It has been in the back of the minds of fans and some in the media throughout the early part of the NBA season. It has been a problem magnified by recent developments. Now it’s out in the open. The Lakers are in danger of failing to qualify for the playoffs which they’ve dominated so often through the years.
The franchise which has won 16 championships and acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash prior to this season is stumbling through one dismal defeat after another.
The loss at home to Denver Sunday and loss in Houston Tuesday made the Lakers’ record 15-19, and if the playoffs were to start today the Lakers would not be one of the eight teams representing the Western Conference.
And now Howard and Pau Gasol are out with injuries.
How have the Lakers taken this terrible fall?
“We’re an old, slow team,” said Kobe Bryant.
“We don’t have common experiences,” said Nash. “And we’re running out of time.”
By common experiences he referred to the Lakers’ lack of continuity on defense. The best teams usually have a cast of players who’ve been together for several years. They trust what a teammate is going to do. You see a teammate needs help. You rush to pick up his man. You expect another teammate to pick up your man. But with this newly-assembled squad you’re not sure you’re going to get the help you need. So you hesitate to help the first guy.
Television replays with cameras isolating on these defensive breakdowns don’t lie. They often show where the Lakers are deficient.
“It’s perplexing,” said Coach Mike D’Antoni. ‘We have to keep working on it. We have to find our identity.”
On offense, things aren’t ideal either.
In Sunday’s game the Lakers scored 22 points in the fourth quarter, 18 by Bryant. He’s one of the greatest clutch players in history, but a more balanced attack would be preferable A more productive bench would help too. The Laker reserves are outscored by the opponent game after game.
“We’re not the most athletic team. We know that,” said Gasol. ‘But we have to a better job of getting back on defense.”
As the losses mount D’Antoni searches for answers.
Darius Morris becomes a starter because he’s young and can do a reasonable defensive job on rival point guards who are too fast for the 38-year-old Nash. Three games later D’Antoni benches Morris, puts Metta World Peace back in the starting lineup and tries 14-year-NBA veteran Antawn Jamison, who hadn’t been seeing any action. But Jamison is yanked after a few minutes.
The bad news for Laker fans is the team hasn’t played well and has a losing record. The worse news is the schedule has been soft. Only now will the challenges become stronger, including a game at San Antonio this week followed by a home game against Oklahoma City. On January 27 Oklahoma City will be back for another game.
Expectations were high when the season began. Five games into the schedule Coach Mike Brown was fired.
Phil Jackson was bypassed in favor of D’Antoni, a curious decision since D’Antoni teaches a fast tempo focusing on three-point shots and has a slow team with two 7-footers. So Gasol doesn’t fit into the offense, a problem so severe that Bryant has talked to the coach about the strategy.
Add it up and the Lakers deserve to be where they re, currently No. 11 in the West.
“The Lakers are a walking mediocrity,” says outspoken NBA analyst Steven A. Smith, who places a lot of the blame on Jim Buss, who was given authority by his father, longtime owner Jerry Buss. Jim Buss chose both Brown and D’Antoni and supervised the creation of a roster proving to be deficient.
While the Lakers falter the long-suffering Clippers become one of the NBA’s elite teams. As I was leaving Staples Center Friday night following the Clippers’ victory over the Lakers I heard a fan shout “Changing of the guard.”
It sure looks like that.