Each year, only one NBA team can be crowned champion. Still, there will always be some teams that had higher expectations than others, and many more that fell short of the level they needed to consider their seasons a success.
For these squads, the offseason is a time of introspection and transformation: the departure of coaches and unhappy players, and the implementation of major transactions to reshape the roster in preparation for the upcoming season.
This week in the NBA, after yet another disappointing postseason, the Philadelphia 76ers’ standout guard, James Harden, called general manager Daryl Morey “a liar” at an Adidas media event in China and vowed never to play for a team run by Morey again. (The one tiny issue with that assertion?)
Despite hopes of being traded, Harden has decided to play out the final year of his deal with the Sixers, which will pay him $35.6 million. As the magnitude of the disappointment increases, so does the intensity of the blame.
— Vulture (@vulture) August 21, 2023
It was assumed that the Lakers would be favorites to defend their title after winning it in 1980, Magic’s rookie season, with the return of Magic and Kareem to lead a squad that was faster and more dynamic than its opponents. But championships aren’t only about having a fantastically talented team.
They also involve the unpredictable intangibles like chemistry and luck, both of which conspired against the Lakers in 1981. Paul Westhead lost the respect of his players and the confidence of the front office after they saw him reject a David Thompson trade that would have given the team a huge lift while Magic was out with a knee injury and didn’t seem like himself when he returned.
Running it back would have been fine if the Lakers had lost the Finals to the Boston Celtics in a close game. But to fall in the first round to the Houston Rockets, who had a losing record throughout the regular season? Unacceptable.
Disappointingly shallow, “The Second Coming” cleans up a chaotic offseason by ticking off all the boxes but failing to give any of the subplots the dramatic weight they deserved. This is a crucial time for the Lakers, as well as for Magic, Westhead, Riley, Norm Nixon, Jerries Buss, and Jerry West to figure out their own and collective destinies.
Sense of self is being damaged. People are getting stabbed in the back. A group that had conquered the peak with breathtaking ease the year before had been humiliatingly beaten. One of the show’s recurring issues is that we can watch an excellent ensemble portray all of these events on screen, but that doesn’t mean we can experience them.
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The program sometimes glosses over dramatic situations without giving them the full, sometimes Shakespearean, treatment they deserve. The episode succeeds, though, in raising the stakes on multiple fronts.
Magic overcame the obstacles he faced in his rookie season, which mostly consisted of playing alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and found success. A serious knee injury was out of his control, yet the squad had evolved without him and couldn’t function properly with him now.
Now that Norm is publicly challenging his abilities in the press, Magic is concerned about his standing as a leader, and Jerry Buss, his father figure and skirt-chasing co-conspirator, seems to be pulling away. The unexpectedly large contract extension Michael Cooper received has left him wondering about Buss’s devotion to him.
Two years into a regular five-year rookie agreement, will Buss give him the ring if he wants to stay with the Lakers forever? We all know that Buss will offer Magic his infamous 25-year, $25 million contract to keep him on the team. (The repercussions of that transaction will undoubtedly consume a substantial amount of airtime in subsequent seasons.)
However, Buss must deal with more than simply Magic. His front office is in disarray as well, with West and Westhead at odds over whether or not to trade for Washington Bullets power forward Mitch Kupchak, whom West describes as “a big, pasty Tonka truck, playing like a fucking hockey goon.”
The move may look like Westhead is trying to establish himself as the team’s alpha dog after what he perceives to be (maybe rightly) attempts by West and Riley to undermine his authority—after all, how well Kupchak would fare on a team known for its uptempo style is hardly the point.
Westhead is looking to show West and Riley who’s boss by imposing his own rules on the team. Despite his freewheeling social life and his inattention to the squabbles breaking out beneath his roof, one noteworthy thing about the Lakers during this time is Buss’s good feel for the overall health of his organization.
He appears to be more familiar with his Laker family than his own. We see him in his office interacting with the team’s top players, and he seems to have little trouble resolving tensions and deciding who among the Lakers should be traded or released.
Here, he recognizes that reassuring Magic is paramount, and he effectively bets the next decade of his franchise on a chastened, insecure sophomore star who just personally mismanaged the end of a terrible season. His timing has always been spot on.
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Winning Time also introduces Larry Bird, the player Magic would go on to face in numerous thrilling NBA Finals matchups and ultimately defeat in the NCAA tournament. Again, the show only provides a superficial outline of Bird’s backstory, this time in regards to his alcoholic, divorced father, Joe, who took his own life in 1975.
Bird’s reputation as a cutthroat competitor and trash-talker, in contrast to the Hoosiers myth of the humble country guy with the lovely touch from the corner, is one aspect of the film that is accurate.
Bird is at his classic best in the scenario where he shows up to an Indiana State practice wearing jeans and slices through the defense like a hot knife through butter. A 25-year deal for Magic Johnson to counter a filthy force of nature like Bird seems reasonable.
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