This offseason was one of the most anticipated in Los Angeles franchise history. The entire industry looked to So Cal as the front office made massive moves that changed the complexion of the league. Though there were minor transactions in the form of tasty appetizers, the main course was yet another superstar player joining the team. Though it seemed for the past year that any person who had paid attention to the sport knew that he was eventually going to end up in the City of Angels, the fanfare was just as pronounced.
The payroll skyrocketed to another dimensions, forgoing any potential consequence of a soon dramatically changing luxury tax, the harshest penalties of which are reserved for those who repeatedly go over the set salary line. Of course, none of this mattered with brand new television contracts guaranteeing the team literally billions of dollars over the next twenty years. The organization spent and spent, with each new acquisition leading to an e-mail or text from my dad saying “And we got that guy too?”. These new offseason personnel additions–not one, not two, but several–aren’t without their questions. Concerns regarding how close or far these players are from the ends of their careers, their game-time potency and most importantly, how well each guy will catalyze with a team full of highly compensated stars are key to a successful season. As much as throwing money on the situation can help, there’s no telling how well these men will play together and how they’ll deal with the massive expectations set in front of them.
As if those weren’t high-profile problems enough, the squad is led by young coach will be tested with the hardest task of his career: having to soothe the egos of players making $10, $15 and $20+ millions of dollars annually, while figuring out a rotation that is certain not to make everyone happy. Expectations are higher than they’ve ever been in Los Angeles, where an appearance in the championship round is merely a prerequisite, not a goal. The only measure of this team–in how much it cost to assemble the prospects and future considerations it took to do so–is hoisting high that gold trophy at season’s end. In Southern California, it’s not just championship or bust–it’s championship or “who are you?”. There is no alternative.
I was just talking about the Los Angeles Lakers.
I was just talking about the Los Angeles Dodgers.
For a fan base stretching from Lancaster to Long Beach, imaging a season gone horribly wrong shouldn’t be much further away than a drive on the 5 freeway.
The Lakers began this past offseason in a bind. They found themselves in the worst position possible–not quite a contender, but certainly not bad enough to rebuild. They still had Kobe Bryant (a First Team All-NBA guard), Pau Gasol (the silver medal Spanish national team’s star player) and Andrew Bynum (a newly minted first-time All-Star). But beyond that? Large contracts for players that weren’t contributing nearly enough and a payroll that limited almost any free agent spending. It seemed that a full scale makeover was necessary to get this team back in contention, which meant the trade of forward Gasol and potentially Bynum, a 25 year-old behemoth. It seemed that the team would never get equal value for either player, and that the Lakers would patiently tread water, as they waited for the summer of 2014 when they’d have cap room for the first time since the 1996 offseason.
Left for dead, the Lakers did what seemed impossible–they got better without first getting worst. In a two month span, the Lakers remade their roster, trading for All-Star point guard Steve Nash and All-Star center Dwight Howard, while also signing Antawn Jamison and re-signing Jordan Hill to shore up their bench unit. They did this for the cost of several draft picks and Andrew Bynum, who has not played a minute this season with knee troubles. In adding two surefire future Hall of Famers to their two incumbent surefire future Hall of Famers, the Lakers hadn’t just painted a bullseye on their backs–it’s tattooed it on. This new, highly compensated, extremely talented team became an odds-on co-favorite to win the Western Conference crown, and a true threat to end the early reign of LeBron James atop the NBA.
Of course, there were serious questions that came along with the upcoming season. Most wondered how these four former leading scorers would be able to subjugate their games for the greater good. Many others questioned if coach Mike Brown was the man to not only make these adjustments, but to manage the gigantic personalities of his new players and old ones. Some people questioned whether or not integrating two massive new cogs in Howard and Nash into a complex machine would be difficult, though most believed in the latter’s ability as a point guard to bring a team of strangers together.
