George Mikan began his pro career with the Chicago American Gears of the National Basketball League, and from the outset he was unstoppable. The 6'10" center averaged 16.5 points as a rookie in 1946, carried Chicago to the championship and transformed basketball into a big man's game. But before Mikan's second season Gears owner Maurice White pulled the franchise to form a separate league. The new circuit collapsed after a month, and players were distributed back into the 11-team NBL. According to NBA.com, each had a 9% chance of landing Mikan. The Minneapolis Lakers were the lucky ones.
That was in 1947, but it started a pattern that continued almost unabated for more than 60 years. The Lakers were bold. They were shrewd. They were also immeasurably lucky. When Gail Goodrich left L.A. for New Orleans in 1976, the Lakers received as compensation the Jazz's first-round pick in '79, which happened to be the year New Orleans finished with the NBA's worst record, and which also happened to be the year Magic Johnson left Michigan State. The Lakers still had to win a coin flip for the No. 1 pick. Naturally it fell their way.
Three years later L.A. made a less heralded move, packaging Don Ford for the Cavaliers' first-rounder in 1982. Of course that turned out to be the year Cleveland had the worst record and the Lakers won another coin toss for the rights to James Worthy. The franchise was charmed. Every time it needed a center, some celebrated giant became available: Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol. Obviously Hollywood was a lure and owner Jerry Buss a visionary. It took scouting genius to target Kobe Bryant in the 1996 draft. It also took dumb luck for 12 clubs to pass on him and for the Hornets to trade him.
After winning 16 championships, including five in the past 15 years, the Lakers might now be the worst NBA team west of Philadelphia. They started this season 0--4 for the first time since their Minneapolis days, with by far the league's worst scoring margin (-68 points). Theories abound as to why: Bryant's alienating free agents with his coarse bedside manner, a front office adrift since Buss's death 20 months ago, a new CBA that punishes excessive spending. The Lakers have made three dubious coaching hires in a row, let two frontcourt pillars bolt for nothing and invested ludicrous sums in players pushing 40.
They've also had six decades of overwhelmingly good fortune fly back in their faces. In this age of narratives versus analytics, no one wants to hear about luck. But consider the deep freeze that has enveloped the Lakers in the past four years. The commissioner vetoed a trade for Chris Paul. Bryant tore his Achilles, then fractured his knee. Steve Nash broke his leg in his second game for L.A.—though he held up longer in purple and gold than rookie forward Julius Randle, drafted this year with the No. 7 pick. Randle broke his leg on opening night; he and Nash, who suffered a back injury during training camp, are already done for the year, and the Lakers, who lost a league-high 319 games to injury last season, are threatening the mark again. It's as though the Clipper Curse had been transferred down the street in lieu of Paul.
Unless you are a body-language expert, in which case Bryant will make a fascinating case study, there is no reason to watch the Lakers until lottery night. They sent their first-rounder to Phoenix for Nash, though they retain the choice if it's among the top five, a distinct possibility. The Lakers could be underdogs in every game through Thanksgiving. But the TV networks will keep beaming them down, a dark comedy featuring abominable defense and an inexplicable attachment to midrange jumpers.
The Lakers can't rebuild in peace, but they are doing what a lousy NBA team should: sinking to the bottom rather than retreating to the middle, resisting the temptation to offer second-tier free agents long-term contracts, keeping salary-cap space open. If they are tanking, it's in the most socially acceptable way, with Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer instead of D-Leaguers galore. The Lakers are waiting for their luck to turn. As they've learned, it will.
There are many reasons for the Lakers' decline. Chief among them: six decades of overwhelmingly good fortune are now flying back in their faces.
What's the luckiest franchise in sports?
Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SI_LeeJenkins
ANN JOHANSSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED