Only one team gets to win the NBA championship each year. Yet there are inevitably several teams that expected to win the title and many more who fell short of whatever benchmark they might have reached to call their seasons a success. For those teams, the offseason is about recriminations and change — fired coaches, disgruntled players, dramatic trades to refresh the lineup before trying again. Just this week in the NBA, discord within the Philadelphia 76ers after another disappointing postseason has led its superstar guard, James Harden, to call general manager Daryl Morey “a liar” at an Adidas media event in China and declare that he’ll never be a part of a Morey-led organization again. (The slight problem with that statement? Harden opted into a $35.6 million contract year with the Sixers for 2023-24, and a hoped-for trade elsewhere hasn’t materialized.)
The bigger the disappointment, the more seismic the recriminations. After winning the title in 1980, Magic’s first year in the league, the expectation was the Lakers would again be the favorites to repeat, with Magic and Kareem returning to anchor a team that was faster and more dynamic than any of its rivals. But titles are not just about great assemblages of talent. They’re also about the volatile X-factors of chemistry and luck, and both of those things worked against the Lakers in 1981. Magic was sidelined with a knee injury and did not look fully himself when he returned, and Paul Westhead lost both the respect of his players and the confidence of the front office, which watched him nix a David Thompson trade that would have surely given the team a boost. Had the Lakers lost a competitive Finals against a stacked Boston Celtics team, running it back would be an acceptable option. But to lose in the first round to a Houston Rockets team with a losing record on the season? Unacceptable.
“The Second Coming” sorts through a messy offseason with disappointing superficiality, hitting all the bullet points without any of the subplots having the dramatic impact it should. For Magic, Westhead, Riley, Norm Nixon, and Jerries Buss and West, this is pivotal few months for their careers and the future of the franchise, a time when their futures and the future of the Lakers franchise need to be sorted out. Egos are being bruised. Backs are being stabbed. A team that had reached the mountaintop with such astonishing, breathless ease the year before had been embarrassingly humbled. One of the ongoing problems with Winning Time is that we can see all of these developments happening — and watch an impeccably chosen cast perform them — but feeling them is another story. The show has a tendency to rush through critical moments without realizing their full, at times Shakespearean, dimension.
Still, the episode does well in setting the stakes on several fronts. The previous year, Magic had succeeded in adjusting to the challenges of his rookie campaign, which mostly involved co-existing with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Obviously, a major knee injury was beyond his control, but the dynamics of the team changed in his absence and couldn’t accommodate him when he returned. Now, Magic worries about his status as a leader when Norm is openly questioning his talents in the press, and Jerry Buss, his father-figure and skirt-chasing co-conspirator, seems to be keeping his distance. With Michael Cooper getting a fat contract extension that no one expected, he also wonders how deep Buss’s commitment to him might be. He’s only two years into the standard five-year rookie deal, but if he wants to be a Laker for life, will Buss put that ring on his finger?
We know the answer to that question will be “yes” and get to the notorious 25-year, $25 million deal that Buss will offer Magic to secure his services. (Surely, the fallout from that deal will take up plenty of real estate in future episodes.) But there’s more than just Magic for Buss to sort out. He also has massive dysfunction in the front office, with West and Westhead at loggerheads over a deal for the Lakers to make a trade to the Washington Bullets for Mitch Kupchak, a lumbering power forward that West likens to “a big, pasty Tonka truck, playing like a fucking hockey goon.” Kupchak’s fit on a team known for its uptempo style seems dubious, but the trade is more about Westhead asserting himself as the alpha dog, suppressing what he views, perhaps fairly, as attempts by West and Riley to undermine his authority. Westhead wants to put West and Riley in their place, and he wants to team to conform to his system.
One remarkable aspect of the Lakers during this period — and during his run as owner in general — is how strong a feel Buss has for the overall health of his organization, despite the distractions of his freewheeling social life and his inattention to the squabbles breaking out under his roof. He seems to know his Laker family better than his real one. We get scenes in his office with all the major players here and he’s able to adjudicate the conflicts within the Lakers quite well, identifying who should probably stay and who should go. Here, he realizes that Magic needs reassurance most of all and makes that a top priority, essentially staking the next decade of his franchise on a humbled, insecure sophomore star who just personally bungled the end of a disappointing season. His timing is impeccable.
Elsewhere, Winning Time sets up Magic’s chief on-court rival in Larry Bird, the man he’d bested in the NCAA championship and would face time and time again in epic NBA Finals battles. Again, the sketching of Bird’s story is thinner than it should be, especially in how the show deals with his divorced, hard-drinking father, Joe, who killed himself in 1975. One thing it does get right, though, is Bird’s reputation as a ruthless competitor and trash-talker, which runs counter to the Hoosiers myth of the humble country boy with the sweet touch from the corner. The scene where he turns up at an Indiana State practice in jeans and carves up the defense like a hot knife through butter is vintage Bird. To counter a filthy force of nature like Bird, a 25-year contract for Magic Johnson seems justifiable.
• Nobody can work an open robe and black briefs like John C. Reilly.
• Fun French Lick, Indiana fact via Wikipedia: It was once the bottling home of Pluto Water, one of the best-selling laxatives of the 20th century.
• Winning Time is extracting all the Los Angeles Strings drama it can manage, but credit to young Jeanie: Martina Navratilova was a pretty good get. The Strings would win the World TeamTennis League in 1981, besting the San Diego Friars, the Oakland Breakers, and the California Oranges.
“Honey” is a composite of multiple Jerry Buss girlfriends. It’s not clear yet why creating this character was worth the bother other than to paint Buss as more than a bed-hopping bachelor.
• We’ll see how Mitch Kupchak fits in with the Lakers, but he would become much better known for his front-office career. He’s currently the GM and president of basketball operations for the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets may be among the worst franchises in the game, but hey, a job’s a job.
• That’s Jim Chones screaming at Paul Westhead’s office door after he gets traded to the Bullets for Kupchak. Chones would also have a nice future in retirement. He’s a radio analyst for the Cleveland Cavaliers.