Laker fans have an unbridled level of optimism. There's an expectation of greatness and a belief of entitlement that comes with it. Yet, is this mindset that hard to believe? When we examine the history of the Lakers, it becomes clear that Laker fans may just be empiricists living in a very strange environement.
Every team has dry spells. The media and PR department will spin it as "rebuilding". The fans will applaud losses as it "improves" draft stock, but the reality is that the team is simply bad. And this normally takes a bit of time to recover from. What has this looked like for the Lakers?
The longest period of time that the Lakers spend missing the playoffs was a two-season stretch in the 1975 and 1976 playoffs. Since then, the longest the Lakers have only missed two playoffs (in 1994 and 2005). In fact, in the 53 years the Lakers have been in Los Angeles, they've missed the playoffs only four times!
Well, let's up the criteria a little bit. Laker fans expect titles. What's the longest the Lakers have gone without making the finals?
Nine seasons. The Lakers sadly did not have a shot to compete for a title from 1992-2000, the years following Magic Johnson's premature departure from the NBA.
That leaves one final dry spell: what's the longest the Lakers have had to wait between winning titles? Well, the answer is twelve seasons. If we "start the clock" when the Lakers landed on LA, it took them twelve seasons to hoist a banner. It wasn't for lack of trying; they made it to seven finals in their first nine years in Los Angeles, bringing home a grand total of zero championships. The Lakers also made one last finals with the Magic/Kareem duo in 1988, and despite making it back two more times, it would take another twelve seasons before Kobe and Shaq brought a ring back to LA.
Using the other Los Angeles team as a comparison: The Lakers time between finals is historically as long as the Clippers time between playoff apearances! Lakers expect their team to always compete, and to make finals regularly. The thing is, history is on their side.
Replacement Level Stars
The NBA is a star driven league. The decline of most franchises is pretty easy to chart. When the team's stars get old, traded, or injured, so goes the franchise (see the 1999 Bulls for the perfect storm). The Lakers have had the luxury of employing some of the greatest NBA talent of all time, and at various times, they've had to handle losing these players to a variety of reasons. How long does it typically take the Lakers to replace their stars?
The Lakers have a pretty stunning record. In 1961 they were lead by Elgin Baylor, who played remarkably. Jerry West was also on the team, but not quite his star self. Baylor played well for several seasons, and West became a bonafied star up until 1973. He played in 1974, but only a partial season. The Lakers also acquired Wilt Chamberlain in 1969, and he played great until his exit from the NBA in 1973. The Lakers first thirteen seasons had at least one bonafied star. When Chamberlain and West left, things looked dire, and the Lakers missed two consecutive playoffs.
But then they grabbed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1976. He was joined by Magic in 1980, and the Lakers enjoyed one of the greatest dynasties ever. The Lakers had a top star in the NBA from 1976 to 1991, when Magic retired the first time over concerns about playing with HIV.
The Lakers did have some good players after 1991, but none that we would call stars by conventional wisdom. Then they acquired Shaq in 1996. Of course, he had some injury problems, and missed a lot of time in his first several seasons in LA. Finally, in 1999 he played completely healthy as a precursor to the Lakers first threepeat.
The Lakers lost Shaq in 2004, and despite acquiring top draft pick Lamar Odom and keeping Kobe, they had an off-season in 2005. However, in 2006 the return of Phil Jackson saw the return of Kobe and Lamar playing at top level. In 2008, the Lakers "traded" for Pau Gasol and added another star. The Lakers went onto play great basketball and make three finals (winning twice). Of course, the Lakers stars tailed off and the Lakers were "absent" a star in 2012 and 2013, despite having multiple players that had formerly played at MVP level.
Alright, looking at this, the longest the Lakers have ever been without a star-calibre player on the roster is four seasons (1992-1995) and the longest the Lakers have ever been without having a player playing at star level on their team is seven seasons (1992-1998, mostly due to Shaq's limited games) The Lakers may have an up and coming star in Jordan Hill, but it's too soon to say.
Logical Laker Fans
One of my past times is making fun of Laker fans and the Lakers on twitter. Yes, they do overrate Kobe. But the simple truth is any long-time fan of the Lakers is probably right to expect success. While other franchises become sullen when their stars walk out the door, the Lakers have a history of restocking star players on a schedule akin to going to the grocery store. While the current Kobe contract and management changes have me worried, the truth is if it takes the Lakers another two or three years to right the franchise, it will just be par for the course.