There’s an oft-used saying, ‘it’s a tough act to follow.’ You don’t want to be the band that takes the stage after the last band just totally shredded. Or the comedian that follows the guy who had them rolling in the aisles. Phil Jackson was a tough act to follow. Just ask Rudy T, ask Tim Floyd, ask Mike Brown.
Mike D’Antoni could have been the guy that simply followed Brown, they might have given him the keys to the city. But Jackson was back in the picture and for the most obvious of reasons – he was probably the best man for the job, having delivered great riches in the past. D’Antoni’s preferred system of basketball wasn’t suited for for the All-Star roster he inherited and it certainly wasn’t suited for a revolving door of injuries. A pretty rough season followed.
The Lakers lost another giant recently, someone whose greatness defined the team’s identity and direction. Kobe Bryant rounded the corner on Harrison Barnes and headed for Achilles surgery and a new found hobby of tweeting. Who knew?
Things can turn on a trifle as someone used to say. The loss of Bryant was both stunning and surreal and a couple hundred epic articles dropped over the next 24 hours and observers burped and patted each others backs and headed to the sink with the dishes, ready to rinse and wash and move on to the playoffs. In this particular narrative, non-Laker fans could afford to be magnanimous with their sympathy – you guys always have next year. Or not.
A funny thing happened at the tail end of the regular season. In the absence of certain giants and expectations, a team began to form their own ad hoc destiny. You can’t really label them bad news bears, not when fronted by Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. You also can’t pin the month of April on the loss of Kobe and some new found freedom. The Lakers went seven and one and five of those games saw Kobe playing insane minutes and carrying much of the load.
Sometimes, you just have to watch. One of Mike D’Antoni’s pet phrases is ‘letting the ball find the open man’. He has no ownership of the concept, it’s as old as the game itself, a guiding principal in the sport, sometimes honored and often ignored. Over the last two games, the ball has found new movement out of necessity. Guys are getting touches they didn’t get before. And who would have guessed that Andrew Goudelock would get a call-up and join Darius Morris on the floor during pivotal minutes in a seed-defining win?
It’s not simply the loss of Kobe that has caused a change in the team’s philosophy. Steve Nash has been out of action and may suit up on Sunday against the Spurs, depending on the results from two recent epidurals. Will his return put a damper on Steve Blake’s resurgent play? There are no simple answers.
To say it has been a season of adjustment is saying just a little. There have been recent moments that show an interesting unity however. A time out and coaches interact with their players. Dwight’s chatting with Bernie Bickerstaff, Chuck Person makes a point with Metta World Peace. D’Antoni calls the guys to gather and they’re paying attention. A group that has seen little time together on the floor goes back out there and gets some stops. Games are won ugly but they’re won. And the Lakers are in the playoffs with the seventh seed and if nothing else they’ve earned the right to keep playing.
Spring is regarded as a time of renewal and hope. It’s not always pretty, it follows in the barren footsteps of winter after all. The NBA season is too long for the health of its players. It affects all teams and the San Antonio Spurs will be heading into the first round with issues of their own. For the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s a transitional era in ways that are sometimes willfully ignored. Their earth has been mined and harvested, it is in need of replenishment and the new CBA has thrown a few obstacles into the mix. It’s not to say you can’t use your remaining assets though or that you can’t use them well.
The past, present and future of the Lakers has coalesced for the moment – it may not be the most stable of circumstances but there is at least some acceptance – from a head coach willing to let his team play to its strengths to a team willing to share, no longer bound to a singular voice. The expectations game will be back in the summer, one way or another. For at least this moment however, it’s simply the game of basketball.