"Closeout games are actually kind of easy. Teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning."
-- Andrew Bynum, prior to Game 5 vs. the 2012 Denver Nuggets
Matchups, matchups, matchups. Like it or not, they're the name of the game in the NBA. If the best team in the sport has an elite wing, you stock up on elite wing defenders. If the best player is a freight train, you break the bank on a conductor. And if the team that's got your goat has the most dominant post presence in the league? You pick up Shaq and pretend he can still guard anyone, of course! It's not a foreign concept to most fans: You make a number of adjustments to your team over the course of the season, and while they're ostensibly made solely for the good of the team, everyone really knows why the adjustments are made. The dirty little secret is that - for teams blessed to be in the sphere of five or six contending teams per conference - the personnel adjustments tend to be little more than an ill-concealed arms race. A juggling of human capital in a usually futile attempt to adjust your team to fit perceived weaknesses in the better teams. Neutralize the strengths of the best team, and perhaps you'll luck your way into the finals! Or so they'd say. I'm going to tell you a story about the biggest arms race in the NBA over the last five years. As most things tend to be when you boil them to their essentials, it's about the Lakers.
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Andrew Bynum is not a natural player, in my estimation. He's naturally talented, certainly, and his ceiling is incomparable. But he's not a natural at the art of being a player. Bynum is more attuned to more nerdy, systemic things. Cars, computers, engineering. The greatest misunderstanding you could have about Bynum is to assume his talent and natural skill presupposes a love for the game. It doesn't. I've never seen a goofball statement or an interview indicating that Andrew Bynum looks at basketball as anything more than it really is to him -- a job, and a means to make the sort of big money he needs so that he can spend his free time doing the things he actually loves to do. There is nothing wrong with it. And there's no reason an NBA player has to love the game. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, Andrew Bynum doesn't really seem to.
The same goes for Pau Gasol, in a sense. Pau is another naturally sublime talent. His passing is as deft as it could be, his defensive potential (were he to ever put it together) is vast, and his natural rebounding is excellent for a player that couldn't properly box out to save a life. Pau isn't an engineering type, like Bynum -- he's a medical type, and a man who has seriously considered going back to med school after he retires from the sport. Lamar Odom's multiple off-court pursuits require no introduction, and Phil Jackson's interest in the game post-Shaq was always a tad underwhelming. The drive for ten rings, for... gratification? Justification? Jeanie Buss? Probably more point three than anything else. Phil's most visceral love for the game was lost, in my view, with the Kobe-Shaq feud and his break from the Lakers in the mid 2000s.
And then you have Kobe Bean Bryant. The man whose veins run thick with the burnt rubber of melted game-winning shots. The man whose heart was replaced at a young age by a throbbing bright-red-white-and-blue ABA regulation ball. The man who'd stay in the gym forever, if his body would let him. Or so some would say. That's one take on Kobe, and it's perfectly reasonable -- my take is considerably different. I don't think Kobe chose basketball because he necessarily loves the sport for its own sake, or has any intrinsic connection to it that he hasn't developed from familiarity alone. He chose the sport because Kobe needed a means to dominate. He chose basketball because his father played basketball, and the happened to be very good at it. Kobe could just as easily have been a ruthless take-no-prisoners general in the Iraq War. He could have been a remarkably successful corporate litigation lawyer. He could have been a brutishly effective politician, if he'd put his mind to it. Kobe's love of basketball is a love rooted in a self assured semi-narcissistic love of his own image and a love of his own exaltation. He loves basketball because it's the area where he is the best. This isn't a criticism as much, for Kobe -- it's simply an observation that even Kobe, the player on the Lakers who loves the game more than all others, has a different passion for the game than someone like Ricky Rubio or Kenneth Faried. He's different. No value judgment, just... different.
Put it all together, and you come to a perhaps surprising conclusion. The Lakers are a wonderful, talented team; at times, they can be one of the most dominant squads in recent memory, and the 2009 Lakers is one of the best title teams of all time. The run of glory the Lakers have had since the Pau Gasol trade speaks to how excellent they are as a whole unit, and as a team. But if you examine the individual cogs and sprockets that make up that team unit, you realize that as a team, the Lakers really don't like basketball that much. They make a good show of it, of course. Kobe tells the media how fired up they are, and how eager he is to destroy the latest victim. Pau says all the right things. Bynum doesn't, but at least sounds like he cares, generally. But this isn't a matter of caring about a game in a singular sense, as Bynum tends to make it. It's a matter of caring about the game. It's loving the broader structural mores of the game and the tics and idiosyncrasies that make the game so curious.
