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. Seventy 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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48 responses to Through it all, the Lakers still have their chance

  1. Darius,
    You have encapsulated the season better than any of the rest of us could have – although it was a long encapsulation.

    For you younger fans – just think about living through a decade of coming in second to the Celtics, if you want to talk about frustration – ask Jerry West and Elgin Baylor (players who once averaged 30pts/gm in the same season).

    Still, this year ranks right up there when being conflicted about everything that happened.

  2. Fantastic write up Darius – I think everyone in the league would be excited about another lakers-spurs bout and harden vs OKC is another fantastic story for the league – really hoping we win tomorrow

  3. With all due respect to the other names mentioned and to Kareem (who was not), the greatest Laker ever (so far) is Jerry West.

  4. Great write up. A lot of this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91DtqQFOS_Y. And 3 pointers will probably put us in the playoffs.

  5. darius: can’t argue with who knows if they’ll get there but one thing’s for sure: it’s the getting there that’s been quite the ride. i say they do and they go on a fanastic journey of a ride starting with beating the spurs in six. then of course the injury bug starts hitting the other contenders and the lakers win the next series in five. and by the time they play the thunder in the conference finals they’ll be brimming with such confidence, they beat the injury depleted thunder also in six.

    and then after we wake up, wa la, we’re in the finals versus, who knows? the knicks, the heat? injuries have a way of evening the playing field doesn’t it?

    greatest season ever?

    sure, why not?

    kobe gets his 6th.

    Go Lakers

  6. @bmcburney,

    I guess Jerry West is the “greatest Laker ever” if you’re throwing in his GM work as well. But Kareem was the greatest player ever, for any franchise or school.

  7. Great article Darius it really moved me, maybe im emotional these days with all that happened the last 4 days but this season even thru all that has happened it has turn out in a season for the ages, i dont remember a season of such incredible highs and lows, great victories and crushing defeats, the death of the patriach and witnessing a hero fell after giving us one of the most astonishing demostrations of talent, pride and heart i ever seen in any sport and a glimpse of the future by his heir apparent. I dont know what is going to happen tomorrow, if we win the journey continues if we dont its still going to be a season to remember. Its been an exhausting journey but im glad to have share it here with all the guys here that despite our differences sometimes, we share one thing, love for this team.That being said, GO LAKERS!!!!!!!

  8. Mel Counts Counts April 16, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Happy Darius Morris finally got some PT the other night. Young legs help while resting the starters. I still think Lakers would have been better off with him and Blake, instead of signing Nash. Great player, just too old. Drives me crazy how D’Antoni plays so few guys, can’t tell me that Morris-Ebanks can’t spell somebody for 5 minutes. If they can’t, why keep them around? Same genius that didn’t realize that Earl Clark can play a little bit until injuries forced him to find out.

  9. Hey! I went to school (Oregon State) with Mel Counts and Terry Baker. That goes back a ways.

  10. Great summation of a turbulent, compelling season Darius. A season in which the Lakers’ team could never gain traction and just kept spinning its wheels. One step forward, two steps back. A win tomorrow would give them 45, pretty remarkable when looked at against the backdrop of all the adversity the team has faced.

    Very encouraging to see the play of Dwight Howard improve dramatically as he regains his health and conditioning. When the Lakers first acquired him, I remarked to a friend that the team had pulled off a Siegfried & Roy trick by turning the slow footed Bynum into the fast and physically dominant Howard. We are finally seeing a Dwight unencumbered by his back problem. He was changing ends of the floor very well against San Antonio. Hope he decides to remain a Laker.

    Here’s hoping The Show puts a good whipping on Houston tomorrow. They may not be a true contender, but they are still my team and are capable of a few surprises. I expect to see them as the seventh seed when the season ends.

  11. Nice to see that pic with Dwight & Jodie at Kobe’s house (but what on earth is D12 holding?). For all the talk about Howard and Kobe not getting along, I think it speaks volumes of how their relationship has developed that Howard visited Kobe twice (once before and once after) the day of surgery, and then again at his home.

    The Rockets are tough, but if this team plays defense like Sunday night, and can get something resembling a “normal” offensive game from Gasol, we may have gotten our wish to not just make the playoffs but avoid OKC. Not counting any chickens (or pretending that a 1st round win over the Spurs is likely) but considering everything mentioned by Darius, it’s not a bad outcome.

  12. Lakers were 17-25 beginning Jan 24th, about the midway point of the season. Since then, 27-12. That is very respectful even for this team giving they were never really ever at full strength and giving the fact they don’t have a very strong coach. For them to make the playoffs would be fantastic and would make the season not a total disaster even though it mostly has been, especially now that Kobe is is out for awhile.

  13. @Joe M,

    17-25 was the MEM game, what do you remember about the circumstances there? Can you draw any correlation to the turnaround?

  14. joe m – i was just doing that analysis the other day as well. if they hadn’t blown those two games against phoenix and washington in mid march, they would’ve gone 29-10 in that stretch (17-1 home, 12-9 away)!! as it is, their home (16-2) and away (11-10) records since 1/23 aren’t horrible.

    fwiw, lakers have a better record than the clippers since 1/23 (27-12 vs 22-15).

