The three or four games that the Lakers played against the Spurs were always a part of a select few games that were an absolute must watch for the matchup. The Spurs, as the defending champions, are still a team, as a basketball fan, that you still need to consume a fair amount of during the course of a season. Stylistically, they play one of the more gorgeous brands of basketball in the league. The names are still there, too. Duncan, Ginobili, Parker — the old faces are as they always were. There’s Kawhi Leonard and a cast of role players who have bought into Popovich’s system, have a higher turnover rate, but the kind of guys brought in are the same as they ever were.

The same cannot be said about this Lakers team. All of the pieces who were there for some of the more epic clashes between to two premier franchises of this new millennium’s first decade are either gone or, as of this morning, out with a season-ending rotator cuff tear. Darius briefly discussed the injury yesterday, and there was a small sliver of hope that Bryant could have an opportunity to come back this season, but that was ruled out according to ESPN:

The Los Angeles Lakers expect star Kobe Bryant to miss the remainder of the season with a torn rotator cuff, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

Bryant met with team doctor Steven Lombardo in Los Angeles on Friday, and Lombardo found a significant tear in the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Bryant is expected to take the weekend to decide whether to undergo surgery and has an appointment with Dr. Neal ElAttrache, another Lakers doctor, on Monday.

Without Bryant, any luster between a once fierce rivalry has shifted to a stodgy storyline, lacking any real character. While the two never officially matched up on the hardwood, the respective careers between Bryant and Duncan have always been in an ostensible fight for the greatest of an era. There are legitimate claims for either side; the steady plateau of greatness from Duncan is as admirable as the great peaks that oftentimes make it easy to overlook the depths of Bryant’s valleys. This was a storyline that we’ve held onto for almost two decades, and tonight the story shifts from two of the game’s all-time greats to an uneven matchup of basketball teams.

The Spurs are coming off a rare blowout loss at the hands of a Chicago Bulls team that have struggled through much of January. The Bulls had won only three of their previous nine games before routing the Spurs — which saw the core of the Spurs sit out for a large chunk of the second half — meaning a more talented team is also going to be well rested and looking to bounce back from an embarrassing loss on national television.

The Spurs, have been playing some of their best basketball of the season in January. In the 10 games before their loss, they won eight of those games, with the two losses coming against a Detroit team that has been thriving without Josh Smith, and a very good Washington Wizards team.

In their last four, they’ve seen the return of Leonard, who missed the previous 15 games, and 18 games total this season. And as it has been over the last three seasons, the Spurs have absolutely thrived with Leonard on the floor. Without Leonard this season, the Spurs have played .500 basketball. With him, they’re playing .654 ball and are nine points per game better with him on the floor than off. His versatility on both sides of the ball allows the Spurs to experiment with various lineups and different looks to keep the ball moving, and allow others to concentrate in areas they excel in more than others.

For the Lakers, every loss due to injury births new opportunity. Nick Young will become the Lakers primary perimeter scorer. There will be a larger emphasis on the point guard play from Jeremy Lin and Ronnie Price. Without Bryant consuming 30 minutes per game, it leaves the door open for Jordan Clarkson to see more minutes, and more games.

The front court rotation doesn’t change, but the impact of these guys, especially against this Spurs team should be substantial. The Spurs have struggled keeping opposing bigs at bay in recent weeks — especially active, athletic bigs like Jordan Hill and Ed Davis. In the Lakers win against the Spurs, both Hill and Carlos Boozer helped tremendously with double-doubles, and the team will need that kind of impact from the front court if the Lakers are to leave San Antonio with a season series win.

A win isn’t expected, but this Lakers team has been resilient at weird times this season, and tonight is an opportunity for them to rally around some bad organizational news.

Where you can watch: 5:30 p.m. start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

The Lakers don’t have an injury bug, they have an injury parasite that eats away at their innards like a ravenous zombie in the Walking Dead.

After completing a basic two-handed dunk after a nice drive baseline in the third quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Pelicans, Kobe ran up court with a bit of a grimace and held his right shoulder. He’d later return to the game, only to play almost exclusively with his left hand — even attempting some shots southpaw — exiting with a little over a minute left to play in the game. He headed straight to the locker room to receive treatment.

After the game, the Lakers said that Kobe would receive an MRI on the joint while Kobe himself almost blew off the injury entirely. He said he’d fly to San Antonio, get in his regular routine, and go from there. Well, it turns out it’s a bit more serious than that.

