Lakers' Clear Goal: Re-Entering the Playoff Picture

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

The longtime Lakers rivals from Boston and Philadelphia with those trademark colors aren’t just fabled teams the Lakers have been tied to through NBA history. The Celtics and 76ers spent much of recent memory competing with the Lakers for draft lottery balls.

And while the Lakers watched from afar for the past month, those teams just played for the right to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, with the Celtics winning out on the strength of a young core that has persevered despite the injury losses of high-priced new talent Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

The Lakers are also often linked to the Golden State Warriors because of how much Luke Walton has modeled his Lakers’ playing style and off-court operation after what he learned as Steve Kerr’s assistant coach.

Well, there’s no way just to mimic high-intensity playoff experience, and in that regard, the Warriors remain in another stratosphere. They just became the second team ever to make the Western Conference Finals under the current format in four consecutive seasons.

Earvin has set the tone that we have a goal next year to be in the playoffs, and to get there, our guys have to transform themselves physically [this offseason] like Julius Randle did.

Rob Pelinka

The other such team was the Lakers, who appeared in eight consecutive conference finals from 1982-89. Those were the bulk of Magic Johnson’s playing days–and a testament to how routine Johnson came to view playoff performance and excellence.

That’s largely why many around the league don’t believe Johnson, now Lakers president with a load of developing young talent, wants to wait any longer than he has to for a return to Lakers glory.

It is only a year-plus into Johnson’s front-office career, but it has been an extended absence from competitive relevance for the Lakers. Consider this: Only three NBA franchises have longer current playoff droughts than the Lakers, who last appeared in the postseason in 2013.

That’s no badge of honor. It’s a call to action, which is why Johnson and Rob Pelinka were quietly telling the Lakers’ young players at this time last year about the need to return to the playoffs.

The truth is that Johnson and Pelinka had private conversations in recent months about the value to be gained if the franchise could be within late-season striking distance of a playoff berth, which obviously didn’t pan out with so many injuries.

Magic and Brandon Ingram embrace after the rookie's first offseason

Magic and Brandon Ingram embrace after the rookie's first offseason

But it’s what led to Johnson and Pelinka being blunter with the players and the public in season-ending exit meetings about how the playoff urgency is doubly present now.

“Earvin has set the tone that we have a goal next year to be in the playoffs,” Pelinka said, “and to get there, our guys have to transform themselves physically [this offseason] like Julius Randle did.”

Said Randle, who will be a restricted free agent this summer: “I just know it’s a longer summer than I want it to be. Wishing we were in the playoffs.”

Same as for Johnson, sitting idly by while the NBA playoffs dominate the sports calendar in the spring is an unfamiliar world for Pelinka, who represented Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and more recently James Harden before becoming Lakers general manager last year.

“What were great players like Magic and Kobe doing in April and May? They were competing in the playoffs,” Pelinka said in explaining his message to Lakers players to treat the offseason as their playoff run. “We said, ‘What are you guys doing right now in April, May and June, so you’re staying at the top of the pack?’ We said, ‘Now that we have the system in place for you guys to choose greatness.’ How these guys respond in their playoffs, this year, is going to inform what we do in the draft and free agency."

One could fairly argue that it’s not much use to a franchise to edge briefly into the playoff picture before an abrupt, embarrassing first-round exit.

What do Lakers fans remember from the last time their team made the playoffs?

It has been five years since the Lakers struggled to qualify as the seventh seed, gut-punched by Bryant’s Achilles tendon rupture in the third-to-last regular-season game. Bryant’s Achilles fall, not the first-round sweep the Lakers suffered at the hands of the Spurs, is the lasting image of that rocky season that began with the Lakers projected as NBA champs with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

There was that final playoff display of Bryant’s partnership with Pau Gasol in the final moments of Game 4, when Bryant hobbled out on crutches to sit behind the bench in his first public appearance since his injury. Upon Gasol’s final exit from the game, Bryant leaned over and squeezed the shoulders of his partner in two championships; Gasol wound up parting ways with the team that summer.

Dwight Howard dealing with the frustrating playoff loss.

