The Los Angeles Lakers: A Hilarious Debacle
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We’ve hit the halfway point of the NBA season, and the contenders are starting to take shape.
- The Spurs again have one of the best records in the West, proving once again that as long as he has Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker, then Greg Popovich is masterful at building a team with spare parts.
- The Boston Celtics are on a surprising run right now after all-star point guard Rajon Rondo was lost for the season, which has led into one of the better stories of the rapidly approaching trade deadline: Will Danny Ainge finally blow up the Celtics, or will they take one last run at glory? Personally, they’ve got to take one more shot. To trade Garnett right now would be a slap the front office’s face after they begged him to come back last offseason. Paul Pierce is rapidly approaching Russell-Bird territory in the Celtic history books.
- The Heat are top in the East; although, I do not think people expected LeBron to play as out-of-his-mind good as he is right now. Out of my respect for him as a player, he is must-watch.
- The Thunder are rolling even without James Harden The post-season will be their real test.
- The Lakers are on top in the Pacific division.
Hold on. They’re not?! Well, who’s in first?
Actually, that’s understandable. Even Kobe is giving them proper props.
Well, the Lakers must be a close second, right?
Golden State. Hmm. So, Stephen Curry managed to stay relatively healthy? Man, Golden State has to be playing out of this worl-THEY’RE BELOW .500!?
Yes, as the Florida Marlins and the Philadelphia Eagles before them, the Los Angeles Lakers are learning that just because the media crowns you as a “Super-Team” doesn’t mean you’ll play like one in the regular season. During the off-season, when the Lakers nabbed an unhappy Dwight Howard for 70 cents on the dollar and placed him into the same starting lineup as Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace, many (myself included) had penciled the Lakers into at least the Western Conference Finals.
Now we’re hastily erasing the Lakers from even making the postseason. How in the world did we get to this point?
There are always struggles when trying to bring a team together. That much was obvious in 2010 when the Miami Heat struggled for much of the regular season to find an identity. It would later cost them dearly in the 2010-2011 Finals, when they had appeared to have put it all together, but secretly they still weren’t sure whose team it was. Now, there’s no debate: it’s LeBron’s. Once it was established that everyone had a role and accepted it, the Heat played to the best of their abilities. They almost slipped up against the Pacers and nearly bowed out to the Celtics, but LeBron proved why he is the baddest man on the planet with a couple of legendary performances in games 6 and 7 to propel the Heat to the Finals and later to their first championship. It looks like the only thing that will stop the Heat from repeating in 2013 is a plane crash.
The Heat eventually worked because the front office and players recognized that it would take time for this new core to mesh and had the patience to let them come together as a team. Another Big 3, the Boston Celtics, came together and won a title for two reasons:
- Garnett, Pierce, and Allen were starving for a title.
- Doc Rivers was smart enough to preach the idea of “Ubuntu” that they are all together, that there is no reason to be afraid or stressed about anyone else because they are all in it together.
It worked, and three previous postseason failures relied on each other for a title. There is no patience or Ubuntu in Los Angeles. Things have been cutthroat since day one.
It started with the Lakers’ initial 2012-13 coach, Mike Brown. Brown had coached the Lakers to the Western Semi-Finals last season, but there were concerns about his ability to utilize the talent that the Lakers now possessed. The Lakers started off slow, going 2-4 in their first games and then abruptly firing Mike Brown. At the time, many thought that was the right move. Brown clearly was implementing the wrong offense; the Princeton offense was for the Ivy Leagues, not for a collection of future hall-of-famers.
Now, here’s when things get odd. There was a clear and easy choice for the next coach for the Los Angeles Lakers: a guy who had won 11 rings, a guy who ran an offense that was difficult to master but utilized all its players perfectly, a guy who had already dealt with a prima donna big man and an insanely competitive guard.
It was all so simple.: bring back Phil, the conquering hero, and begin the quest for ring eleven. Phil gets to beat Bill Russell and Kobe gets to tie Jordan. Storybook, open and close. But, when you bring in Phil Jackson as your coach, there’s a degree of power that gets deferred to him. There’s a level of success that’s attributed to Jackson and not much else. There’s a sincere possibility to be overshadowed by Jackson’s aura. Several NBA sources suggest that the reason the Lakers went with Mike D’Antoni over Phil Jackson is because current owner Jim Buss did not want to deal with the headache and attention Jackson would bring. The fact that he called Jackson in the middle of the night to tell him the Lakers would be going with D’Antoni gives some credence to that theory.
So, the Lakers go with Mike D’Antoni, offensive genius.
