the public sphere, and that openness allowed for increased efficiency when dealing with social problems. Social capital, in essence, is the stored use of all positive social interactions.
Yes, the definition gets kinda fuzzy, but we see its use all the time in our public square, and especially when we’re dealing with professional sports stars. Kobe Bryant had a plethora of social capital (generally good standing under common scrutiny) that he could have used to increase his place as a sports icon. Dealing with rape charges in 2004 depleted it. No Twitter account can replace what could have been.
Dwight Howard was generally considered a fun-loving, amiable superstar. That social capital was nearly bankrupted after the “Dwightmare” fiasco that was finally resolved this past summer. One can see the effects that social standing has on a superstar of Bryant or Howard’s caliber; sometimes it’s as real as monetary loss.
If, for example, that social capital was translated to the basketball court, what would it look like? I bet Metta World Peace wouldn’t draw half as many fouls as he gets called for. The Malice at the Palace bankrupted the Artest formerly known as Ron years ago, and it’s taken nearly forever to get out of the red. It’s unfortunate, but incidents like the Harden elbow are expenditures of social capital that MWP cannot afford. Having a surplus of “on court capital” gives players a safety net, and MWP doesn’t have a big one.
I don’t believe it translates only referee whistles, however. Kobe Bryant has been widely acknowledged to be the league’s most dangerous closer, at least by many fans. That reputation not only granted him the green light in late game situations, but also gave the “intimidation factor” edge. Everyone knew Kobe was going to get the ball. As a defender, the fact that you know he’s going to get the ball and you still might not stop him is scary. I’ve seen countless defenders, in years past mind you, resign themselves to the inevitable fate. It can take the life out of you.
But not anymore. It’s not enough.
The Lakers having been living off their savings in social capital, and haven’t paid the piper in terms of on court play. The value of the Lakers is greatly inflated, and hungry teams know it. The league knows it.
I remember watching the 2000-02 three-peat teams, and I remember how more often than not, the Lakers could just scare the other team out of the gym. The game was nearly over before it started. During the dark years when it was Kobe and the other guys, Kobe had that same factor. Everyone knew he was going to score on you, and there was nothing you could do about it.
The Lakers have nearly used up all the capital from those glory years. When one looks at the standings and sees that both the Lakers and the Celtics aren’t in playoff contention? What changed in two years?
J.A. Adande over at ESPN wrote a great article about how the Lakers can’t afford moral victories anymore. And he’s absolutely right. Moral victories are what bad teams do to add to their own social capital. We applaud underdog victories because, even if it was a fluke and may not happen again, they’ve added significant capital to their standing around the league. That standing has positive consequences.
Moral victories are pennies, championships add the big bucks. The Lakers sold Dwight on Los Angeles not only because of the great amenities that a city like L.A. provides (the Clippers hold these same amenities mind you) but also because the Lakers can add value to your social standing. Winning championships can change how you are perceived for years. Just ask Kobe. Just ask LeBron. Winning does more than add a ring to your finger. It shapes the way you are perceived socially for years to come. Dwight made the choice to spend his social capital with the Dwightmare, but with the Lakers he had the potential to gain it all back.
That was before. It’s not enough.
Unless the Lakers can find their true identity, commit to it, and garner wins, then even if they do make the playoffs, this year was a net loss. All the hype that was built over the summer has been spent, and the players, coaches, and front office are left with only their skills and determination to get them through.
This Lakers team cannot continue to rely on their social bank account to intimidate their way to wins, because quite frankly, it’s too late for that. The Western Conference is filled with hungry teams who have built the confidence in themselves to carry them through that facade. D’Antoni has to do something to get this team’s confidence back, and to shape it’s identity. Without that, this Lakers team, and Lakers teams hereafter, is destined for abysmal failure.