Where Are We Now? A Lakers State of the Union

Dave Murphy —  January 26, 2013

With the nation’s annual State of the Union address approaching, as well as the midpoint to the NBA season, we thought we’d take a moment to reflect. The subject at hand of course, the Los Angeles Lakers and their state of being. This certainly isn’t the team’s finest hour but it is what it is – a few of us offered observations within a basic context of past, present and future. It’s not surprising that there’s a commonality of disappointment and sharp criticism at play in the following capsules. There is also pragmatism, thoughtful analysis and possible ways out of a morass that nobody would have predicted during a summer that now seems long ago. Settle in for some good reading and commentary from J.M. Poulard, Emile Avanessian, Zephid (Jeff King) and Rey Moralde:

J.M. POULARD

Where Lakers Have Been

Forget Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain; or Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal, these new Lakers would be by far the best collection of individual talent on one team in franchise history.

But that wasn’t to be.

Steve Nash fractured his leg and thus missed a huge chunk of the season and consequently the Lakers had to manage without their superstar point guard steering the offense.

Things looked promising despite a few early setbacks because Kobe Bryant was shooting the heck out of the basketball and looked 28 again on some nights.

Dwight Howard was a little different; check that, plenty different because his back injury that sidelined him the previous season affected his mobility.

And well, Mike Brown got fired.

In came Mike D’Antoni, and out of the post went Pau Gasol.

Things looked bad for a stretch, but everything would be fine once again as soon as Steve Nash would rejoin the team.

Nash came back and the Lakers defeated the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena and everything in Laker Land was fine…

Until the team started losing again. Thus bringing us to…

Where Lakers Are Now

Lost.

It’s the one word that perfectly characterizes what’s happening with the team at present time.

The offense is statistically good, but we expected it to be miles ahead of everybody else’s and because it hasn’t been, that’s been somewhat of a disappointment.

The defense has been awful. The communication has been non-existent and the rotations just aren’t there. The trust on this side of the ball just seems broken more often than not.

Consequently, every player is operating in ways that they think serve the team best, but no one is quite sure.

Nash is turning down shots to get others involved but is actually hurting the team in doing so at times, while Pau is camped out on the perimeter doing his best to emulate Dirk Nowitzki.

Kobe is Kobe while Dwight is not quite himself but certainly acting as such. This leads us to…

Where the Lakers are Headed

There’s no obvious answer here:

·         Staples Center?

·         Trades?

·         Phil Jackson?

·         NBA Finals?

·         Western Conference Finals?

·         Western Conference Semifinals?

·         First round?

·         10th seed in the Western Conference?

All of those answers come in play. The Lakers could figure things out and go 30-10 the rest of the way by virtue of the performance of their stars, make the playoffs, catch the right matchup and make some noise in the postseason, or simply go 16-24 as their winning percentage (.405) suggests and then the front office might just throw a stick of dynamite at the coaching staff and the scouts and blow it all up on that front.

No team in the NBA has a higher ceiling or lower floor level than the Lakers right now. And really, that’s what makes them the Lakers.

Always keeping you on the edge of your seat.

EMILE AVANESSIAN

Where We’ve Been

The top of the mountain.

With the exception of the New York Yankees, no team in the annals of American sport has so consistently taken up residence at the pinnacle of its respective game. You’re likely acquainted with the numbers: 59 playoff appearances in 65 seasons of existence, including 34 in the past 36 years, and appearances in 31 of 64 championship series since inception – 16 of the last 32, with 16 victories. On another 11 occasions they’ve stumbled at the postseason’s penultimate hurdle. And consistent within that staggering consistency has been generational greatness.

From Mikan, to Baylor, West, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq and Kobe, not a chapter of NBA history can be written that does not prominently feature the Lakers’ talisman of the day. This summer, the 2012-13 season seemed destined to be the opening stanza of yet another glorious entry in the Lakers tome. Following a pair of substandard (by Laker standards) campaigns in which they’d failed to advance past the postseason’s second round, the new-look Lakers – a new Buss at the helm, Phil Jackson on a ranch (again), Magic no longer officially in the fold – as they are wont to do, pulled off a retooling for the ages, filling a long-running void at the point with the greatest playmaker-shooter in NBA history and not only upgrading an already strong center spot, but putting in place a cornerstone that would make seamless the transition from this dynasty to the next. That was the plan…

In roughly three months (how has it only been three months?) since the season’s inauspicious come-from-ahead loss to the Mavericks, Steve Nash broke his leg, Mike Brown got the boot, the salad days of Bernie Bickerstaff came and went, Phil Jackson was wasn’t was wasn’t brought back to anchor a minefield roster seemingly created to test his mastery of Zen, in favor of Nash’s Phoenix co-mastermind…

Ok, you know what? I’m tired. I am tired of doing this, rehashing the laundry list of missteps, shortcomings and indignities for which this season will – in all likelihood – ultimately be remembered.