Per a report from ESPN, Kobe will fly back to Los Angeles today to see a team physician. After that an update will be given that, hopefully, reveals how severe the tear is and how long he might be out of action. Until then, wish good thoughts for Kobe. After all, the Lakers were bad with him playing and will continue to be bad without him. But I hate to see Kobe on the shelf again, injured, with real questions about recovery times and what this means for his basketball future pushed to the forefront another time.

While the X’s and O’s of this game will matter — they always do — tonight’s Lakers game in New Orleans against the Pelicans will likely be impacted just as much, if not more, but who plays and who does not. Both teams have been dealing with players sitting out lately and while the news is mostly good for both sides, there is some not so good news as well.

Starting with the former, Kobe Bryant will be back in the lineup after missing the last two games. The team lost both games (and the three previous to those as well) and could have used his playmaking severely in both contests. Joining Kobe will be Ronnie Price who returns after missing a couple of games with a sore elbow. Price’s return sends Jeremy Lin back to the bench to steer the fate of the team’s reserves. This is a role Lin has done well in and I’m sure those guys will welcome his return as his aggressiveness with that unit aids in shot creation and makes the group harder to defend in general.

For the Pelicans, their good news is that Anthony Davis will play tonight after some doubts in the last couple days he would be able to. His bad big toe had him questionable as late as early yesterday, but he was then upgraded to probable to, now, playing. Davis’ return is should have the biggest impact of either return for either team — yes, even more than Kobe — as his two way play and ability to impact the game is as much as any player in the league right now. Even if Davis is not 100% (which is like the case) his mere presence will make a huge difference.

On the other end of the injury spectrum, point guard Jrue Holiday will not play tonight for the Pelicans. The former Bruin and 76er is out two to four weeks with a stress reaction in his leg and will be “replaced” by Tyreke Evans at PG with Eric Gordon and Dante Cunningham filling in on the wing for Evans. This little bit of musical chairs will hurt the Pelicans, but their hope is, surely, to get enough from Gordon offensively and have Evans be adept enough at running the offense to still be able to down the Lakers.

From the Lakers standpoint, the key to tonight’s game will be keeping Evans out of the lane and slowing down the big men out of the P&R. Davis is excellent at either diving to the rim or at popping to shoot his jumper so he must be marked at all times unless he proves he’s not ready to play above the rim or hit his jumper. Omer Asik can score as a roll man, though he’s not as fluid or smooth on the catch and is not nearly the finisher that Davis is. He must still be marked, however, and when the Lakers do dig down to slow either when rolling (or stunt on the perimeter to cover Davis or Ryan Anderson who will also pop) the defensive rotations behind that first action must be crisp or the scrambling and breakdowns will be too much to overcome — even against an offense that is not especially creative.

Offensively, the Lakers must hit shots from the outside and get Davis moving away from the ball to create the types of slashing angles and openings around the basket that can allow for higher percentage shots to be converted. If he is around the ball, he will disrupt what you want to do so the Lakers must try to get him on the move and rotating so the ball can be quickly moved on again with him not in the vicinity. Even then, with Asik around to cover, the team will still have their issues getting great looks, but if the team can hit a few threes and get defenders closing out hard, driving lanes will open up which can create the type of space that they can exploit for baskets.

Where you can watch: 5pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.

A large section of Lakers’ fans are only concerned about two things: how many losses the team has and how can they attain more of them. We have been over this multiple times, but it bears repeating — the more losses the team has, the better chance they have of keeping their draft pick which, in turn, offers a better chance of turning that asset into a cornerstone player who can help catapult the team back into contention sooner.

One way to get to more losses is to make trades that strip the team of some of their better players. The benefit of such deals would go beyond worsening the team — and increasing the odds of the aforementioned draft pick — they would also, hopefully, bring in even more assets that could help accelerate the current rebuild. Flip rotation player X for a draft pick; unload player Y for a young player on a rookie scale contract, is how this logic goes.

Whether or not you agree with the rooting for losses part of this story, the concept of dealing players for assets who can better help in the future is sound and a tried and true way of doing business in this league. This season, it has already started. The Denver Nuggets traded Timofey Mozgov to the Cavs for two future first round draft picks. The Celtics have been very active, first trading Rajon Rondo to the Mavs for draft picks and then off-loading players received in that deal (and others) to the Suns and Clippers for even more picks.

Again, this is not new. The question Lakers’ fans have, however, is when will they join the party? I mean, the Lakers may be a bad team, but they have some useful players who other teams might want, right? Right? Honestly, I’m not so sure.