  15. Spurs ditch Stephen Jackson… then sign Tracy McGrady?! What the heck is going on down there?

  16. Spurs get tmac… Lakers get goudelock… Smh

  17. The funny thing about that picture (other than Howard holding the little dog) is that Meeks is wearing a Jordan 6 rings T-shirt.

  18. Who cares about T-Mac? There is a reason he was playing in China, he is washed up, i still get a chuckle of all the comparisions between him and Kobe, i hope he brings his ” never got out of the 1st round” curse with him. Whats next someone is bringin AI back?

  19. Darius~ Powerful narrative. The data on minutes per line-up is brilliant. It really distills this injury riddled season. I am optimistic about tomorrow night and if we secure the 7th seed feel like we can give SA a run for their $.

    I am however depressed after reading Drew Garrison’s piece over at SSR and his interview with Dr. Steven Weinfeld, an orthopaedic surgeon and Chief of the Foot and Ankle Service at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. It is really negative about both the prognosis and the likely length of Kobe’s recovery. Hopefully Kobe will show the good doctor that he is not a normal case but a human w/ mamba blood.

  20. It has been a season that reminded us of the vulnerability of our immortal franchise. That’s the only way I can put it.

    Almost like learning that your parents aren’t omniscient nor omnipotent.

    Of course I ‘knew’ but it was never driven home the way it did this season.

  21. Our own Dr. Clapper (ESPN radio show Weekend Warriors) evaluated Kobe’s injury and feels he is likely to be back for next season. The critical time is the first 6 wks and Kobe has to let his body mend itself. At that time, if the prognosis is good, he can start his recovery routines. His history shows a good aptitude for healing and it is probable he will be ready for next season. He may not be athletically 100% until the playoffs next year, but he does know how to play better than most.

    He comments that medical procedures have radically changed in the last 20 years.

    He is head surgeon at Cedars Hospital in L.A. and often sits near Jack N. at Staples.

  22. rr, do you think that Jodie wore that as a joke or as motivation, or just didn’t realize? It’s not that Kobe needs external motivation to work as hard as possible to return to strength, but I thought the Meeks shirt was just the perfect touch.

  23. “Who knows if they’ll get there. But they have their shot. Tomorrow it comes in the form of the Houston Rockets…..Tomorrow is the biggest of them all.” Well said Darius, well said. I’ve read every comment on here as of my posting (which will be # 21 unless some are under review) and I’m surprised no one has mentioned the factor in all probability which will determine if the Lakers finish 7th, 8th,…or :-( 9th.

    I’m talking about Mr Howard’s free throw shooting. Regardless of the situation, I expect D-12 to have at least 20 FTA’s vs Houston tomorrow. Simply amazing, but then again in this, the craziest Laker season I’ve ever experienced (fan since ’65) and most likely in their history, it looks like it will all come down to Dwight Howard’s free throw shooting ability. Hack-a-Howard will be in full effect.

  24. Funky–

    I am guessing motivation/joke, as in “You want any shot at another one, you better bust your ass in rehab.” Seems like the kind of thing that Kobe would like. But maybe Meeks just threw the shirt on without thinking, which would actually be funnier.

    Also, while I very much dislike Simmonsian long-distance mind-reading, Howard certainly doesn’t look like a guy who is planning to go to Houston or Dallas in that photo.

  25. I wonder about Nash — could these injuries be serious enough to make him think about retirement? Would that be better or worse for the Lakers?

  26. Better.

    Might make the FO go out and sign a PG who can defend and compete with the fast young guards in the West. I felt signing a 38 year old with a history of back issues was questionable. Might have been nice if FO had tried to pick someone up at deadline since Steve had already missed half the season.

    Back up at best next year. Maybe end for him.

  27. Yup i remarked a couple of threads ago that nash might be done. Not just for the season but his career. I have never seen nash look so frail and weak. If he does not retire, then hes a back up point guard or somebody who can only play 20-25mpg.

  28. Nash’s back has been a long time issue and he has not been a heavy-minutes player for quite some time. Remember the time he spend lying on his back when we played Phoenix? This goes back before his MVP days and was a given when we signed him. Some of us fans just seem to forget this stuff.

  29. rr, agreed on all counts. Nobody but Dwight knows what he feels, but his actions in the last several days sure support the “he’s staying” argument more than the alternative.

  30. It is 30 million, after all. For somebody who’s just experienced a career threatening injury, that’s money you can’t turn down.

  31. A ver nice writeup.

    I think that the extra motivation is there and Im glad its there. The Lakers have a prize if they win and not just a Jazz loss would get them in. 7th seed is not close to where we planned at ssn start but we’ll take it.

    Dwight now has extra motivation too. This is now HIS team to carry on his injured back and shoulder. The pressures early on might’ve brought the man out of Dwight.

    The important thing to remember here is that we’re praying for this situation at the break… We now have it and the only thing left to do is take it. As the great nike motto says: “Just Do It.”

