Forum Blue & Gold: Kurt’s post about Riles really got me thinking. It had me reminiscing about past Lakers glory, our current team, and taking the next step. Riley was part of one of the most famous teams in Lakers lore…33 straight wins and a world championship. They exemplified teamwork and player sacrifice for the greater good.

After thinking of that team, my mind drifted to the golden era of the 80’s….Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Cooper, McAdoo, Wilkes, Rambis, AC, Scott…I could literally go on forever. I grew up on the execution and flare of those teams. To me, that was how basketball was supposed to be played. Fast breaks, excitement, the sky hook, high fives, the opposition laying collapsed in the wake of another Lakers tidal wave. 8 Finals appearances and 5 titles in a decade. For any Lakers fan, the combination of the titles and the style of play made the 80’s the peak of our basketball fandom. We were in heaven.

Then I think about the Shaq/Kobe teams. Power and grace. Execution and turmoil. (Two of) the best players in the league flanked by the types of veterans that championship trophies are crafted for. We had the juggernaut at Center, the 2nd coming at Shooting Guard and players like Horry, Foxie, Fisher, Harper, and Shaw that made those teams the perfect blend of high profile talent and anonymous, yet deadly role players that would do anything to win.

But looking back on that specific team (and to some extent, the team that Riley was on too) made me realize that it wasn’t always so. We weren’t always the unstoppable bully. We weren’t always the favorite. There were doubters, and their voices were loud and piercing.

Think back to the seasons right before the Shaq/Kobe teams broke through for their first title. Do you remember what they were saying about the Lakers? We were soft. Not soft physically, but soft mentally. In 1998, the great Michael Jordan would say:

“I still put Utah ahead of them because of their mental toughness. I’m talking about from the first round of the playoffs to the Finals round. The Lakers still haven’t done that. I’m not saying they can’t, but in the playoffs, mental toughness means a lot. It’s not always the physically gifted team (that wins).”

Even Dennis Rodman would chime in after a nationally televised game between the Lakers and the Bulls:

“Everybody’s expecting us and the Lakers in the Finals. But the Lakers have to get there. I think it will be Utah or Seattle. The Lakers need to grow up a little bit.”

And that was the sentiment around the league. All the talent in the world, but soft mentally. We couldn’t get over the hump because our guys didn’t have the mental fortitude to do it. Fast forward one more season and the same perception prevailed. From the 1997 season to the end of the 1999 (lockout shortened) season, the Lakers had been swept out of the playoffs twice (once in the 2nd round and once in the Conference Finals) and had also lost 4-1 in another second round series. Losing in that manner, in those series, left us with a tough reputation to shake. The Lakers were the type of team that didn’t have the mental toughness to win it all. But were we really mentally soft, or did we just lack the experience needed to compete at the highest level?

Now, look at today’s current team. What is almost every critic and fan saying about us? That we’re soft. Only now, they do mean physically. To many, our loss to the Celtics just confirmed that we didn’t have the physical toughness to win. Gasol, Odom, Sasha, RadMan, and even Walton…do any of these players scream tough guy? Even hard nosed players like Kobe and Fisher can’t distort the perception that we don’t have the toughness to win. The resonating images, for critics and fans alike, are missed layups and half hearted jump hooks. They see gold jerseys being bullied in the paint and on the glass and the evidence is plain as day. This off-season, fans have been calling for the Lakers to sign any player that even resembles an enforcer or tough guy. Right here on these boards (and everywhere else, really) there were calls for Kurt Thomas or Craig Smith or James Posey…any player that would just hit someone, put a body on someone, knock the opponent down. But is that what we really need?

