In good times, the crowd stands and claps, the cheerleaders sashay onto the floor and, best of all, the loudspeaker strikes a nerve by playing the anthem that captures the mood: "I Love L.A."
But now -- with the franchise running low on victories and high on uncertainty -- the Lakers are placed in the rare position of being outsiders in free agency, with their noses and fingertips pressed against the glass, salivating at all the good talent seemingly beyond their reach. Perhaps their state of mind is best captured by another classic hit: "Ain't Too Proud To Beg."
Yes, kneepads are the necessary equipment for a team that's feeling a bit desperate for the first time in decades. It's actually a sad sight, watching the Lakers plead for someone to take their money, when in the past, great players always put the Lakers near the top of their list. There's a good chance the Lakers could come up empty this summer and be forced to brace for another long, tough season ahead.
Can this really happen to a team long considered a destination, and a place that rarely -- if ever -- failed to get what it wanted or needed?
You mean sunshine, money, pretty people, tradition and the chance to ride with Kobe Bryant aren't enough?
It's a cold new reality for the Lakers, who resemble a Hollywood actress in her 40s, trying to stay fresh. In their world, Jim Buss is the new ruler, and everyone is wondering if the emperor wears clothes. Anxious to turn themselves around after a pair of disappointing finishes, the Lakers need to prove they're still on the A-list, even with evidence against them beginning to mount.
"We're prepared," said Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. "If any of these players wants to move, we're prepared. And if we get word, we will go all out."
They're boldly chasing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony -- because, Kupchak said, "Why not?" Maybe they're gunning for the best free agents out of habit, or at least to give themselves a shot at LeBron and Melo if hell freezes over. In years past, when the Lakers were in the hunt for top talent, they made other teams quiver. Now? Nobody seems too worried about losing out to Buss and Kupchak and the new head coach…especially considering they haven't filled the latter position yet.
When the summer is over, we could very well find the Lakers -- to continue the Hollywood analogy -- choosing from the B-list.
The Lakers are struggling to find an identity and traction in the post-Jerry Buss era, and a good number of folks have their doubts. Two summers ago, Dwight Howard rudely rejected them -- and the chance to make roughly $25 million more -- to sign with the Rockets instead. There's no detectable sense of desire in the Melo and LeBron camps to sign with the Lakers and join Kobe to form a Dream Trio. Hell, at this point, the Lakers would be lucky to convince Pau Gasol, their own free agent, to stick around.
Maybe they have a shot at Luol Deng. So, there's that.
Somewhere in his Newport Beach compound, Kobe's head is about to explode. His career is winding down, giving him two years tops, and he could be dumping the ball inside to Robert Sacre in five months. Of course, Kobe is part of the reason the Lakers are in a bind. Not only is he aging and coming off an injury-interrupted season, but the Lakers for some reason felt compelled to give him $48 million over the next two years. A wiser move would've been to ask Kobe to chill a bit -- he wasn't in danger of signing with anyone else as a free agent -- and keep the salary cap bare to make a more reasonable run at LeBron and Melo.
But with Kobe hogging $23 million of the $63 million in space next season (the Lakers are committed to $37 million in salary), their chances of adding two premier pieces are limited. And that's what it would take to get LeBron. Even if he seriously thought about leaving Miami -- which doesn't seem likely at the moment -- he wouldn't come to the Lakers unless they added at least one other All-Star. At least.
"This is a championship franchise," Kupchak said. "As long as Kobe is on this team, we have to believe we can contend for a championship."
Well, he's right, in a sense. As long as the Lakers have Kobe and a few players at his level or better, they can contend for a championship.
If they strike out with LeBron and Melo, the Lakers will have to take a whole new approach. Suddenly, they'd be staring at Deng and Kyle Lowry and a few others who might make the season more bearable for Kobe but certainly wouldn't elevate the Lakers over the Clippers or OKC or the Spurs.
That's when the Lakers would be wise to stay flexible so they can do this dance all over again next summer.
As long as Kobe is under contract, the Lakers can't rebuild. That would mean that in 2015-16, the final year of his deal, the Lakers would be still compelled to put together a contender. Next summer they could have a shot at Kevin Love, if he isn't traded before then. Then the following summer there's the other Kevin -- as in Durant -- who's eligible for free agency, along with Russell Westbrook, who played college ball with Love and trains with him every summer.
Imagine: Love, Westbrook and Durant in 2016-17. But even if that happens, it's a long way off.
The history of the Lakers is loaded with examples of great players either signing with L.A. outright, or forcing their way to town. It began with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wanted nothing to do with spending his career in the cold Midwestern winters of Milwaukee. Shaquille O'Neal saw endless entertainment options and fled Orlando. Kobe and his agent manipulated the 1996 draft and landed with the Lakers. Karl Malone and Gary Payton, though both at the ends of their careers, signed on.
For years, the Lakers also had the advantage of being a smartly-run franchise -- maybe the finest in any pro sport -- with Buss as the owner and Jerry West running personnel. That, along with the charms of L.A., was enough to make the Lakers a fixture as a destination choice for many players.
That image came to a crashing halt when Howard refused to sign an extension in 2013 -- even after the Lakers made the uncharacteristic choice to beg for his return, erecting billboards around town. Last season's 27-win collapse was predictable, then, especially after Kobe pulled up lame and shut it down.
Rather than let Kobe wait until now to sign an extension, the Lakers rushed a big contract and now must deal with less flexibility than had they delayed the negotiations. But it's all moot anyway if LeBron and Melo decide to stay put or go elsewhere.
The best course of action for the Lakers is to keep all contracts as short as possible, so they can remain in play for Love next summer and Durant and Westbrook in '16. Remember, the Lakers' protected first-round picks next summer and in '17 could belong to Phoenix and Orlando, so building through the draft comes with strings attached.
The worst the Lakers could do is panic after losing out on LeBron and Melo and overpay second-tier types like Deng and Gasol. Neither are franchise players, and they'd only prevent the Lakers from making a run at difference-makers in the near future.
There are questions about the direction of the team under Jim Buss, which are somewhat justified. Buss must demonstrate that he can at least be a poor man's Jerry Buss by keeping his mistakes small and to a minimum.
And maybe the Lakers, like many other teams, are destined to go through a rough spell for a few seasons. Is that so bad? In that case, the only drawback is that Kobe won't be able to ride into the sunset in style. Plus, they'd have to concede the city to the Clippers, at least for the near future.
The Lakers need to rebuild a variety of ways -- through smart trades, drafts and, yes, free agency. Whether Buss and Kupchak have the golden (and purple) touch is another issue. Yet they're still a premier stop, and at some point, a franchise player will arrive and reawaken the franchise.
It will happen. The question is when. It's just not likely to be this summer.