Lakers From The Outside: Embracing a new reality

Elias Stein

This is the second part in a series on how league insiders view the Lakers' rebuild. Read the first part here.

As the Los Angeles Lakers take the court at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Stan Sheriff Center for a preseason game against the Utah Jazz, Anthony Gonzales, 33, is up against the metal gate, wearing a black No. 24 Kobe Bryant jersey. Gonzales lives in Maui, but he became a fan growing up in Garden Grove, in Orange County, thanks to his father.

"My earliest memory," Gonzales says, "was the '88 title game and watching it with my dad."

He's been a die-hard ever since. Standing beside him now is his son, Kobe-J Gonzales, 10, in a gold Lakers hat and purple No. 24 jersey, holding a white sign with block text. "KOBE," it reads, "I was named after you."

Despite back-to-back losing seasons for the Lakers, the Gonzales family hasn't lost hope.

"We're going in the right direction with these young players," Gonzales says, referring to recent draft picks D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson. "Hopefully we can get a big-name free agent this summer to lead all of them. Just a matter of time."

The next pot of gold has never been far away for Lakers fans. The franchise with the second-most championships in NBA history (16) has reached the playoffs 60 times in 67 seasons and missed the postseason in consecutive years only twice. Its longest title drought since migrating to Los Angeles in 1960? Eleven seasons. And even that "rough" stretch featured 10 playoff berths and two trips to the NBA Finals.

So it's easy to picture Kevin Durant as a Laker next summer, or Russell Westbrook the summer after. Or maybe both. Pick a name. Pick several. None is too big, no dream too unrealistic.

"[Rebuilding] happens a lot faster [here] than in other organizations," Bryant told ESPN.com last season. "The Celtics went through years and years and years [of rebuilding]. That doesn't happen with the Lakers, man."

The Lakers don't rebuild, they reload. Hence the term "Lakers exceptionalism."

"Just trust the management upstairs, man," Bryant said. "They're really good about what they do." Bryant preaches faith. The front office believes it's on the right track. Ownership can already envision the next generation of title contenders.

But many around the league see it differently.

"If I'm a Lakers fan, that's the most concerning thing -- at no point in the past two or three years is there clear evidence on an organizational level that they've had some 'Come to Jesus' moment like, 'Wait a minute. Something is not structurally working the way it used to,'" an NBA analytics official said.

"In the last two or three years, they've been so far from their expectations every year, whether it's trades or wins or free agency, all these things are not happening the way they've been hoping. It sounds like they're just waffling after the fact, which is kind of the opposite of doing some soul-searching and figuring out a better way forward."

A Lakers spokesman declined comment for this story aside from the following rebuttal: "Whether I'd use the term 'soul-searching' or not, we do always look back and analyze what happens, and try to improve and do better things in the future."

Still, there's widespread concern outside of Lakerland.

"It's like [they think], 'We're not on the Titanic.' Yeah, you are," an executive said. "'No, we're not. It's all right. No, we're good.' No, you're not good. You're not good. It's sinking. People are in lifeboats. They're jumping off. You're not good."

In other words, bouncing back is no longer a safe assumption.

"That's only in Hollywood," one executive said.

The difference between how the Lakers view their rebuilding efforts and how others around the league view them is drastic.

ESPN asked two dozen NBA insiders -- ranging from executives and scouts to analytics officials and agents and coaches -- a few open-ended questions about the Lakers, most of which centered on what the team could and should be doing to contend again soon.

Many emphasized that the Lakers, with their advantages in market, revenue and lineage, are one of a select few teams that could acquire a top-flight star as fast as anyone.

"They're one big deal from being in good position again," one executive said. "That's what it takes. And that's what they've been able to do in their history and I wouldn't count them out from being able to pull it off again."

But many were just as quick to point out several much bigger issues limiting the organization from the fast turnaround it feels increasing internal and external pressure to pull off.

Such problems include management, ownership and coaching, which are addressed in this story, as well as a lack of assets, a shift in the free-agency landscape and the presence of Bryant, all of which are addressed in the three other stories in this series.

"When you mean 'turn it around,' do you mean a championship? Because that's done. That's not happening unless they make a miraculous trade and get four new people. Who do they have on the Lakers? I'm not sure. I'm not joking. Do they even have anyone to trade that somebody would want?" Shaquille O'Neal

Many insiders outlined paths that, at best, would take a few more years, if not considerably longer. Indeed, the portrait many painted was one of the Lakers lying to themselves about their current predicament.

"The Lakers are still the Lakers no matter what," one executive said, "but the Knicks have been saying that forever, too."

Said one agent: "Championship organizations start from the very top. I think the Lakers are hopeless, to be honest. I think they're the West Coast Knicks."

Even former Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal, who won three titles with the team, is skeptical.

"They need to do the same thing Sacramento did -- get new players," said O'Neal, now a minority Kings owner.

Pressed to be more specific on the Lakers, O'Neal said, "When you mean 'turn it around,' do you mean a championship? Because that's done. That's not happening unless they make a miraculous trade and get four new people. Who do they have on the Lakers? I'm not sure. I'm not joking. Do they even have anyone to trade that somebody would want?"

