It’s been nearly three days since the Lakers’ season ended. As the smoke clears from that final loss, it’s now becoming easier to see what went wrong in a season where expectations for more were so prevalent. Looking only at the loss to the Mavericks only does us so much good. They may have delivered the final death blow, but the autopsy shows us many other contributing factors to the Lakers’ demise.
So, we look back at a season gone wrong, trying to pinpoint what exactly happened. Below are my 4 biggest factors in the Lakers failure to remain on top.
1). The Lakers template for winning became inverted…again. In 2008 the Lakers rode a dominant offense and an above average defense to a Finals appearance, ultimately losing to the Celtics. In 2009 and 2010, the Lakers inverted their philosophy to becoming a much better defensive team with their offense slightly regressing. In those two seasons they ranked in the top 5 of defensive efficiency for most of the year and rode their ability to get stops to back to back championships. Game 7’s slugfest against Boston will always be cited as a game in which the Lakers’ offense was awful (save for their ability to grab their own misses) but what is consistently overlooked is how the C’s offense was just as bad. The Lakers got the key stops that night. This year, that template inverted another time. Besides their fantastic push after the all star break where they saw their defensive efficiency jump from 10th to 6th in a month long push, the Lakers played only above average defense while their offense (ranked in the top 5 for nearly the entire season) carried them to wins. Whether this shift was a point of emphasis amongst the coaches and players or not is irrelevant. What matters is that the Lakers only temporarily found their stride on defense and that only occurred after a “shift” in scheme. Sadly, that shift didn’t hold up through the playoffs and the Lakers found themselves scrambling on that side of the ball to the point that the Mavs set an all time record in made three pointers in the last basketball this team played.
2). Call it fatigue, lack of hunger, complacency, inconsistent focus or any other adjective you’d like but the Lakers simply couldn’t summon their best ball consistently enough. After coming off an epic game 7 the previous season, maybe the 82 game campaign didn’t inspire the same type of devotion. Maybe after playing 300 games over the previous three seasons finally caught up to the core of this team. However it’s explained, looking back at this year it’s now clear that this team had an inability to consistently meet the challenge of their foes. Phil Jackson described it as enduring nightly assaults year after year and I think that aptly describes the process of trying to repeat as champion. While throughout the year they put together enough wins to quiet the critics and convince their believers that they’d put together another run like the year previous, that proved to be untrue. This team simply didn’t have enough in the tank, mentally or physically, to endure another 20-something game second season. It finally all caught up to them.
3). The wrong injuries at the wrong times truly hurt this team. Andrew Bynum missed 24 games to start the regular season after recovering from his knee summer knee surgery. That, in and of itself, isn’t as big a deal as the Lakers have had to deal with missing Bynum in the past. However, when combined with Theo Ratliff (signed in the off-season to be the 4th big man) also going down with a knee injury the Lakers suddenly found themselves without adequate big man depth. This ended up pushing Pau Gasol into unsustainable minute allocations and leading to him getting worn down. His December and January swoon came after a November that saw him average 40 minute a game, including 7 of the 15 contests where he played 44 minutes or more. And while Pau bounced back to more normal level of production, he never truly regained the form that saw him mentioned among MVP candidates early in the season.
Kobe’s knee and ankle issues also plagued him nearly the entire year. At the start of the season, he was bombarded by questions about the status of his surgically repaired knee as keen observers could tell that it was hampering him – especially on defense. As his knee strengthened it became less of an issue accept in the fact that he and Phil put together a plan that kept him out of most practices in order to keep the wear and tear down over the course of a long season. Knowing how much practice time means to Kobe and Phil in their philosophies related to building chemistry and reinforcing good habits, this lack of shared court time surely contributed to the results this year. When you add in Kobe’s horrific ankle injury – one that I still can’t believe he was able to play through – and Barnes’ knee injury that cost him 28 games and his explosiveness on both sides of the ball when he did return, you have a mix of minor injuries that just piled up for this team. Obviously you build depth to overcome these things (as the Lakers did with Odom, Artest, and Shannon Brown all filling for their mates to help compensate) but in the end, the effect the injuries had were real.
4). The lack of dependable outside shooting finally did this team in. In the ’09 and ’10 championship seasons and coming into this season, the Lakers lack of shooting was thought to be a major issue with this team. In the years that the Lakers did bring home the title, enough players stepped up their shooting to the point that it became a strength of the team. Be it Ariza and Odom in ’09 or Fisher and Artest last year, the Lakers hit enough shots to win. This year, however, that didn’t happen. At least not for sustained periods. Sure, at the beginning of the season Shannon Brown, Steve Blake, and Lamar Odom hit their 3 point shots at an amazing rate. But while Odom kept his shooting up above his career norm for the entire season, everyone else regressed. Brown’s ability to hit the open shot deteriorated to the point that you could visibly see his second guessing when open jumpers became available. Steve Blake’s aggression never caught up to his ability to actually hit the shot and then a slump took over him as well. Fisher, normally old reliable, hit a respectable 39.6% of his threes on the year but went cold in the post-season. And Kobe shot a very poor 32% from deep but did so on over 4 attempts per game. As the Lakers tossed up misses, their big men felt the pressure of having to convert shots inside with perimeter defenders sitting in their laps. By the time the Dallas series ended, you’d often see 5 Maverick defenders within a step of the paint, ready to double team big men and close off angles for offensive rebounds. Without the shooting to loosen up the D, both in the playoffs and in the regular season, the Lakers became overly reliant on mid-range jumpers and post players that became worn down as the year progressed. That’s not a winning formula.
In the end, I’m sure many will come up with other reasons for the Lakers demise. Maybe for you it was the off-season signings or the inability to run the Triangle; the lack of athleticism or an over reliance of Kobe to be the only wing player that could create his own shot. I’m sure all of those played a part – big and small – in what we saw this season. But I still believe that the Lakers had a team capable of winning but didn’t due to the reasons above. Every season has its ups and downs and its obstacles to winning. It just so happens that the Lakers couldn’t overcome them this year.