Well…maybe not “genius.” After what the Lakers have done this season, it’s seeming more and more likely that D’Antoni was a beneficiary of young Steve Nash just as much as guys like Shawn Marion and Raja Bell were. D’Antoni’s quick paced, energy-based offense is terrible for a lineup that boasts the oldest starting five in the league. A guy like Dwight Howard isn’t going to be able to hoist a shot in seven seconds or less. Hell, it takes him 10 seconds to get set up in the post. The Lakers needed to exploit the fact that they had one of the best big men in the game by having guards spread the floor for open shots, getting Gasol to drag his man out of the paint, and letting Howard go to work. D’Antoni’s refusal to adapt while making concerning choices – namely benching Gasol in favor of Earl “Career 3.2ppg, 2.1 boards” Clark – is a huge detriment to the team.
The coaching staff isn’t just to blame, though. There are plenty of accusations to go around to the guys on the hardwood, as well. Maybe it’s because of his injury, but Dwight Howard has not been playing at the same dominant level he was a few years ago. In 2009, it seemed like there would always be a MVP battle between Dwight Howard and LeBron James. No one else seemed close. These days, Kevin Durant is very clearly the number two. As for Dwight? He may have fallen out of the top 5, a fact that is not lost on his teammate, Kobe Bryant.
I thought that after Dwight experienced life in LA – beautiful city, successful and historic team fantastic teammates, and possibly championships – he would absolutely re-sign with the Lakers. It just so happens that Kobe and Dwight are on completely different wavelengths. Kobe sees this as one of his last chances at a sixth ring. As soon as Dwight came into town, it’s clear he was thinking “title or bust”. You can see that in the way he’s been playing this year; the fact that he was willing to start distributing the ball to help them win. When Kobe’s going for more assists than points, you know something is amiss.
Kobe feels the pressure; he can only go to Germany to fix his knees a finite number of times before they just give out on him. He’s been in the league since he was a high schooler, and you can’t just escape that type of mileage. He’s going to break down, and it will be soon. Dwight is coming off of a season he lost to injury and surgery. He wants to be on the court, but at the same time wants to protect himself, so he’s playing softly. Dwight does not want to spend another postseason rehabbing, especially when he has his pick of teams in the off-season.
Kobe’s realized this, and he’s pissed about it.
Kobe wants Dwight to be as competitive as the Black Mamba is, to WANT it as much as he does, but that’s not how Dwight’s wired, and you can see that in the way he’s playing. Howard is playing soft, almost lethargic. A shadow of the guy who dominated the eastern conference four years ago. Now it seems clear that Dwight Howard wants to be that goofy guy that wears a cape in the dunk contest, not the guy who puts up 30 and 15 in the finals like a former Orlando-to-LA superhuman transplant. Kobe has been trying to motivate Dwight, but it’s clearly not working. After Kobe bashed him in the media a few weeks ago, it’s difficult to imagine the two seeing eye-to-eye for the rest of the season, let along a three-to-five year contract extension. Even money says that Howard is gone at the end of the year, either to Dallas or to Brooklyn.
Where will that leave LA?
There actually is a precedent for this: in 2003 the Lakers had assembled another super team that consisted of four future hall of famers: Kobe, Shaq, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton. They steamrolled their way through the conference but were upset by the Detroit Pistons. The Lakers fell apart after that season; Shaq, Karl, Gary and head coach Phil Jackson all departed, leaving Kobe all alone. The next few years were painful to watch from a basketball perspective as Kobe gunned for as many points as he could while his also-ran teammates stood and looked on, stunned in awe. These years were full of mediocre Laker teams that experienced little post season success; they missed the playoffs in 2004 and were quick first round exits in 2005 and 2006.
Things got so bad that Kobe even requested a trade after 2006. Luckily, the Lakers were able to swing the Pau Gasol trade and bring the Lakers back to their winning ways. If this didn’t occur, we may have been living in a world where Kobe would start on the Clippers.
This time around, if the Lakers fail, Kobe doesn’t have the time to sit around and wait for that sixth ring. If they cannot make the playoffs and are unable re-sign Dwight, what will Kobe do? The Lakers won’t be able to compete with the Thunder in the West, and surely won’t be able to handle the Heat. Will Kobe go ring chasing and sign with another team? Will the Lakers trade him in an effort to rebuild? Or will he retire a few years from now after playing on some humdrum Laker teams, destined to sit one ring behind Jordan?
While the Lakers could make a comeback and make the postseason, I’m hoping that they continue their losing ways. The story is always more interesting when things go off-script.