What's Happening in Lakerland? (And Why Can't We Stop Watching?)

The Lakers are going through an unprecedented transitional phase, and watching Kobe on the court might foreshadow their long road ahead.

On Sunday night, the Lakers lost to the Denver Nuggets. That in itself is not particularly interesting, given that the Los Angeles Lakers are easily one of the league’s worst teams and the Nuggets are on somewhat of a hot streak. But as I, a life long Lakers fan, sat there in front of the TV after they squandered a lead and lost their 11th game in 14 tries, it was my frustration, or lack thereof, that was the most compelling. I wasn’t angry because they lost one of their few winnable games or because they let themselves get to this point in the first place. I wasn’t angry at all. Instead, I realized that I, like many other NBA fans across the country, have literally no idea how to react to what’s going on in Lakerland.

This season has not been kind to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite a consensus among even the loyalist of Laker fans that this year would would mostly likely be a struggle, seeing the Lakers lose, this often, with Kobe on the floor, is a new phenomenon. Yet, here they are, unquestioningly entering a thorough rebuilding stage that may last for years. To the casual observer, this doesn’t seem particularly hard to fathom. Even the Boston Celtics, the winningest team in the NBA, endured an abysmal decade before the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007.

However, its a little different in Los Angeles. In LA, the Lakers are not the only show in town and failure to draw crowds would eliminated the purple and gold from Hollywood relevance. Sure, New York sports also share the spotlight with world class entertainment, but the Knicks have never owned the city like the Lakers own LA. Since their move from Minneapolis in 1960, the Lakers have ruled the Los Angeles sports world with consistency and championship-caliber success spanning half a century.

The Lakers have always been relevant and they’ve always been on top. But now, they face an unfamiliar dilemma: entertain as much as possible now and risk the future or rebuild intelligently and risk irrelevance. Unfortunately, it seems like they’ve chosen both. Or neither. But what they’ve clearly decided is that their current trajectory will be entirely dictated by their aging superstar, Kobe Bryant.

Coming into the season, not many would have predicted that the NBA’s leading scorer through four weeks would be Bryant, who played only six games last year after recovering from a devastating Achilles injury in April 2013. Yet, here we are, with Kobe triumphantly rising again and sitting atop the league in points per game. Except it doesn’t feel that way, not by a long shot.

Besides shooting close to 30% from the floor and taking over 20 shots a game, Kobe’s acrobatics and improbable jumpers don’t have the same allure they once did. Watching Kobe isolate defenders for 10 seconds and hoist high-difficulty jumpers (and still make a good amount) looks more like a struggle, not just for his 36-year-old body but for the entire organization. This is not to say that Kobe is overstepping his bounds. As it seems, Jim and Jeanie Buss are as invested in Kobe’s presence on the court and in the media as he is. After all, they signed him to a generous (and impractical) $48 million extension last season and hired a coach who seems to be content with watching Kobe play 1 on 5 from the sidelines.

In the meantime, the Lakers are 3-11 and on pace to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference. They’ve already been dealt their fair share of injury blows, losing promising first-round pick Julius Randle on opening day and Steve Nash before the season even began. Carlos Boozer is also dealing with an injury and the fact that his absence is even worth noting shows just how fragile they’ve become.

Injuries aside, the Lakers are already headed down an uncertain path. They’ve set up camp in an awkward in-between phase; unsure what to do with their demanding fan base and their aging legend. Thus far, that uncertainty has translated to a product that is almost as intriguing as it is overmatched on the court. According to NumberFire’s team nERD ranking, the Lakers are second to last, 29th, in the entire NBA, second to only the embarrassing winless 76ers squad. Their nERD rating of 21.1 projects them to win only 21% of their games this year, a figure that certainly looks accurate at this point. Their defensive efficiency is dead last in the league at 117.2 and is on pace to break the all-time record for defensive futility.

Yet, despite all this, people are still watching. The Lakers are among the leaders in road sellouts and still play on national television more than most teams, despite often getting blown out by 20-plus points. The obvious reason for this is that people still want to watch Kobe, with all his head scratching comments, legendary fadeaways, and endless determination. Sure, his antics on offense seem to be more forced and stagnating than usual but this seems to be overshadowed by the broader realization that this guy is still going; 19 years in the NBA, thousands of playoff minutes and back-to-back major injuries haven’t stopped his drive, or his scoring.

But while 36-year-old Kobe is still putting people in seats, his contract and his legacy are complicating the Lakers short-term plans. This is not to say Kobe is to blame for any of this. Statistics aside, Kobe is one of the most impactful players of all time. What he’s done for the city of Los Angeles, the NBA, and the team itself commands specialized attention. However, Kobe’s unique place in history certainly complicates the already-daunting task of rebuilding a storied franchise under a national spotlight. How the Lakers juggle the demands of Bryant’s final years, a massive fan base with a “win now” mentality, and the realities of a talent-soaked NBA landscape will certainly be something to watch. It just might not be pretty.