By Andy Kamenetzky
Okay, I should be fair. Carlos Boozer is not literally the worst. There are many folks on the planet, or even just in the NBA, worse than the paint-haired power forward who is now officially a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. I came up with this title in part as a shout out to my good friend Stephen Falk, whose new show, You’re the Worst, debuted Thursday on FX, but this isn’t just about transparent promotion. (Although seriously, watch the show.) Carlos Boozer, to me, represents the worst of the Lakers’ offseason, a summer that’s increasingly devolved into a series of decisions that have left me, for the first time in quite some time, heavily concerned about the franchise’s direction.
Simply put, Boozer is an absolutely pointless acquisition made even more farcical by the announcement that the Lakers “won” the auction for his services. (Enter auctioneer barking, “Going once! Going twice! SOLD to the… Wait, is that the Lakers? Seriously? Why?!”) That Los Angeles would go out of its way to land Boozer defies logic. His skills have eroded massively over the last several seasons, his NBA career reaching its nadir last season when Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau all but refused to play him for meaningful minutes down the stretch. The Duke product has reached that stage where his formerly “high profile” far exceeds the on-court difference he can make for a below-average squad in a loaded Western Conference.
Then again, in the grand scheme of things, if Boozer is the difference between 30 wins and 33, does it really matter?
What does matter, though, is that his presence blocks playing time for the Lakers’ core of young big men — the one area of the roster that actually shows promise. If played at his natural position, Boozer takes minutes away from Julius Randle (a lottery pick considered by most as NBA-ready) and Ryan Kelly (whose rookie season was better than expected or advertised).
If, as some have suggested, Boozer mans the center position — ignoring, for a moment, that Head Coach We-Don’t-Know-Who-That-Is-Yet will be counting on a 6-foot-9 minus-defender with T-Rex arms to protect the paint — those are minutes at the expense of Robert Sacre, low risk/potentially high reward newbie Ed Davis, and the improving Jordan Hill, heretofore presumably the starter. Hill’s new contract was specifically structured to be moveable, which, by definition, means that it’s of paramount importance that he be showcased. Boozer’s presence wholly undercuts that goal.
Now nearly 33, Boozer clearly has zero future with Los Angeles. Ironically, though, as an amnesty claim, he now cannot be traded this season. This means that he’s not even useful as a deadline asset. He’s simply a “name” who serves no other purpose but maintaining appearances. He bolsters the perception that the Lakers refuse to miss the postseason two consecutive seasons, even with a potential top-five-protected lottery pick in the balance. That their “championship mentality” remains unchanged. That Kobe Bryant’s remaining years won’t go out with a whimper on their watch.
In reality, Boozer offers faux-competitiveness, an attempt to fool fans into salivating over the prospect of a few empty-calorie wins. He’s a red herring meant to throw Laker Nation off the scent as the team sits stuck in neutral.
Which again begs the question … What, exactly, is the Lakers’ long-term plan?
Throughout the course of last season, Kupchak and owner Jim Buss appeared increasingly and genuinely open to the notion of a steady, methodical, surgical rebuild. Not only would they avoid cap-killing Luol Deng types incapable of making them instant contenders — which, to their credit, has been the case thus far — they would not fixate entirely on superstars, either. Players like Greg Monroe, Eric Bledsoe, Lance Stephenson or Isaiah Thomas may not be All-Stars, but they’re high-end talent that can serve as building blocks and assets to land a bigger star down the road. (The ship has already set sail on Stephenson, who signed in Charlotte, and Thomas, now in Phoenix.)
In a perfect world, the front office would think expansively and imaginatively about how to capitalize on the first chance in eons to build a roster from the ground up. For a while, that appeared to be the approach. They resisted the urge to move the No. 7 overall pick in this year’s draft and selected Randle. Their first offseason move was a brilliant trade that netted both Jeremy Lin and a much-needed first-round draft pick. Things were really humming.
In a vacuum, there is nothing wrong with retaining Nick Young or Hill, especially given the reasonable structure of their deals. They’re place-holders — and, again, potential assets — who double as fan favorites, especially in the case of “Swaggy P.” But to see those cats prioritized ahead of an offer sheet for Monroe or Bledsoe is indefensible. (Maybe the front office got word neither wanted to be Lakers, but I’ve heard nothing of the sort.) Tying up cap space for 72 hours to see what might have happened could have meant losing Young or Hill, but those are the kinds of risks worth taking. The same goes for Stephenson or Thomas, who both netted deals below what everyone expected.
Instead, the Lakers played it safe and opted to punt. They’re not set up to really compete, and they won’t fully commit to a rebuild. It’s the worst of all worlds, a wholly wasted opportunity that could turn cyclical. (Just ask the Knicks.)
The plan in Hollywood appears to be to tread water, make as few commitments as possible, and wait for a superstar to take their money. (Or just get Kobe off the books — whichever comes first.) Respectfully, that’s not a plan. Not after the mounting evidence that players covet ready-made situations, with little care for market size or storied traditions. The Internet Age has made for a connected world where social media is king and Madison Avenue exists on a digital plane. The Lakers are no longer the permanent big bully on the block. They can no longer bank on deep pockets, glitz and the late Dr. Jerry Buss’ clout as an elixir to what ails them. There must be an infrastructure, or else the same superstars they covet won’t have a reason to commit.
“The way we’ve always done things” no longer cuts it. The world rules have changed, and the Lakers must adapt or die.
You’re the Worst, which centers around a damaged couple embarking on a knowingly doomed relationship, is a show about honesty, of which there are two kinds. Honesty towards others, and honesty towards yourself. The latter is a matter of self-awareness, and among the most valuable tools anyone can possess, even if you don’t like what you see.
For the time being, the Lakers are either unwilling to take an honest look in the mirror, or they are incapable of interpreting their own reflection. Obviously, there’s plenty of time for Kupchak to pull a rabbit out of his hat, but if Boozer is the grand finale of this magic show, I want my money back.