I would say no. What we need, like those Lakers teams that won three consecutive titles earlier this decade, is experience. We need growth and knowledge; an understanding of what it takes to win that develops from trying and failing. Championship caliber basketball is where talent and experience meet (and we definitely have the talent). People can talk about mental toughness, physical toughness, hunger, and dozens of other adjectives that ultimately just describe the team that wins. The guys that fall short are always the players/teams that are “soft” or some other negative connotation that is the tidy bow that wraps comfortably around the loser. But the truth is, the teams that lose just weren’t good enough…yet. Like the Lakers of 1998 (and 1999) that had all that talent but couldn’t get over the hump, what this team needs is experience. They need to grow, together, to get to the point where winning becomes the byproduct of shared knowledge; the culmination from the groups collective experience. And really, I don’t think there’s that much more growth that’s needed. This Lakers team has gone from losing to Phoenix in consecutive seasons in two hard fought playoff sereis, to earning a Finals birth. And sure, we lost. But we lost to a team with some battle tested veterans and some truly great players. What people always fail to mention is that every step of the way, this team has gotten better and achieved more than anyone could have predicted they would have when their journey started.

I know, losing the way that we did last season definitely leaves a bitter taste. Failure, especially on the biggest stage, always leads to second guessing and the search for the easy answer. Perkins is bullying Gasol? We’re soft. KG outmuscles Odom? We’re soft. Pierce bodies up RadMan and Walton to force his way to the basket? We’re soft. But sometimes the easy answer is wrong. Or at least, incomplete. Last season the Lakers were one of the youngest teams in the league and most of our players had never even seen the second round of the playoffs. To me, that spells a lack of experience, and not neccessarily some lack of physical toughness. Right now, I could go on some rant about Bynum and Ariza and how those guys, if healthy, would have won us the title. How their physical presence on the wing and in the paint would have put us over the top. But I’m not going to do that. And not because it’s unwarranted, but because those guys also lack experience and to put the burden on them as the ultimate difference makers isn’t really fair. Those guys have some growing to do as well. In the end just understand this: we’ll be back and will be competing for titles for years to come. And in the future we’ll have the experiences of our past failures to serve as guidance (and motivation) to get us over the hump. So, are we tough enough? Honestly, I could care less. Because with the experience this team has gained, I see us being something more than the toughest team, I see us being champions.

-Darius

  • Freshh
  • DCLAKER

    That’s alright cause “THE BEAST”(1/3 OF LAKEZILLA,LO/PAU),Andrew Bynum comes back but someone who can make a major impact off the bench,someone who can be a compliment to Ariza….Tyrus Thomas,Josh Smith,Carl Landry,Artest.

  • lakrfan4life

    agreed, but with bynum…

  • Daryl Imhoffd

    The Chicago Bulls of the late ’80s had to break through the grasp of the BAD BOYS of Detroit. When the Bulls would try and fight the Pistons they lost the series, but when the Bulls became mentally tough enough to ignore the dirty play of the Pistons they beat them. The Lakers need to be mentally tough and ignore the antics of the Celtics and play the Lakers game and not the Celtics game. The Lakers don’t need to knock people around, they need to ignore the antics of intimidation and play Laker basketball. With Bynum on the floor and with another year of experience this year’s team will be ready. If the Lakers could add this year a veteran who would have a similar impact as Derek Fisher had this past year that is all the Lakers need.

  • Diehardfan

    Great Article and great point of view. I completely agree. There are a couple of things that happened the year that Kobe and Shaq won their 1st title besides Phil being hired. The Lakers and phil brought in Harper, Grant, AC green, and three players that were starters came off the bench, Horry, Fox, Fisher and replaced by those other players. Hell, not even Glen Rice started. But, I think that the youth and athleticism that the Lakers have now is good enough. But it is the mental toughness that pushes you to dive for that loose ball. It is mental toughness that makes you put someone on their A$$ when they are driving to the basket. Kobe, Gasol and fiher can’t do that alone. Odom needs to step up and as he said, he needs to get some “nasty”…well I will be looking for it this season.

  • dom3983

    Lakers will need both experience and toughness. You cant ignore either one. Phil questioned their toughness in the finals so that answers the question of if they need toughness. Bynum and Ariza will help, but its not a guarantee as Boston blew them out as well during the regular season by pushing them around. If they work hard on D, improve their toughness and take the experience of last year they will be back in the finals and I am sure they will get a title with this group in the next 4-5 year laker era.