Dwight Howard dealing with the frustrating playoff loss.

That happened after Howard got that second technical foul just two minutes into the second half of Game 4 and was ejected with seven points and five turnovers. It had been the first time the Lakers ever trailed a first-round playoff series, 3-0.

There aren’t many meaningful memories from that brief playoff appearance. The Lakers averaged a mere 85 points despite being coached by Mike D’Antoni.

It’s because it was a team that went nowhere else together, with the closest thing to young players then being Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill–in their fourth NBA seasons already and never amounting to much in the league.

D’Antoni stayed on for another season, and the Lakers fizzled to 27 games with a theoretical young core of Kendall Marshall, Ryan Kelly and Xavier Henry–all 22 then, all soon to tumble out of the league.

It just goes to show how the value of playoff experience depends on the organizational trajectory.

If you’re not building toward anything with your current group, then it doesn’t mean much. If you are, those are critical steps up the mountain that have to be climbed at some point.

Regardless of the exact compilation of Lakers players next season, it’s a certainty there will be multiple rising players on it—trying to win playoff games or a championship without much frame of reference.

The only teams to have longer playoff droughts right now than the Lakers are the Kings (12 years), Suns (eight) and Magic (six). Those appearances were long enough ago that main cogs on those long-ago teams such as Ron Artest in Sacramento, Nash in Phoenix and Howard in Orlando all moved on to the Lakers in renewed efforts.

Who remembers the last time the Lakers won a playoff series? It was a seven-game series, and those usually are quite memorable.

In this particular case, it might be difficult to place, as the Lakers won so many epic playoff series in 2009 and ’10 championship runs before in ’11 beating New Orleans and getting swept in the second round by eventual champion Dallas.

The last time the Lakers won a playoff series was the 2012 first round against Denver.

Magic and Rob sitting courtisde for a Summer League game.

Magic and Rob sitting courtisde for a Summer League game.

It was before Nash and Howard. Mike Brown was the Lakers’ head coach, and it was sort of the last hurrah for the big man in the NBA. Andrew Bynum and Gasol worked together inside over the undersized Nuggets, combining for 35 rebounds and 10 blocked shots. Steve Blake came off the bench to spell a shaky Ramon Sessions at point guard and hit five of six three-point shots.

That was Bynum’s big season, when the production overshadowed the immaturity and set up the massive trade for Howard the ensuing summer. The lockout-shortened season helped keep Bynum healthy, and he went to his only All-Star Game that year alongside Bryant.

But the Lakers followed up the Game 7 victory over Denver with a noncompetitive five-game loss to Oklahoma City in the second round. The Lakers were supposed to be in the Thunder’s class that season, as the No. 3 seed to Oklahoma City’s No. 2, yet it became clear that the teams were headed in opposite directions.

The Thunder was building toward something. That wound up not being an NBA title (and Kevin Durant wound up leaving in free agency for Golden State in 2016), but Oklahoma City reached the NBA Finals that 2012 season and made it to the conference finals in ’14 and ’16.

Ultimately, that 2012 Lakers group didn’t stay together to do anything greater, which is why even a Game 7 playoff victory fails to resonate.

Guys who played against us could see that young players on our team are for real.

Magic Johnson

The steps a franchise takes in the playoffs are often like that, just minor movements, wading this way or that.

Sometimes, however, they are big splashes–which is what the Lakers currently await.

The first-round playoff series just won by Ben Simmons’ and Joel Embiid’s 76ers or rookie Donovan Mitchell’s Utah Jazz are impossible to ignore. Those steps feel like major progress because those teams have reason to believe they are on the rise.

Johnson and Pelinka believe the Lakers are due for their splash.

“Guys who played against us could see that young players on our team are for real,” Johnson said.

Especially if free agency goes well, the splash could become an even bigger one at this time next year–not just making the playoffs but winning in the playoffs.

“We feel really good about where we are,” Johnson said. “I feel really good about the direction of this franchise. And last but not least, I feel really good about Rob and I getting somebody in a room and talking to them about coming and playing for the Lakers. So, I’m so happy and excited.”

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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

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