The Lakers, led by a legendary guard, start the season 0-2. A new coach takes over, replacing a legend who won multiple titles but went out in embarrassing fashion in the second round of the playoffs. That legendary guard isn't what he once was, but is still one of the best in the game. The second-best player is probably a bit past his prime but still effective, though he, too, is coming off a disappointing playoff performance. A beloved bench player left town. The new coach preaches a different style, a new offensive system that replaces one that was so well-known - and so dominant - it went by a single word.
That's the 2011-12 Lakers. But it was also the 1991 Lakers. Chances are this season doesn't end like that one, but Lakers fans can at least hope it does, by looking back on how that 1991 season began.
Magic Johnson was the legendary guard, not Kobe Bryant. Mike Dunleavy was the new coach, not Mike Brown. Pat Riley was the legendary coach, not Phil Jackson, and the Lakers lost 4-1 to Phoenix, instead of being swept by Dallas. James Worthy was the second-best player, not Pau Gasol. The beloved bench player who left was Michael Cooper, not Lamar Odom. And Mike Brown has replaced the Triangle, in the same way Dunleavy - and the Lakers' older legs - spelled the end of Showtime.
Like this season, the Lakers started the 1991 campaign on national television, losing 110-99 to San Antonio in a game that's only memorable because it was the first regular season game broadcast on NBC, which had replaced CBS. Hello, John Tesh. The Lakers lost to Portland in overtime in their second game and after a victory, dropped two more to fall to 1-4, inciting panic throughout LA. The Lakers were done. Magic was too old, Dunleavy too dumb, Worthy too horny (he was arrested in Houston early in the year for soliciting a prostitute). The Lakers had picked up Sam Perkins and Terry Teagle in the offseason, but these weren't the '80s Lakers. Portland, which won the West in 1990, becoming the first team other than the Lakers or Houston to win the conference since 1979, was the overwhelming favorite.
But on their way to the graveyard - where they could join other '80s relics like the 76ers, the Rockets and the Celtics - the Lakers turned their season around. They won eight in a row, then, later in the season, ripped off a 16-game winning streak.
The Lakers adapted, making things nice and easy for headline writers who must have scribbled a "From Showtime to Slowtime" line at some point during the season. They could still run on occasion - even today, at 52, Magic could probably lead a break as well as anyone and he certainly could in 1991. But Worthy and Scott had slowed down and Cooper was gone. Instead the Lakers relied on a devastating post-up game. Magic and Worthy could dominate in the paint. Vlade Divac was in his second year and had developed a nifty game, when Magic wasn't yelling at him. And Perkins showed off a back-to-the-basket arsenal few knew he possessed. Four players who could post up at anytime, an advantage that was unmatched in the league. Was it as fun to watch as the 1987 Lakers? Hardly. But it was still highly effective.
Not effective? New addition Terry Teagle. This seems weird to say 20 years later, but I was quite excited when the Lakers signed Teagle before the 1991 season. Teagle. He came with a reputation as a streak scorer, someone who would provide instant offense off the bench. Instead he never found his role, his awkward-looking baseline jumper clanked out more than it fell and not even Magic could turn him into the sixth man they needed.
Still, the Lakers won 58 games and swept Houston in the opening round. The second round featured an entertaining matchup against Golden State, led by Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. The Warriors - who played defense then the same way they play it now - stunned the Lakers in the second game and barely lost Game 3. They eventually fell in five but not before Lakers fans had flashbacks to previous playoff flameouts against Phoenix and Houston.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers faced heavily favored Portland. But after stealing the first game and winning Games 3 and 4 with ease in LA, the Lakers held the advantage. Game 6, when LA eliminated Portland, featured Magic's famous clock-killing pass to no one in the final seconds.
The Finals were a dream matchup that year, with everyone finally getting to see Magic vs. Michael, a series people waited years to witness, in the same way everyone's waited for Kobe to face LeBron. Unfortunately, one player - Jordan - was in his athletic prime while the other wasn't quite as dominant as he had been. Again the Lakers stole Game 1, winning it on a Sam Perkins 3-pointer and a Jordan miss at the buzzer - yes, Michael Jordan did not hit every game-winning shot he attempted, no matter what the kids might have heard. The series turned in Game 3, when the Lakers squandered a double-digit advantage in the second half and Jordan drilled a difficult game-tying shot over Vlade in regulation, before sealing the deal in overtime. Two games later, Jordan had his first title. Five months later, Magic retired. It was another decade before the Lakers won another title.
But back to those Finals. I still believe the Lakers would have had a great chance at victory if they'd won Game 3 and taken a 2-1 lead. More importantly, they could have won if James Worthy had not been hobbled by a devastating ankle sprain, which he suffered in Game 5 of the Portland series. The injury robbed Worthy of all his quickness, he was unable to take advantage of Scottie Pippen down low, who famously switched to guarding Magic later in the series. Alas.
The series ended with Worthy and an injured Byron Scott sitting out Game 5. Seven Lakers played that game: Magic, Perkins, Vlade, Teagle, Tony Smith and rookie Elden Campbell. Blech. Yet the Lakers led late. And Magic still managed to dish out a remarkable 20 assists. Twenty assists, while passing to those teammates. For those who sometimes say Magic was made much better by playing with Kareem, Worthy and so many other great players, Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals should be offered up as proof that Magic could rack up assists playing next to anyone. The difference, of course, was on the scoreboard.
So now, 21 years later, can the Lakers repeat that performance and pull out one more magical run behind an aging legendary guard? Who knows. In the shorter season, there's less room for error. With Kobe Bryant's injuries racking up on a nightly basis, he's not as dominant as Magic was in 1991. Gasol seems to have lost something - a step or his fire - in a way Worthy had not in 1991. But at 0-2 it's far too soon to bury the Lakers, even if that sounds like someone whose head is buried in the sand. The West isn't what it was a few years ago, when 50-win teams only had the 8 seed. Dallas is in disarray, the Spurs are another year into their fossilization and who knows if Memphis can repeat what it did in 2011. Oklahoma City's the clear favorite, just like Portland was in 1991. The Clippers look like a force (okay, so that is something that's different from '91). If the Lakers can stay relatively healthy and get homecourt at least in the first round of the playoffs, they could do some damage.
And then maybe they'll face the Heat in the Finals, who will take on the role of the Bulls. They'd be younger and hungrier than the old warriors from LA. They'd probably win it in five or six games. LeBron - in his prime, while Kobe is not - would get his first title, just like Jordan won his. It wouldn't be the worst ending for the Lakers.
But first they have to win at least one game in the regular season.
A bunch of vids from 1991, including from the invaluable YouTube user non-player zealot. Search 1991 on his page for a bunch more.