Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lakers About To Ruin A Perfect Thing

HBO has Marty Scorcese's brilliant look at the Las Vegas mob during the 1980s, "Casino," in their rotation and On Demand right now. One of my favorite parts is at the start of the movie, when Joe Pesci's character tells us how the story finishes. "Matter of fact, nobody knew all the details. But it should've been perfect. I mean, he (casino manager Sam "Ace" Rothstein, played by De Niro) had me, Nicky Santoro, his best friend, watching his (back). And he had Ginger, the woman he loved, on his arm. But in the end, we (messed) it all up. It should've been so sweet, too." They had what my man Shoefly would call "the golden ticket," and by their own foolish actions allowed it to escape their possession. In its own way, it's your classic tale of squandered paradise.

When I think of this Lakers off-season, I think of those lines from Nicky and what the movie represented, the blown opportunity of a lifetime. Coming off of this season's championship, L.A. had the formula for a potential dynasty, a magic potion that, once acquired, must be held onto for dear life. In the Lakers case, it was a perfect mix of youth, experience, chemistry, talent, and pecking order; all they had to do was keep it together and let it continue to grow. In other words, they needed to retain the services of unrestricted free agents Trevor Ariza and especially Lamar Odom this summer, the latter ballplayer the X-factor both on the court and during this critical off-season. They couldn't strike a deal with Ariza so they snatched up Ron Artest instead, Trevor winding up taking the same money from Houston that he would have gotten from them. High-risk, high-reward move: Ariza was a flawless fit for this club and a much safer investment, but if Ronnie works out he gives them a higher ceiling, a burly swing-man to defend the Melo's and King James' of the universe and just more punch overall, with everybody stacking up this summer for next season's league holy war.

But here's the thing: Without Lamar, it doesn't make a difference. To have a sixth man like that, a big man with that many skills who could start for damn near any other in basketball and is that unselfish who operates so well in your specialized system - he's what puts them over the top, I think, a luxury other teams can only dream of. Re-signing Ariza would have been a moot point in the event that he left; Ronnie completely tamed and turned into the player he always should have been by Phil can't take them high enough to compensate for the loss of #7.

It's looking like they might lose him. A deal believed to be imminent is now an offer that has been pulled off the table, according to reports. L.A. is willing to give Odom three years at a bit more than $9 million annually, he and his agent want a five year contract worth $50 mil, and the two sides cannot come to terms. Why the Lakers aren't willing to give him the extra two years, I have no idea. Why a compromise hasn't been reached at $45 million over five years, the salary they will concede at the length he desires, is beyond me. He's been talking with Dallas and Miami, who can only offer him five years of mid-level money. Why he would consider working five years to make two million more dollars than he could earn for three, and opt to become a free agent at 32 rather than 34, makes no sense to me at all (unless it's just a weak negotiating ploy). Is he really being this difficult? It must be his agent, Jeff Schwartz, playing the devil as agents sometimes do. But isn't Lamar his boss? Finally, why don't the Lakers just give him what he wants? They have upped their offer more than a million dollars since negotiations began, and I suppose don't want to appear so weak as to cave in completely, but if that's the case then, to paraphrase Jay-Z, I guess they forgot what they came for. It's not my money and I know the economy is harsh, but isn't it worth an extra milli to keep this team intact? They're already deep in the luxury tax, right? What's another million dollars?

What I do understand is that the Lakers appear on the verge of blowing it big, stupidity getting in the way of the shrewdness that was used in building a roster that, health permitting, might have two championships instead of one. They couldn't afford to lose a key piece without replacing it, and Odom is Bynum Insurance that they cannot duplicate. They already spent their MLE, so they can forget about a lesser power forward like Big Baby, let alone a stud like David Lee.

The reason this all happened, this title and the awesome parade and the burgeoning titan, was because of the staunch commitment to winning. Money, ultimately, was not an issue. Now it is? Relative peanuts?

I picked up the commemorative '09 championship DVD Tuesday, first day of its release, a reminder of how sweet this season was. I hope Mitch Kupchak takes a look at a copy himself, I hope Lamar, who attended the premiere screening Monday night, pops it in his Samsung or whatever he uses one more time before it's too late and everyone affected is forced to sit up one day and lament how perfect it should've been.

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