Few questioned the upside of the team. Few questioned that eventually, no matter what the chemistry problems, no matter who coached the team, no matter the age of the primary rotation, that eventually the talent would be too great to deny them victory after victory. I proclaimed boldly that this Lakers team had the potential to not just be great, but also to be one of the greatest teams ever to step onto the hardwood. They had that much talent. Winning, it seemed, was inevitable.
Then, like Rome at it’s height, it all came crumbling down. Except this wasn’t Rome–it was Atlantis. A mythical civilization that is only concept, not fully realized fact.
Nearly every possible worst case scenario came true within the first three months. Steve Nash broke his leg in a freak accident in just the second game. Coach Mike Brown was deemed the wrong coach just five contests into the season, fired in lieu of former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks skipper Mike D’Antoni. Recovering from offseason back surgery, Dwight Howard proved to be a facade of his former Defensive Player of the Year glory. Back-up power forward Jordan Hill tore a tendon in his hip in January, exacerbating the Lakers’ already glaring weakness in athleticism and rebounding. Key back-up point guard Steve Blake stepped on a loose nail in training camp, but it was a torn abdominal muscle that kept him out half the year. Pau Gasol’s slump from the beginning of the 2011-2012 season had steeped over into this year, with the expensive, aging star player proving that whether it was a precipitous decline or a misuse of his talents, he wasn’t getting it done in a Lakers uniform. None of this mattered when the Spaniard missed games early in the season with knee tendinitis and then almost the entire second half with a torn plantar fascia.
And that’s just on the personnel side. These Lakers had a harder time mixing and matching, the alchemy of personalities clashing like baking soda and vinegar. Though it’s largely abated in terms of simply getting along with one another, it’s still clear as day that these teammates still don’t know where each other is going to be possession to possession, or what each other are capable of. It’s more than 60 games into the season, and Steve Nash is still saying that he doesn’t think his team has an offensive or defensive identity yet. That’s not good.
What this all adds up to is a disappointing season of massive proportions. What was supposed to be one of the greatest seasons even in the storied history of the organization has rapidly and arguably turned to its worst ever. The Lakers are merely 33-31, fighting for a playoff berth rather than duking it out with the San Antonios and OKCs of the world for top billing in the Western Conference. They’ve stagnated with stop and go production from injured, aging veterans as well as less than desirable defense that, quite frankly, we should have seen coming. Mike Brown is by no means a bad coach, but certainly was not the right coach to take charge of a team of veterans who needed adjustments now, rather than to preach patience and wait.
Overall, everyone–the writers, the bloggers, the fans, the front office, the team even–overlooked what were now startling obvious holes. We were all enchanted with the prospect of a team left for dead miraculously being reloaded and refueled, primed for a championship push without the hunger pangs of rebuilding. The names on the backs of the jerseys outweighed the realities of their weaknesses, while the name on the front caused us all to believe that everything would turn out all right. While no one could have guessed this many things would go wrong, it was extremely foolish to think that so much would seamlessly come together in so short of time.
As I write and reflect on this Lakers season gone wrong, it alarms me how easily and readily the parallels to the Los Angeles Dodgers come to my fingertips.
Even moreso than their neighbors just 3.4 miles south of them, we’re all looking at the Dodgers from the shaded iron and stone prism of an ownership-induced dark ages. The Frank McCourt era has been over for not even a year at this point, and Dodgers fans everywhere are still giddy breathing the sweet air of freedom. The new Guggeinheim ownership group has swept us off our collective feet, wowing us like an inexperienced ingenue with their incredible charisma, dedication, drive, and of course, complete lack of any financial conscience.
The team had pulled off a wildly polarizing trade in August, taking on $300 million dollars in salary commitments for three players that had tremendous potential, but also significant baggage. Even with their reinforcements, the Dodgers missed out on the postseason and to make matters worse, watched their eternal rivals to the North raise their second World Series trophy in three years. No matter what offseason moves they made, LA would at best be considered co-favorites with the Giants to win their division, let alone a NL pennant.