  32. I like Harold’s comparison to the realization of our mortality. We all knew intellectually that Dr Buss would one day pass on and that Kobe one day would stop playing. But those facts were stamped into us emotionally this season.

    All those things that we knew would happen in “the future?” Well the future has turned into now.

  33. Espn headline says other LA team clinched 4th and will play grizz. So I guess that means Memphis is locked it at 5th seed and will sit starters tomorrow. Utah should win, meaning a lot of nervous Laker fans tomorrow. I know I’ll be a wreck all day tomorrow!! Win or go home.

  34. Majik

    That is true but not true. Yes they are 4th but if Clips lose and Memphis wins then Memphis has home court. Either ESPN or you were not getting the complete story. Memphis game will be in 4th quarter before Clips game starts.

    They will go all out.

  35. Ken, yeah that’s what I thought but check out espn.com. I’m guessing they are wrong as seeds 3-8 in west have not been determined yet.

  36. Ken is right. Memphis and the Clippers are both 55-26,so Memphis needs to try tomorrow.

    Also, it is worth noting that after all the complaining from Lakers’ rivals about the Gasols deal, Marc is now universally regarded as one of the best bigs around (Zach Lowe gave him DPOY today) while Al Jefferson is just pretty good.

  37. do or die tomorrow…lets see if this team wants it…also dwight aint going anywhere

  38. Memphis will play for at least half of the game, but there is a story that like Monday night, Memph will use their bench for the second half (based on discussions between Pau and Marc). That is what they did against Dallas and it was ok, because Ed Davis (traded from Toronto) was fantastic (he is a real solid up and comer) and a few others like Dooling were real good.

    If I am Memph I am thinking if we play hard and win, we force the Clippers to do the same, which means its a wash, neither team gets to rest players, and both are at a similar level of preparation for the playoff game. and we at least have some chance for HCA. So I think they will play hard, but there is that pesky article about Pau and Marc discussing things. EIther way it shouldn’t be an easy one for Utah.

  39. Wish I was privy to the (Hospital and House) conversations between Kobe and Dwight. Guaranteed that, after assuring Dwight that he’s in good spirits emotionally, Kobe dropped knowledge on him about leadership, as it pertains to this organization, while also helping to instill the confidence in Dwight that he will need to become ‘The Man’ of arguably the Greatest Franchise in all of team sports. And as Double R (Rr) alluded to, it’s looking as if Dwight is ready to apply his ‘John Hancock’ to a long term deal with our Lakers.

  40. the confusion re the Clips is that the way the playoff seeding works, the Clips get no worse that 4th no matter what (and 3rd if they pass Denver) as they are division champs. But under the current system, they will not have home court advantage if the 5th seed has a better record, unlike every other playoff system where seedings determine home court ad.

  41. Memphis is a tough team, and I am thinking they will not give this one to Utah, its their home turf and any team would want to gain some momentum going into the playoffs.
    Me thinking(praying as well) here that Utah will lose tomorrow, and Lakers will win a lopsided one against Houston. Every game counts, and every game always looking to be a win or go fishing.

  42. Warren Wee Lim April 17, 2013 at 5:02 am

    I don’t like putting my hopes on what Memphis would and wouldn’t do. They look after their own franchise as we do ours. Lets just play and win Houston regardless.

  43. Forget what the Jazz & Grizz do. Their result will mean absolutely nothing…if Dwight hit his free throws, and you know that’s what it’ll come down to tonight. Hack-a-Howard will be in full effect and Dwight will get at the very least 20 FTA’s. If he’s hitting, Lakers win and are in 7th. If he’s not, you guys get to complaint.

  44. Big Red Slugs,

    I think what started the turn around for the Lakers was the team meeting. They got a lot of their chests and were finally able to be honest with eachother. Second, they started to slow the game down a little more and play more to their strengths, which Mike D did not allow them to do for the first so many games. I also think Earl Clark made a huge difference for this team and gave them athleticism and youth they desperately needed. Despite better play from this team, I don’t think they ever performed to their potential despite the injuries. I still don’t think Mike was the right fit for this team and many will agree. I actually wonder how good this team could have been if they were healthy all the way through and had a better coach, perhaps PJ. We will never know though.

  45. I could care less what Memphis and the Jazz do. The Lakers need to take care of business no matter what. I bet Hou dont want OKC in the 1st round either, so i expect 7th game like intensity, im really worried about Meeks guarding Harden and Blake on Lin. Thats were we are winning our losing this game, Morris needs burn against Lin i would even put Clark and even Ebanks on them for stretches, its imperative to contain those 2, cant hold anything back

  46. agree w/everyone who says the lakers need to win tonite; primarily because winning instills confidence and without kobe, this is what the team needs most tonite. with the win, everything falls into place.

    Go Lakers

  47. Great piece Darius. I watched Jerry West at the Forum as a ten year old and was and am a huge fan. Same with Baylor and Magic & Worthy and Shaq. But the only true contender with Kobe for greatest Laker player is Kareem. And that’s only if Kobe is now done.