Other than Kobe Bryant playing extremely well (at times, even by his own standards) and Earl Clark showing himself worthy of a place in an NBA rotation (yep, we’re there), literally nothing has gone right this season.

At the time of Mike Brown’s ouster, I, like most, believed that in a vacuum, Phil was the best candidate to assume the top spot on the bench. However, I also understood the Busses refusal to be held over a barrel by a smug now-in-law-to-be that they cannot stand. I will also admit, however, that the hiring of Mike D’Antoni to coach Nash-run team with the preapproval of Kobe Bryant did not trouble me one iota. Granted, the expectation of smooth sailing was buoyed by the assumptions that Dwight Hoard would have regained more of his trademark dominance by this point, and that a healed Steve Nash would be back to being Nash, pulling solid, sometime spectacular play out of otherwise middling guys, while burying 40% of his numerous 3-point attempts per game, and that D’Antoni’s first order of business would not be a scorched earth campaign against Pau Gasol’s psyche.

It felt safe to assume that the Lakers under MDA would be just fine.

Where We’re At

Old as sh*t and completely adrift.

As much as any team in recent NBA history, the 2012-13 Lakers are a monument to instant gratification. Sure, the talk of eras to come and Dwight’s expectant place in the pantheon of legendary Laker big men put a forward-looking spin on the situation, but no team that trots out a pair of starting guards that have each been playing professionally nearly as long as Kyrie Irving has been alive – one that severed its final remaining ties to the first round of the draft for the foreseeable future to do so – is not overly concerned with the long term.

And now halfway though (seriously, how is this thing only halfway over??) what was to be if not a coronation then a slow, tantric build to title contention, has spiraled out of control. On the floor, the offense, though statistically effective, is disjointed and inconsistent. Turnovers continue to be a bugaboo, both when the Lakers have the ball, as only 10 teams are giving the ball away more frequently, as well as on the defensive end, where only the Orlando Magic have proven more inept at taking the ball away from the opposition. There is no communication on defense, nor, on most nights, is there a good faith effort. Keeper of the effort flame, Jordan Hill, is lost for the season, and Steve Blake might as well be.

Meanwhile, off the floor, the not-so-good ship Laker is taking water at an alarming rate. Closed-door meetings have barely concluded before they are in the press. The Lakers are contemplating flipping Dwight. No, they’re not. But are they really not? Dwight hates D’Antoni. If not for the fiasco of two months prior, D’Antoni would likely not last the season. To placate Dwight, he might not make it to the summer. Dwight might hate Kobe. Kobe asks Dwight if Dwight hates Kobe – Dwight gets the sads.

Midway through a season for which #4 or 5 seed that “no one wanted to see in the postseason” seemed a worst-case scenario, the playoffs are becoming a pipe dream.

On the bright side, I hear that whole tanking thing has worked out well for some teams. We could try that…

Where We’re Headed

In times of crisis, fixation on a single tree often diverts attention from the forest. Other times, so transfixed are we on said forest that the loss of a tree here or there is overlooked. Whatever your perspective, right now, it’s all burning.

Outside of the occasional kneejerk outburst, I tend not to be alarmist about the Lakers struggles. Too many times history has taught me that to trust those at the helm, and that there is, in fact, a plan in place.

The problem is, this thing working out was the plan.