Then came this past offseason, filled with borderline irresponsible contracts for talented players that almost certainly won’t live up to the money owed them. Like Dwight Howard showing up after a year of touch and go trade talks, former AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke was now a Dodger, to the surprise of exactly no one. Other expensive free agents like Brandon League and Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu were signed to the tune of almost $100 million, adding fuel to the extravagant fire ownership had lit. The Dodgers now had the largest payroll in the league, and finally, after years of miring with a mid-market budget and parallel results, the expectations to match. Just a year ago, Dodgers fans hoped in vain for a .500 season with a muddle future and an owner everyone hated. Like the Lakers, the Boys in Blue seem to be magically rebuilt overnight. This team is built to win right now, this season, and end what’s been a spectacular 25 year run of futility in Chavez Ravine.
But as I look forward to this Dodgers season more than any other in the past decade, I find myself cautiously examining the team at hand, rather than missing the obvious pitfalls that have befallen the Lakers.
Yes, Don Mattingly is a talented manager who seems to connect with his players based on the mere fact that he was once the best hitter in the Majors. However, like Mike Brown before him, are we expecting too much, too soon from a man who’s overseen two seasons of 7 above .500 ball? Mattingly has largely been excused from criticism until now, seeing as his squads have always been talent-limited and surrounded by ownership disputes. But let us not forget the bungles he’s made on the field, such as simple line-up card mistakes and strategic errors late in games. Most writers and scouts seem to believe that it will all work out behind Donnie Baseball, as his most important attribute has always been player communication, not to mention his ability to think outside the box with his line-up and pitching staff management. However, that’s easy to do when you’re dealing with Juan Uribe, Dee Gordon and Tony Gwynn Jr. Mattingly has openly suggested that if the Dodgers don’t make the playoffs, it’s all on his shoulders; not at all a brash statement. Not in the least.
Looking at the team itself, there are too many situations reminiscent of what the Lake Show faced last October. Dwight Howard was coming off of back surgery, while Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant were all on the wrong side of 30. Foolishly, we looked past their age and didn’t examine enough how much the star center’s surgery would limit his effectiveness, or how easily these over-30 stars could get injured. Carl Crawford will come into this year still feeling the effects of Tommy John surgery, while Matt Kemp slowly rounds into form after getting beat down by an outfield wall in Colorado last summer. Many are placing the Dodgers’ expectations on the shoulders (literally) of Matt Kemp and his potential for MVP-level play; is that feasible considering his physical limitations?
Are we also overlooking the simple question of inter-personal chemistry? No, baseball isn’t basketball. The individual play of every player isn’t as interlocked as it would be on the hardwood, where five guys need to work in tandem to win. However, hitters and pitchers, as we saw late last season, need to be comfortable in their surroundings. The September 2012 Dodgers were all adjusting to a new league with new teammates in a new ballpark, and simply couldn’t settle in and start playing to their potential. Night after night, Steve Nash throws passes off Howard’s heels and Earl Clark gets turned around while confused on defensive possessions. Throwing a ton of new players together, no matter what the sport, is going to be a massive change for everyone. Put that together with tremendous expectations that no Dodger team before them has seen? It could be a recipe for disaster. This LA team will have their name circled in red on every calendar in the majors–after all, any opposition would relish the opportunity to take down a highly vaunted team of well-compensated stars, the self-proclaimed “Yankees West”. The difference? The Bronx Bombers have won seven pennants and five titles in the last 25 years. They earned the pinstripes it takes to have a target on their foreheads. These Dodgers have no such resume, no such experience and no such justified mystique to them.
Make no doubt, this Dodger squad has all the makings of something special. An 8-man deep rotation, a line-up with four potential 30 homer bats and a pocketbook to go out and get any help at the trade deadline bolsters that statement. But there’s a chance we’re looking at this highly compensated team with the same distorted view we viewed the Lakers just six months ago. There’s too many questions to answer and too any things that can go wrong before we anoint this team a 95-game winner.
The Dodgers are “back”. But the quick fix isn’t always what it’s made out to be, as those in Staples Center will attest.