Through it all, the Lakers still have their chance

Darius Soriano —  April 16, 2013

One hundred eighty nine.

189.

One. Eight. Nine.

That’s the number of minutes the lineup of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard have played together. It’s the Lakers’ 3rd most used lineup on the season. A season ravaged with injuries. A season that has a pre-season favorite to reach the conference finals (at least), battling for their playoff lives on the last game of the season.

339.

That’s the number of minutes the most frequent used lineup the Lakers have used have played together. Earl Clark is in that group (joining the Nash, Kobe, Metta, and Dwight foursome in place of Pau Gasol). If you want to compare that to minutes played together from other teams around the league, it’s the 28th most used lineup in the NBA this season.

It trails the most used lineup (the Thunder’s starting five) by nearly a thousand minutes. It trails the Grizzlies starting lineup by nearly 300 minutes — no, not the current Grizzlies lineup, the one featuring Rudy Gay at small forward; the same Rudy Gay who was traded in February. Four teams (Thunder — 2, Grizzlies — 2, 76ers — 2, Warriors — 3) have multiple lineups with more minutes played than the aforementioned Lakers’ one.

I don’t bring this up to complain. At least not really. Injuries are a part of the game. The Lakers built a team around four players over 30 (including two in their 17th seasons) and a player coming off major back surgery. The potential for health to intervene and provide a roadblock to Lakers’ success was always there lurking. So, while there was a ton of bad luck involved in how many (and the severity of the) injuries the Lakers’ faced this season, the fact is there was always a chance it would be this way. It just so happened that when flipping the coin 10 times, the injury bug hit on tails on 9 of them. It is what it is.

I do bring this up to shift the perception of this team, however. On Wednesday, the Lakers will play the Houston Rockets for the right to get into the playoffs. If they win that game, they will be the 7th seed in what has been another fantastically competitive season for the Western Conference. Five of the eight teams out west will win at least 55 games this year. Only the Heat can make this claim in the East. The West was a bloodbath and qualifying for the tournament is no small achievement, even if the win total will be less than it has been in recent seasons.

Things have not gone smoothly for this team. Quite the opposite, actually. Beyond the injuries, the Lakers have seen their long time owner pass away after battling cancer. It’s hard to put into words how much Jerry Buss meant to the organization. When discussions of the greatest Laker ever are mentioned we always seem to talk about Kobe or Magic. If you’re creative you might say it was Chick Hearn. But the truth is that the answer is Jerry Buss. And it’s really not close.

The Lakers also changed coaches after five games. Think about that for a second. After investing an entire training camp into one coach, learning his system, refining roles, and trying to get on the same page to build chemistry, the entire plan was scrapped after a week and a half of regular season games. At the time I argued that making that move, while harsh and a gamble, was worthwhile if the team believed Mike Brown wasn’t the man to lead them where they thought they could get.┬áSeventy six games later I don’t think anyone could argue the team is any closer to where they wanted to be when they made that decision to fire Brown. I also don’t think anyone could argue that the path traveled over the course of those games wasn’t incredibly arduous.

Brown’s successor has had his missteps. He benched Gasol in key moments of games and then moved him to a reserve role for a significant stretch of the season. He jerked players’ minutes around, playing them solid minutes for weeks only to give them DNP-CD’s a few nights later. He’s played a short rotation, insisted on a certain style of play even when it didn’t necessarily fit his team, and did so with a stubbornness that would be surprising if it wasn’t already part of the package you knew you were getting when he was hired.

That said, whether through injury or through players forcing his hand or his own learning and foresight, he’s also adjusted over time. The system the team is running now is nothing like the one the team was running 70 games ago. In Sunday’s victory over the Spurs, the Lakers ran more direct post ups than they have all season. He’s stationed players at the elbows to initiate the offense when, in his usual spread pick and roll attack, that’s an area of the floor he’s always liked cleared for guards to penetrate into. He turned Steve Nash into a screener and spot up shooter. Let that marinate for a second.

And, through it all, the Lakers are still alive and fighting.

Yes, they’re wounded. And no, this isn’t what anyone would have predicted as likely when the season began (possible, but not likely). Many will call this season a disappointment or even a failure when the autopsy is performed and the obituary is written. But they’re still here, working as hard as they can and believing in each other in an effort to get where they want to be.

Who knows if they’ll get there. But they have their shot. Tomorrow it comes in the form of the Houston Rockets. If you’d have told me in October this is what the season would come down to, I’d have been sad. And, to be honest, I’m a bit sad now (seeing Kobe, even though he’s smiling, on crutches and a cast up to his knee will do that to you). But, I’m also excited. The Lakers have been playing games that matter for months.

Tomorrow is the biggest of them all.

*Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com


Darius Soriano

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