In this bleakest of times, I will, as I always have, trust the guys upstairs to unearth a trump card. I must, however, wonder aloud, what exactly that card will look like. There are no draft choices for which to tank. The Phoenix-bound unprotected first-rounder – over the summer a lock to ensure no better than a mid-20s pick – accumulates ping-pong balls by the game. Hell, should they so choose, Dallas has the right to swap second-rounders with the Lakers. There’s always assessing the young guys for next year. Well, with Hill on the shelf, Earl Clark stands alone among those to be assessed. Maybe some of the NBA’s underexposed, ascendant commodities can be convinced to part ways with cap relief or picks in exchange for some of the Lakers’ 15 remaining national television appearances…

And then there’s the question of Dwight Howard. Wishy-washy on his best day, and with a right to blow town on July 1 should he so choose, the Lakers are likely in store for an Orlando-esque Dwightmare of their own, one whose happiest ending will involve a healthy D-12 sticking around, though probably only after the appointment of a third full-time head coach (fourth overall, counting Bernie) in under a year, with the best candidate for the job still waiting for the stitches in back from his last run-in with Dwight to heal – and the second choice his brother.

On the bright side, we’re probably in store for some vintage 2006 Kobe the rest of the way, right?

ZEPHID

Where the Lakers Have Been

To fully answer this question, recent historical context is necessary.  Where have they been?  Winning championships.  2009 and 2010 are still very much fresh in the minds of Lakers fans, many wanting to recapture the magic of those seasons and somehow transfer it to the here and now.  It is why there was so much fervor to bring back Phil Jackson.  It is why many lament the loss of Lamar Odom.  It is why Pau Gasol is viewed with such vitriol, unable to reproduce the skills and energy he had in those seasons.  It is why so many lament the Lakers lack of depth, energy, and youth, crying for names such as Trevor Ariza, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Shannon Brown, etc.  And there are even some who decry the sabotage of the Chris Paul trade, seeing his success on the Clippers and claiming that his success should be for the Lakers.

Where the Lakers Are Now

But as it always is, the past is colored by rose lenses.  Could Phil have brought out the potential of this team of all-stars and cast-offs?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  Frustrations with D’Antoni stem from so many things: an unwillingness to alter his system, an inattentiveness to defense, constantly altering rotations, lacking the gusto to lead a team of strong personalities.  Many of these could be said of Phil, many are the opposite of what was said about Phil.  Phil was also unwilling to bend his system, albeit his was the result of 9 NBA championships.  Phil’s teams weren’t necessarily known for their defense, but generally played well on that end.  Phil refused to alter his rotations on a whim, sticking with guys long after fans would have abandoned them.

The magic of players like Odom and 2009 Gasol is alluring to so many, but these players are simply not as they were those few years ago.  Odom is now a shell of himself, with absolutely no outside shot, and even though many see similarities between he and Earl Clark, Odom’s unique skill set will almost certainly never be reproduced on this current incarnation of the Lakers.  Even more frustrating is those who have seen the greatness of Pau Gasol first hand, and are now stuck with this poor imitation we see now.  The truth is that Gasol is now several years older, with several years of 40+ mpg season and several years of international competition.  His lateral movement has eroded to the point where anyone who would call him a power forward would be absolutely ridiculed.

And the vaunted Lakers depth of 2009 and 2010?  How many years did we spend claiming the bench mob was useless, giving up huge leads and forcing the starters to play huge minutes?  We soon forget how awful Farmar, Vujacic, Brown, and even Ariza could be at times.

But mostly, we the fans remember the winning.  And we miss it dearly.  Kobe is still Kobe, doing Kobe things, but Dwight Howard and Steve Nash have not been the saviors they were heralded to be, not the knights riding to carry the Lakers back to the heights we so desire them to achieve.

Where the Lakers Are Headed

To some quantum state that we cannot even begin to predict until it has already happened.  Could this team be blown up and split apart for youth and draft picks?  Absolutely.  If management fears Dwight will leave in free agency, they would be remiss not to try and get something for him.  If Dwight does re-sign, his massive contract along with Pau Gasol’s $19M will be on the books for next year, totaling a whopping $185M in salary commitments for next year.  Remove Gasol and his contract, and that payment goes down to $116M.  Nash also isn’t getting any younger, and if his abilities to control the offense continue to not offset his defensive woes, it would be wise to trade the remaining years of his contract elsewhere.