  • einyo

    good read

  • Paul

    Good game.

  • PeanutButterSpread

    I agree. “Toughness” is such a vague word. It’s just an over generalization of labeling a team that lost.

    Phil might have said some of the players weren’t “tough” but that’s his way of playing the media, as he always does.

    Lack of experience is definitely what cost the Lakers a championship. We were what, the youngest team in the playoffs, expected to be one of the worst teams in the WC, yet we trumped all expectations and made it to the finals. That’s not toughness we lack, but experience.

    People seriously need to jump off the “Lakers are not tough” bandwagon. It’s an incredibly shallow, easy and inept assessment of why the Lakers lost.

  • http://TheVerveNerve.com Billy Kupchak

    have i really been banned? :(

  • T-Dub

    Being tough physically and mentally is something you’re born with. It can’t be tought, you can’t just switch it on. As far as tough guys on this team, D-Fish is about it. Kobe is mentally tough but being physical is not his job. D-Fish, thats it! Josh Smith sounds pretty good because he is physical.

  • DCLAKER

    DON’T BAN BILLY! DON’T BAN BILLY! DON’T BAN BILLY!

  • lakerman34

    Lakers didn’t bring in Grant the year they brought in PJax.

    Glen Rice was the difference maker IMO.

    We HAD toughness. His name was Shaquille O’Neal
    I disagree with you b/c I DO think this team needs a couple of physically tough players. Maybe not an Artest or Josh Smith, but some role players who aren’t afraid to knock someone down.
    A player like Anderson Varejao would be great on our team.

    LO has failed us too many times IMO. I wouldn’t mind getting Josh Smith. I think he would LOVE playing alongside Kobe Bryant, and he and Ariza can guard Kobe in practice, which will make them both very good defenders in the future.

  • DCLAKER

    Tyrus and Bynum….or Josh(Smith)and Bynum….take your pick.For me my pick is the 1st one..and he knows about the Purple n Gold,

  • MILO

    Bynum will give us not only a mental toughnes but also a phisical toughnes that we lacked in Gasol so we winnin next season and thats all there is to it!!!

  • xxv112002

    The Lakers didn’t lack toughness. They lacked focus.

  • ak24

    [Comment ID #47286 Will Be Quoted Here]

    whata bout both ahha

  • DCLAKER

    Hell Yeah,I’d take both anyday but….HOLD THE HELL UP,KWAME GOT WENT TO THE PISTONS,DAG,even Kwame can find another team and The Lakers can’t get ONE PLAYER TO LA ?!

  • DCLAKER

    AK24,This is what he does against the SMELL-$ICS,just imagine he’s in a Lakers uniform in this season’s Finals,OMG!

  • lskerfan567

    next year we need to draft either darren collison(who i think would be hella better then farmer, or josh shipp whose a great perimeter defender and clutch shooter,

    also we need to get swamaki walker back, and sign j r smith pplz, then trade for josh smith and we be set for the rest of the decade and the next decade

  • Rong

    Darius, in your article you said “i could care less”, that is a common mistake ppl make, it should be: “i couldn’t care less”. Because if u don’t care at all, you couldn’t care less.

  • long legga lai

    i wipe my own ass.

  • lskerfan567

    [Comment ID #47283 Will Be Quoted Here]

    allueha now we can rally a round you and say hoo rah hoo rah, thats who we need anderson varegoe, go get it down,(i’ll be fine wit tyrus thomas or J.r Smith)

  • http://www.myspace.com/fabezee fabz24lakers

    agreed we need lamar or our 3rd to have some balls….ariza coulda filled those if 100% healthy!

  • MILO

    [Comment ID #47306 Will Be Quoted Here]

    thank you! hahaha this is great i love it when people get corrected even myself :)

  • Smush Walton

    Are we tough enough?
    What did Phil say after the Lakers were humiliated in game 6?

    We need to add some new players (PLURAL) who know how to play with intensity/toughness.

    Looks like thah has been forgotten. Thanks Clouseau!