Records: Lakers 8-9 (9th in the West), Rockets 8-8 (7th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.1 (5th in the NBA), Rockets 104.1 (t-7th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 99.4 (8th in the NBA), Rockets 103.4 (21st in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Chris Duhon, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Dwight Howard
Rockets: Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, Omer Asik
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Steve Nash (out), Steve Blake (out); Rockets: Cole Aldrich (questionable)
In fairness to these Lakers, the 2012-13 season has presented a stream of tumult maddening not only in its persistence but also its diversity.
Spend the summer building a quad-HoF juggernaut around an (exhaustingly discussed) offense that risks marginalizing your new all-universe playmaker, watch it do so for precisely one full game before losing said playmaker to a broken leg (and his primary backup to an abdominal injury), while the squad actually thrives offensively but can’t keep the opponent off the scoreboard (or the win column) to the extent that your defensive guru coach is shown the door. Dogmatically pursue the coach with whom you dominated the previous decade before employing one of the great play-fakes in modern HR history and opting for the himself hobbled professional soul mate of your banged up point guard, and win four of five to return to break-even while awaiting his arrival.
The summer’s top get, the generational big man expected to author a new chapter in the franchise’s already glorious tome, months after undergoing major (I don’t believe there’s any other kind) back surgery, has, in mere weeks, allayed any lingering concerns about his ability to regain his characteristic dominance. The bench has (as it is wont to do) frustrated, though recent flashes of competence (no longer, mind you, from last spring’s surprise find, the backup center who’s now been buried on an NBA bench twice by the same coach) are certainly fodder for optimism.
The team’s since found firm-enough footing to rank in the league’s top third in efficiency at both ends of the floor, with Kobe Bean not only continuing to dominate on a nightly basis, but doing so in as efficient and mature a manner as we’ve ever seen.
And yet, the Lakers continue to drop more games than they win.
Now? Big boy pants.
Seriously, it’s never nothing with this crew.
To paraphrase ex-NFL coach/exec Bill Parcells, at some point, you simply are what your record says you are. Set aside payroll, prestige, raw talent and past achievement. 8-9 is 8-9. Yes, there have been injuries and upheaval, and yes, continuity cannot be achieved overnight, but – if I may once again channel my inner Tuna – don’t tell about the labor pains, show me the baby. The Lakers have certainly encountered some bumps in the road, and there can be little doubt that this team’s best is yet to come. It’s worth noting, however, that no team featuring peak-Kobe and well-on-his-way Dwight Howard – two players whose mere presence all but ensures 50 wins and the playoffs – never mind one that’s played 12 of the its first 17 games at home (not counting a “road” game against the Clippers), ought to be struggling (and, at present, failing) to keep its head above water more than 20% of the way through a season.
This is certainly not meant to suggest that the Lakers will be spectators come playoff time, but to continue to shoehorn this team – this turnover-plagued atrocity at the free throw line, yet again (for now) lacking at the point – into the ranks of the NBA’s contender is to invite more disappointment into a season that’s been defined by just that.
Tonight, in the absence of Pau Gasol (knee tendinitis), the Lakers travel to Houston, to square off against the team to which they last December actually traded their embattled scapegoat extraordinaire.
I have never shared the unflattering view of Gasol that – almost from the moment he was acquired, and in spite of his vital role in three conference titles and two banners – permeates Laker Nation. The unshakable “soft” label that has adhered itself to him (even after 19 and 18 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the team that had tormented him two years earlier) is nothing short of absurd. That he, one of the most gifted big men in NBA history, has maintained his grace and professionalism despite constantly demeaned as such by his own fans (never mind violently threatened on a regular basis by a disgusting but high-decibel minority), incessantly involved in trade speculation and actually traded a year ago is as impressive as anything he’s managed on the floor.
That said, at this moment, Pau is frankly not a good NBA player. That he’s struggling to define a niche for himself in a new system is well documented, as is the discomfort in his knees that will keep out of action tonight. What’s bothersome, however (as we discussed on the Silver Screen and Roll podcast, recorded prior to Sunday night’s game), is the extremity of his passiveness and failure to execute certain basic, system-neutral basketball plays (like wide open 18-foot jump shots and basic pick-and-roll defense) that have twice led to his watching the final moments of a Laker defeat from the bench.
That said, however, in this, the first of seven road contests in their next eight outings, Gasol’s absence will be absolutely glaring. Much of the attention focused on these Rockets tends to be directed at the high-profile backcourt of Jeremy Lin (11.6 points on 51% FG, 4.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2 steals per game in his last five) and noted Laker antagonist James Harden (24, 6.8 assists, 2.4 steals and 46.4% from 3-point range during the same span), but the front court is where the Rockets have done the bulk of their damage en route victories in four of their last five. The onus tonight will fall squarely on the shoulders of Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison, as their counterparts, Chandler Parsons (21.5 points, 7 rebounds and 57.9% from 3 in Houston’s last four wins) and Patrick Patterson (20 and 6 over his last five, 20+ points four times and 54% from the field) will command their full attention, as offseason steal Omer Asik (15.5 and 14 in his last five, and 25-of-38 from the field) will likely keep Howard occupied and unable to offer as much help as the Lakers might prefer.
Tuesday night’s outing in Houston offers up comprehensive challenge for the Lakers: win a road game (they’ve lost four of five this season), even more short-handed (say what you will about Pau…), despite starting one of the NBA’s most defensively challenged forwards against a hot-handed frontcourt. Because these Lakers are these Lakers, it wouldn’t be at all shocking to see them return to .500 tonight. To do so, however, it will take a massive effort from the front line (both defensively and on the boards), Kobe doin’ more work and, in all likelihood, a trip out of Mike D’Antoni’s doghouse for Jordan Hill.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.