After 116 losses the past two seasons, including a franchise-worst 61 in 2014-15, there was no shortage of skepticism about the future in L.A.

"I think the Lakers tricked themselves into thinking that what they did before was smart and they gave themselves credit for it and, to be honest, it's probably not fair to give themselves credit for a lot of that success," one agent said. "That's probably the No. 1 thing working against them right now -- they feel like they created the success once so whatever they're doing, they'll just do it again."

Said another agent, "They're in major trouble -- and the Lakers name isn't going to save them."

Underscoring the Lakers' tumult is the edict first decreed by their new owner in April 2014: If the Lakers aren't contending by 2017, Jim Buss will step down from his role as executive vice president of basketball operations.

Neither Jim Buss nor his sister Jeanie Buss, the Lakers' president and governor, has wavered from that stance since.

The uncertain future at the highest level of the organization -- one still trying to find its footing since the 2013 death of famed owner Dr. Jerry Buss -- raises serious red flags, insiders said.

"Rebuilding takes some time, but it doesn't have to take a very long time, especially in a market like Los Angeles. It is a matter of getting things right at the top," one analytics official said. "You just have to have that cohesive decision-making process that seems like it's lacking there. They talk about, 'You can't fire your players so you fire your coach.' Well, you can't fire your owner. That is the hardest thing. ... If [management] doesn't feel free to do their jobs, it is going to take a long time to rebuild."

One agent said if he were in charge, "I would clean house."

"The reality to me is that the Lakers aren't going to be better and are going to have a difficult time rebuilding with Jim Buss running the organization, and, to be quite frank, with Mitch Kupchak being in the front office," the agent said. "That's not because Mitch isn't intelligent or doesn't have experience or doesn't have rings; Mitch is still acting like they're winning championships every year or that players care about the Lakers [like they did] in years past."

The instability at the top has also trickled down to the leadership in the huddle. Management has put its full weight behind head coach Byron Scott. Jim Buss told the Los Angeles Times in August that Scott "has the Laker blood in him" while noting that recent Lakers coaches Mike D'Antoni and Mike Brown "weren't Lakers."

"Having that history of the Lakers from the very beginning of when [the Buss family] bought the team, gives you such a family sense," Buss said. "He's a coach, a brother. He gets it. He's a strong personality. He believes in himself and the Lakers."

Indeed, Scott's ties to the franchise run deep. The former guard played 11 of his 14 NBA seasons with the Lakers, winning three titles at the height of "Showtime." He also has a close relationship with Bryant, a teammate for Scott's career finale in 1996-97.

However, more than a dozen NBA insiders said the Lakers need to move on from Scott, who has presided over successful rebuilds in New Orleans and New Jersey but holds a .429 winning percentage in 13 seasons as a head coach. Especially if the team wants to lure top free agent, an issue the past three offseasons and one that seems particularly concerning after a tone-deaf approach to meetings with LaMarcus Aldridge this past summer.

"They need to get a coach," one executive said. "You can't tell me -- and I don't think you can honestly tell a free agent -- that Byron Scott and Nick Young are going to help make Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell as good as they can possibly be or that that duo is going to give Russell Westbrook a great chance to win a championship. Those two aren't the only problem, and Nick Young is a relatively minor problem, but they're symbolic of an organization that is not taking winning seriously."

An agent went so far as to say that "the biggest thing they can do to help" is to throw money at a big-name coach.

Said one analytics official, "Frankly, if they're smart, what they do is they bring in the best freaking coach out there. You pay a coach -- that doesn't count against your salary cap -- [and] you get the best coach you possibly can."

The team culture, on the whole, could use a facelift, several insiders said. That includes trimming players who, one executive said, "create a bad basketball environment, like Nick Young. No more guys like that. Only guys that are going to play the right way, that are going to play hard, that are going to work hard. Don't worry so much about whether they're going to help you win games in the short term. If they have some long-term potential, great, if they happen to just be a veteran who just brings great character and effort, that's fine, too."

Said one executive, "Honest to God, the best way to look at this is they have to lock the doors, lock the windows, keep themselves away from themselves and they're just going to have to generate from within and grow organically. And then hope you get to a point where they get a nice young player who hits it [big]."

No doubt, the Lakers are at a crossroads. And the longer they remain in the league's cellar, the longer an almost unthinkable reality settles in: Future fans, and future success, are not guaranteed.

Ellie Rydeheard, 10, is born and raised in Los Angeles. She loves sports -- skateboarding and doing tricks on her scooter at a local skate park, competing in golf tournaments and playing basketball.

It's not uncommon for Ellie to be the only girl playing hoops in the schoolyard among a crowd of boys, and, her mother reports, they don't go easy on her. The family had a freestanding hoop in their driveway, but Ellie and her friends played on it so much that the backboard kept coming loose and, despite efforts to glue it together, it eventually fell apart.

Ellie's favorite team? The Oklahoma City Thunder.

Favorite player? Kevin Durant.

Why? It's simple, her mother, Dana, says. "It's because he [KD] is a really good player and they [OKC] are a really good team."

Her friends feel the same way. They wear KD shoes, compare KD socks -- "anything with the KD logo," Ellie's mother says.

And if they have time to watch a game, it's the Thunder on the screen, not the Lakers.