The Lakers are the best sideshow in basketball right now. They have no shot at the playoffs so even Magic Johnson thinks they should be tanking to keep their top five protected draft pick. They have little in the way of trade assets without that pick and they have such a long way to go before coming close to contending in the West that even a huge free agency splash in the off-season won't be enough to return to relevancy any time soon. The Laker empire has fallen. Considering the rivalry between the two franchises, I should find some joy in that fact. But I can't help but wonder: Are the Spurs next?
Since the beginning of the three-point line era, the Spurs have made the playoffs in all but four seasons. Only one other franchise has been absent from the post-season fewer times: The Lakers. Since the Michael Jordan era, the San Antonio and Los Angeles have been the most successful franchises in the league. The way they have gone about team building has been different and their superstars are on opposite sides of the public persona/leadership gamut. But the past of these two institutions are linked in many ways. It's not crazy to think their futures might be similar as well.
There is a defense mechanism in every fan's mind that tends to gravitate towards positive projections when facing the unknown. It's doubly effective for Spurs fans because the organization has an almost mystical glow to it. "The Spurs are not like other franchises," we repeat to ourselves. And the results seem to confirm it. A quick glance at the players under contract past this season and the assets in the team's disposal -- be it draft picks or stashed players -- suggests San Antonio is not destined for a precipitous fall even in the post-Duncan future. But as Lakers fans found out, things can change very quickly.
A few years ago the Lakers were coming off a title and had one of the best young centers in basketball, Andrew Bynum, flanking veteran stars Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant. They were in a fantastic place. After a couple disappointing early playoff exits, they landed Chris Paul in a trade in which they surrendered Gasol and Lamar Odom but retained Bynum. They could have been a power for years to come had David Stern not vetoed the trade while acting as the overseer of the then New Orleans Hornets on the league's behalf. It was a tough blow but the Lakers bounced back by landing Steve Nash in free agency and trading Bynum for the league's best center, Dwight Howard.
At no point was there any indication that things were about to go south. But Nash's body finally broke down, Dwight Howard wasn't himself in his one season in Los Angeles before bolting, Mike D'Antoni drove Pau Gasol to apathy and Kobe tore his Achilles tendon. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, despite every move looking smart at the time. That's the terrifying truth that lurks beneath any schadenfreude aimed at the Lakers' fruitless past few seasons: No one can know for sure what will work and what won't.
Locking up Tony Parker to an extension was a smart move. What if he declines rapidly? Not extending Kawhi Leonard gives the Spurs flexibility going forward. What if he signs a short-term deal and leaves when the team isn't in contention anymore? Will Danny Green look for more money and a more relaxed coach or will he stay in San Antonio? Is Kyle Anderson part of the future or will he be in Lithuania in four years, like James Anderson? Are Patty Mills and Cory Joseph good players or is their success merely a product of playing with Tim Duncan? The answers to those questions will determine whether the Spurs remain relevant.
If there's one thing every franchise can control, it's the culture they build. In that respect, the Spurs have an edge on the Lakers. Gregg Popovich and Duncan have established a fantastic environment in which selflessness is stressed and hard work and self-awareness are required. The Lakers' current identity is being set by an egomaniac (or at least a self-described asshole) who sets standards that are impossible to meet and will not hesitate to throw his teammates or his general manager under the bus when they fail to meet his expectations -- as we were reminded off earlier this week.
But consider this: maybe Bryant has scared off a free agent or two in his time, but it's not like Duncan has had much success recruiting. Duncan took less money while Bryant went for one last payday but that was only necessary because Peter Holt doesn't want to pay the luxury tax. The Spurs have not even used their mid-level exception this year and could have retained everyone even if Duncan had taken $20 million. There is a symbolic value to having your star take less but that's about to change as Leonard will inevitably get the max. What made the Lakers who they were -- consistent relevance, deep pockets -- has disappeared thanks to their on-court struggles and the collective bargaining agreement. What makes the Spurs who they are -- Tim Duncan, basically -- is a much more limited resource.
So go ahead and laugh at the fortune of the Lakers; I'll admit that I do. The sense of entitlement that is usually reserved for spoiled fans -- of which the Spurs have more than a few -- percolated through the rest of that franchise, and was embodied by Kobe Bryant. It can be entertaining to see the comeuppance of someone who made hubris his trademark. That's where the future of the two franchises could differ because Tim Duncan has never been as polarizing as Kobe. But Gregg Popovich is, in some circles. So enjoy the Lakers' pain, if you must, but be aware that others might have the opportunity to do the same soon, only with the Spurs as the laughingstock.