That was me, musing on twitter earlier. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair amount lately, especially as the deadline for which Jordan Hill became tradable approached and passed (January 15th). The thought has long been that the Lakers, who were only playoff contenders in the world where everything went right for them and a lot of things went wrong for many other Western Conference teams, would start to sell off assets once the reality set in that they really were not going to make the playoffs this season.

However, in order to be a seller another team has to be willing to buy what you are offering. And, as I noted above, I’m wondering of opposing front offices really value the Lakers’ assets the way some fans might or even how much  the Lakers’ front office might. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on 3 key players mentioned most when discussing potential trades with a focus on differences in their perceived value and what the alternative view might be:

1. Jordan Hill: We all know that Hill is. He remains one of the better rate rebounders in the league, especially on the offensive glass. He can finish well enough inside, has shown flashes of being able to hit the mid-range jumper, and can bring energy and hustle in bursts. He makes $9 million dollars this year and has a team option for next year. Hill could certainly help a playoff team as a third big who, like, say, Taj Gibson of the Bulls, can do good work on the glass provide some decent defense (well below Taj’s standard, here), and even close some games if his jumper is falling and he’s got enough in the tank to play out the stretch hard.

In saying this, though, Hill’s contract complicates any trade. Due to the fact that he loses his Bird Rights if dealt, Hill has to agree to any trade he’s a part of. The only way to remove this de-facto no trade clause is if the Lakers pick up his team option before trading him. Said another way, if you want to deal Hill you either need his permission or you need to guarantee his full $9 million salary for next season. Forgetting for a moment whether you think Hill is worth that much money, most teams want one of two things from a player they are trading for: a guy who is on an expiring contract or a player with multiple years on his contract*. Hill is neither of those things. And, honestly, I think that might really affect his value on the trade market.

2. Jeremy Lin: I don’t necessarily think Lin has gotten the fairest shake in L.A. He’s clearly a better player than Ronnie Price, but lost his starting job for a quarter of the season and is one of the few players who is consistently negatively called out by his head coach. Even when he’s played well, he’s not always closed games and there has been more than one occasion where you have to wonder if the coach simply doesn’t like him (the latest being where Scott intimated he thought Jeremy was soft). When it comes right down to it, Lin should have been starting since day one and likely should have been even more encouraged than he was — and I mean this via actual X’s and O’s and not just talk — to take control of the offense by running more pick and rolls and pushing the pace as much as possible. He is a good player — better than he’s shown, I think — but he has clearly not been given much of the royal jelly that could, potentially, bring out the best in him.

In saying all that, when evaluating Lin’s potential trade value, two things go against him. The first is his contract. Lin’s cap figure is $8.3 million, but he is actually being paid almost $15 million this season. That salary quirk is how the Rockets were able to pry him loose from the Knicks in free agency and is also a reason why the Rockets had to sweeten their offer to the Lakers with a first round pick in the trade that sent him to Los  Angeles this past July. It’s what will also complicate any trade because any team that trades for him will need to be ready to fork over heftier pay checks than his cap hit would imply. For a team like the Lakers (who print money) that’s not a problem. But if you’re a team who doesn’t swim in profits, that might be an issue.

Second, Lin plays the deepest position in the league and isn’t going to be a better option than the starting point guards a lot of teams already have. This will be especially true when you’re talking about a contending team. So, when you trade for Lin, the odds are you are trading for a backup. In theory, this is fine — he’d be a damn good back up for a lot of teams. But when combining what his salary is with what role he’s likely to play that changes the equation. If you’re a contending team, do you trade a real asset for the right to pay a back up point guard — even a potentially really good one — $7 million over the second half of the season?

3. Ed Davis. First off, I know what you’re thinking. We don’t want to trade Ed Davis! He’s cheap! He’s productive!! We want Davis back next year!!! I get that. But for the purpose of evaluating trade assets, it would seem that Davis is one of the better ones the Lakers have. After all, he’s cheap and productive. And while he has some holes in his game, his value on the floor goes well beyond what he’s being paid. This is someone who the team should be able to get something for! Right? #wellactually…

As a minimum salaried player, Davis has zero function as a stand alone trade asset. The only type of contract you can trade him for is another minimum salaried player or a player on a late first round or second round rookie scale contract. These aren’t players who are likely to be as good or valuable to the Lakers as a future piece than Davis is. This, of course, leads to the idea of someone trading a draft pick for Davis. The issue there, however, is that Davis has a player option for his contract next year and will almost surely not exercise it in order to become a free agent. After the year he’s having, Davis could likely fetch the full mid-level exception on the open market and maybe even more than that. If you’re a team trading for him, do you really surrender a first round pick for a half season of Ed Davis and the right to compete for him in free agency come July?