Could this team turn it around and be the most feared 8th seed in the history of the NBA?  Absolutely.  Maybe Dwight miraculously heals and gets back to being the dominant athletic freak we all thought he would be.  Maybe Nash turns on the offensive savant switch, slicing and dicing defenses in a way that we do not see now.  Maybe Kobe starts to actually give a shit about off-ball defense, and begins to seek the ball in better positions instead of just asking for it in better positions.  Maybe Gasol accepts his role off the bench, and somehow regains enough lateral movement to make our 4 All-Star lineup work.  Maybe our supporting players come together, using the talents of Jodie Meeks, Earl Clark, Metta World Peace, and Antawn Jamison to their fullest extent.  Maybe the Lakers begin to trust, depend, and work for one another on defense, being the swarming inside-outside defense we know they can be.

Maybe everything that has gone wrong so far this season will go right.

REY MORALDE

Where The Lakers Have Been

Good? Excellent? Championship Material? That seems long gone now, doesn’t it? 2009 and 2010 were good times. Heck, even 2008 was looked at as good times as people fondly remember that team because that’s when the Lakers came back to life. So revisionist history makes fans pine for the days of Jordan Farmar. Sasha Vujacic. Trevor Ariza. Lamar Odom. The good Pau Gasol. The Lakers and its fans are spoiled; we expect nothing but success for this squad.

Where The Lakers Are Now

Which is why this losing has been so hard to take. Maybe Farmar could help. Maybe Vujacic could, too. But the problem is that the Lakers did put together a team that we mostly wanted, it’s just that the pieces did not fit together as we envisioned. I was a staunch defender of the Mike D’Antoni hire, too, and I thought that would’ve fit but I didn’t think he’d be one stubborn son of a female animal. They did have one good game against Utah but the Lakers are in a quagmire. All they can really do is work through this (and we’ve seen flashes of BRILLIANCE with this team) because I don’t believe a trade can fix this team unless they get a transcendent player in Kevin Durant or LeBron James. While it’s not out of the possible realm to get these guys in the future, they’re certainly not going to get them this season.

Where The Lakers Are Headed

I am not the best prognosticator. After all, I thought they would go to the NBA Finals with this squad. Of course, many thought so, too. Nevertheless, who really knows where they’re headed? Are they going to stick with this team? Are they going to trade somebody? Are they going to go deeper into the abyss? Are they going to make a run for the postseason and suddenly catch fire there? Will Kobe Bryant piledrive Dwight Howard next week? Will Pau Gasol cry in the middle of the court? Will Earl Clark suddenly find more mythical powers and become a 30-10-10 guy? This is what makes the Lakers who they are: full of intrigue and full of drama. Whether we like it or not, we’re going to tune in to the next episode.

DAVE MURPHY

Where We Were

We were at or near an elite level for a long time. There has been much talk around the league about the Lakers’ coaching woes and it’s important to understand that the Phil Jackson years were unique. I am sometimes puzzled by those who preach advanced metrics on the one hand and so easily dismiss 11 NBA championships in 22 seasons. If Jackson had been hired instead of D’Antoni there would have been no guarantee whatsoever that he would have won his 12th coaching ring. There is certainly a guarantee however, that if he had, it would have been easily explained away – he had the talent and was simply along for the ride. That particular journey never happened but the talent’s still here, spiraling into an abyss that nobody but a fringe conspiracy theorist would have considered.

Where Are We Now

After a sublimely disastrous road trip the Lakers returned to Staples center last night and demolished the Utah Jazz, a very solid team. It’s not surprising at all – this year’s model has made a habit of tossing us tantalizing glimpses of greatness when we least expect it. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be in town tomorrow and Sunday matinees have never been the Lakers’ strength. The immediate path ahead will be challenging to say the least – the Pelicans visit on the heels of the Thunder and the Lakers then head back out on the road for the seven-game Grammy trip. Forget all the previous ‘season starts now’ mantras – this is the moment you know, you know, you know.

Where We’re Headed

The current roster for better or worse is an anomaly – a star-studded roll of the dice that is here for the short term. The rebuild years lie ahead because you simply can’t continue to cheat time. Plus there’s the small matter of the new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. Forget for the moment the positional questions – the need for athletic defenders, outside shooters and a younger point god. Of course the player needs are important for without them we have nothing. But the union is made of many parts and operates at its best through common belief systems and adaptability and the willingness to buy into a common purpose. It takes forward thinking and leadership and what that looks like for the Lakers is anybody’s guess. Uncertainty is the great equalizer in sports.

 

Dave Murphy

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