It’s tempting, and maybe not even wrong, to think of the Los Angeles Lakers as a microcosm of Los Angeles. I’ve done it myself, and it makes sense, given the slapstick constellation of Angeleno types in the pricey seats at any Lakers game: reptilian septuagenarian movie stars with indoor sunglasses and discreetly stashed Cialis go-packs; all flavors of Cheeto-complected entertainment industry flotsam; handsy, heavily leveraged tryhard club promoters in flat-brimmed hats and Gatorade-colored streetwear; purebred bros; someone who either looks like Anthony Keidis or actually is Anthony Kiedis, probably wearing some stupid hat.
There’s a good deal more to LA than those real-life caricatures, of course, and most of the city is notably more appealing than the purple-and-gold crowd that gathers at Staples Center. But those courtside-seat types are part of what makes LA what it is, just as the goofball family who owns the franchise—from the sozzled hornball patriarch down to the blithely overconfident kids that he has entrusted with running his team—represents what makes the city so bleakly hilarious. The Lakers, when they’re winning, embody LA’s most grandiose, award-show imaginings—not just winners, but also beautiful and creative and rich and can you believe this weather?
But where a successful Lakers team funnels glib satisfaction down the throat of an already flattery-fattened city, a lousy Lakers team—for instance, the one currently bumping along near the bottom of the NBA’s Western Conference despite a starting lineup featuring a plurality of sure-thing Hall of Famers—does the opposite. If a winning Lakers team evokes the smugness of a Magic of the Movies montage during an Oscars telecast, a losing one reflects a different and more forlorn LA—a million hideous publicist-planted upskirts and celebrity DUI mugshots and pill-powered Daniel Baldwin car chases, all narrated in the sneer-scream of a TMZ correspondent. Neither vision is fair, of course. But, lord, is the latter ever more interesting.
That is not at all to say that the Lakers are fun, or even easy to watch. There’s an admirable formal unity to the Lakers, at least insofar as they play exactly the way you’d expect a team to play if it was built around a toxic narcissist with the eyes of a psychotic teddy bear (Kobe Bryant); a buff, unbearable Skittle-addled kidult who screams dialogue from Finding Nemo as a default method of communication (Dwight Howard); a gangly, melancholy Spaniard (Pau Gasol); and an even-keeled but ancient Canadian point guard with an ambitious haircut who would probably rather be listening to Wolf Parade (Steve Nash). Given that those four players have been among the best in the league at their respective positions over the last decade, the high expectations that preceded the Lakers into this season were reasonable. But if the best-case scenario for the team was always clear—imagine a basketball version of Ocean’s 11, with all those grinning superstars stealing a championship trophy from Andy Garcia/the Miami Heat while endlessly toasting champagne—the worst-case scenario was never fully imagined. The Lakers lined up all that blockbuster talent, and somehow wound up with a version of The Cannonball Run in which all the big-name characters were killed in easily preventable highway accidents in the first five minutes and then the “Chaos Reigns” fox from Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist showed up, said its line, barfed, and died.
The Lakers are, in short, basically one big gross dreadlock of dysfunction, spun together from various problematic strands. Everyone on the Lakers hates everyone else on the Lakers; Nash, the only player who seems to be trying his hardest, can’t defend anyone; the coach that the organization has charged with turning things around is utterly wrong for the players the organization has given him. It is, in short, pretty thoroughly fucked.
To watch the Lakers is to be bummed out, even if you’re the sort of person who enjoys watching the Lakers lose. It is to see your sort-of-racist uncle’s bourbonic critique of the NBA come to life: any number of bullshit isolation sets on offense resulting in bilious fadeaway bricks; sluggish, oh-shit-what-I-was-checking-my-phone defense; relentless over-emotive appeals to the refs that are melodramatic enough to earn an “easy on the eyebrows, chief” jeer from Jack Black. There’s a certain ugly thrill in seeing these Lakers fail, but it’s not a lot of fun, at least if you like basketball—it’s tough to take much joy in watching all these great players playing so poorly and unhappily, even with the leavening knowledge that their ill-tempered awfulness is probably preventing Jack Nicholson’s latest horrifying boner.
But if these Lakers are more depressing than anything else—and they are, even for the most ardent Laker-hater—they also offer a different, darker sort of satisfaction. The team’s defective bosses thought they were building a blockbuster, but they wound up with a sour, unconvincing reality show. This is one of those gross, jeering shows you see on Bravo late at night, one defined by scenes in which shrieking vanity cases fight through their respective Xanax-and-oaky-Chardonnay hazes to insult one another in an empty restaurant. That or someone is mad at someone else, because of what one of them said about another one at some ghoulish fashion show. Or someone thinks someone else is fake, and he just hates fake people, that’s like his number one thing. If you follow the US Senate at all, you’re also familiar with all this.
It’s not entertaining, exactly, at least in the sense that it offers none of the inspiring or redemptive or beautiful things we look for in entertainment. But, in their own thwarted, freakishly narcissistic way, the Lakers offer entertainment for our age, even as the basketball they play becomes progressively more terrible. The world watches LA, as ever—it's just tough to see it so clearly out on on the court.
Previously: Hall of Lame