It's about NOT doing the types of things that these Lakers are prone to do -- the lazy on-court demeanor, simply out-talenting whatever opponent gets thrown their way, the constant "we can flip the switch any time" mentality that Laker fans are so aggravatingly used to. This Laker team has allowed the Nuggets to turn a 1-3 deficit into a 3-3 series with a winner-take-all game 7. They allowed a Yao-less Rockets team to return from the brink and force 7 games of hell. The 2006 Laker collapse against the Suns, the inconceivable folding of the 2011 Lakers to the should-have-been-outclassed Mavericks, the legendary Laker shutdown in the deciding game of the 2008 finals -- the Lakers of recent memory can be more apathetic, lazy, and flat than any truly great team in the history of the sport. They can, more than any other team, simply shut themselves down by not caring. They can lose a game and spend the entire game wishing they'd never stepped on the court, with not a moment of legitimate effort in the contest, and not a single bone to their worried fans.
The thing that it really boils down to is the idea of playing basketball for fun. It's about being able to go out with a few friends, get the pants beaten off you, and still find some enjoyment in the activity just because you got to play basketball. It's about appreciating the game as more than just a means to a paycheck, about loving the game as more than just a way to show off your personal talents. The Lakers are talented, incredible, and scary. But there's no denying the odd truth of the matter: the recent dynasty Lakers are a collective contrapositive to a team that truly adores the game above all else (more or less collectively exhausting all other passions over basketball). The recent dynasty Lakers are perhaps the first great team that truly and honestly didn't care for the game of basketball. The talent is there. The passion? Terribly, horribly lacking.
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I submit to you a theory: the fatal flaw of the Los Angeles Lakers has been considered in this way before, and even if it was an unconscious consideration, their western rivals acted upon it accordingly. For the last five years, Western contenders have been stocking up on players that act counter the Lakers' grandest weakness -- they're bridging a matchup that's eluded them all for years. Their aim? To counter the Lakers' infuriating lack of focus and lack of true passion for the game with players that live and breathe the game. After all, why do you think Sam Presti stockpiled a super-talented recess prep squad in Oklahoma City? Why do you think San Antonio picked up Stephen Jackson, and Patty Mills, and DeJuan Blair? Why do you think that teams like the Nuggets, the Rockets, and the Mavericks have spent years acquiring player after player and coach upon coach who really couldn't be doing anything else with their lives? These teams have been developing more and more players who, all things considered, are as inseparable from the love of basketball as this Laker team is inseparable from frustrating contempt for the game.
The Lakers have spent the last five years owning the Western Conference. General Managers like Presti took note, and realized that if the Thunder -- and the Spurs, and the Nuggets, and the Suns, et cetera -- simply kept stockpiling more and more players that love the game as more than a simple paycheck, they'd eventually have a gigantic advantage over the Lakers. Sure, it'd take a while. Sure, the Lakers would still out-talent the universe for 3 to 4 years while the young kids grew up and the team cultures changed. But one day, perhaps in the middle of a series, the Lakers would wake up and find themselves with less of a talent gap between them and their rivals than ever before, and they'd find the heart of their foe beating with a passion for the game the Lakers neither understand nor care to embody. That day is today. The Lakers may still beat the Nuggets, but they'll enter their second round date with the Thunder having had to expend an extra three games of energy solely because they couldn't prevent the inevitable meltdown in game 5 and met the brick wall of a team that refused to go quietly in game 6.
I began this post with Bynum's now-infamous observation on teams that simply fold. The primary issue with it is that the statement reflected how the Lakers approach games where they're to be closed out, not a developed understanding of the heart of their opposition. With the exception of games 6 and 7 of the 2010 finals, the dynastic Lakers have never been a particularly inspiring closeout team, and a team with grit and hustle is never quite out of the series if they'll push and push at the Laker empire. Bynum observed that his opponent would fold if he'd just show the requisite effort -- he was right, but only if he's facing a man made of mirrors. If Kenneth Faried (the electric rookie whose style of play bleeds basketball in a way few ever have) was to do what Bynum thought he would and simply lie down and take the loss, he wouldn't be Kenneth Faried. He'd be Andrew Bynum, or Pau Gasol. He'd be a member of the team that felt a season slip from their grasp the year before, and spent the capper of the sweep wishing they were anywhere but the court. It seems the Nuggets, to a man, love basketball more than anything -- the Laker collective, on the other hand, loves everything more than basketball.
When it comes right down to it, Kenneth Faried does not fold. Kevin Durant does not fold. Stephen Jackson does not fold. All around the western conference, team after team after team have begun to base their attack on transforming their squads into the starkest opposite of the Lakers' lacking effort. The seed is planted. Perhaps the Lakers embarrass the Nuggets in Game 7 with the dismal march of unconquerable advantage we envisioned during game 1. Perhaps they'll out-talent them, and perhaps Bynum overwhelms the west for a 4th try at the Larry O'Brien. No matter. This series, this playoffs, this year has announced that the clock is ticking. The Laker foes out west have birthed flourishing temples of basketball that grow ever stronger opposite the Laker empire. Through cracks in the purple and gold ceiling of a once-impenetrable fortress begin to drip dollops of hot oil, scalding the flesh that cannot feel, and promising an inevitable and impending resolution to the strange contrapositive history of the indifferent Los Angeles Lakers.