This might seem like I’m down on the Lakers’ trade assets. I am not. I think Hill, Lin, or Davis could help several teams out there. Without getting into details or speculating, I have hopped on the trade machine and found new homes for all of them where I think they would make the type of impact that could help their new teams make deeper playoff runs. However, the reality is that trades in this league happen for a variety of reasons but often don’t happen for even more of them. And while the Lakers’ assets may be good ones, there are real barriers that could hold them up.

In other words, you may want the Lakers to make a deal (or more) before the February deadline. They may even want to make one. By many accounts, they actually have already been trying to. But, if nothing actually goes down, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

*It might seem counter-intuitive to think teams want players with long term deals, but a deal like Hill’s — where he can be a free agent next summer — can often be a headache for a team. Next summer Hill will be a free agent and whatever team that has him has to think about whether they want to invest in him further or not. If it’s not, they need to consider trading him again or risk having him walk in free agency for nothing. If you let him walk, you just surrendered real assets in a trade for the right to pay a player $9 million and then have him go away with no return. That’s not what we call getting value.

The Lakers are in Phoenix tonight, playing the second of four consecutive games on the road. The first game was a loss at Utah, a game that saw the team struggle mightily to contain Gordan Hayward while also allowing the Derrick Favors and Trey Burke to have good nights (though Burke did so rather inefficiently). Of course Kobe did not play in that game and, though he has not played since Thursday, he will not suit up tonight either. Ronnie Price will also sit out, so expect Jeremy Lin and Wayne Ellington to be the starters against the Suns just like they were against the Jazz.

Speaking of the Suns, commenter Calvin Chang had a nice summary of what the Suns will try to do offensively:

We all know what’s going to happen. In a half-court set, Suns like to run the high pick and roll with PG (Bledsoe, Dragic or Thomas) and big (Alex Len or Miles) and have space-out shooters in the Morris bros and Gerald Green. Our PG will get stuck in the pick. Their PG will make the read on how our defense reacts to the high pick and roll, then either shoot a 3, or penetrate and get a layup, or kick out to a 3pt shooter. We’ve seen it in the past 2 losses to the Suns. Can Byron come up with a strategy to counter this?

Indeed, it will be interesting to see how the Lakers handle the Suns’ three point guards and whether or not they can close down the lane while still recovering back to the three point line to contest jumpers. In the previous matchups , the Lakers have not done a good job of this, either ceding too many open threes or allowing the Bledsoe, Dragic, Thomas trio to get deep into the lane and either score or collapse the defense enough to generate a good look for a big man camping or a shooter spotting up. One way to try and slow this action down is to go under screens — especially on Bledsoe — to see if they can make the defense pay with long jumpers. Another tactic is for the big man to play well below the screen and hope that he can cut off the driving angle long enough for the ball handler’s man to recover after the screen. These aren’t perfect solutions — there aren’t any with this Lakers’ defense — but they could offer varied looks to keep the Suns guessing.

Offensively, if the Lakers are going to keep this game close, they will need some better play from Jeremy Lin. Against the Jazz, Lin scored only six points on 10 shot attempts and did not go to the foul line. He also only had three assists. Without Kobe, Lin needs to find ways to score and be a good enough set up man to keep the defense honest. He needs to get into the paint and, even if he’s not hitting his shots, draw extra defenders to allow his bigs lanes to the offensive glass. If he’s not doing these things, his utility falls off a great deal since he’s not the best defensive player.

Another key to the offense will be the Lakers’ bigs finding ways to remain active on the offensive glass and get some easy baskets on put backs. The Suns do not play “big” very often and typically have a stretch-y PF on the floor to aid in their spacing. Hill, Boozer, and Black need to take advantage of this by not only crashing the boards, but coming up with enough of them to get some points. This will not only help on the scoreboard, but will force the Suns to gang rebound more which, in turn, should slow down their transition offense where they typically kill the Lakers.

While shorthanded, the Lakers should be well rested and have enough legs — especially with Clarkson taking some of Kobe’s minutes — to get up and down the court and run with the Suns for stretches. Whether this is enough to keep the game close remains to be seen, but if this game is a loss it should not be for effort, simply due to talent.

Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.