In October, after the Lakers had signed Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, they began training camp labeled as the hottest story in the NBA.
The franchise with 16 NBA championships was seemingly in position to win another.
But on Sunday night at Staples Center, the Lakers’ disastrous season ended with a first round playoff sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
What happened? Who’s to blame? Let’s go back through the season together.
Jim Buss, whose previous work was in thoroughbred racing, hired the wrong coach, Mike Brown and seemed determined to quickly end the influence of Phil Jackson.
A logical move would have been to make Brian Shaw the coach. The players respected Shaw, one of Jackson’s assistants, and Shaw would have kept Jackson’s triangle offense, making for an easy transition.
But Jim Buss wanted something different. Then he fired Brown five games into this season and hired Mike D’Antoni, who teaches all-out go-go basketball, a style all wrong for an aging starting five backed by an inferior reserve corps.
Jackson was a possibility but the Lakers announced that D’Antoni fit the personnel better.
ESPN analyst Steven A. Smith called that the most asinine statement ever offered by the Lakers’ organization.
So, as the players struggled with a new offense the Lakers got off to a slow start,
Injuries: They’re a part of sports. They happen. But from the beginning I thought the Lakers were tempting fate by playing D’Antoni’s style with this roster. Eighty-two games at the fast tempo, and with very little ability to stop opponents’ fast breaks.
Very little use of their strength, the presence of two talented big men, Howard and Pau Gasol. Eventually D’Antoni removed Gasol from the starting lineup in favor of a younger, faster runner, the inexperienced Earl Clark. Later, Gasol started again.
No defense: Nash, at 38, couldn’t prevent opposing point guards from penetrating the Lakers’ defense.
On the Lakers’ Time Warner cable post-game shows, former Laker star James Worthy would show defensive breakdowns, focusing on players failing to rotate. In other words they weren’t covering for each other.
Kobe: One of the NBA’s all-time great players, Kobe Bryant realized the Lakers were in danger of failing to qualify for the playoffs. He’s as competitive as he is talented, so he guaranteed the Lakers would make the playoffs and tried to play every minute of every game.
What 34-year-old player accomplishes that? Fortunately none. Nearing the end of the regular season Bryant suffered a torn Achilles tendon. He missed the playoffs and his status for next season is in doubt.
Who’s In Charge? Somebody – the owner, the coach, the general manager, the trainer, should have placed Bryant’s welfare above risking injury in quest of a playoff berth. Maybe Jerry Buss would have done that, but he had died. Maybe a secure coach (Phil Jackson?) would have done it but D’Antoni merely joked that if he took Bryant out of a game Kobe would simply go back in.
Even a great player shouldn’t have authority over management.
Living In The Past: Because they’re the Lakers, the team’s surge toward a playoff berth attracted a lot of attention. Ordinarily it wouldn’t have done that if a team was failing to get in or trying to be the No. 7 or 8 seed. Most likely that team would be eliminated right away by a No. 1 or 2 seed.
But wherever I went, fans pointed out that it didn’t matter what seed you were. All playoff teams start with an 0-0 record and anything can happen, right?
Many fans feared that Oklahoma City would be too fast for the Lakers to stop. I frequently heard the opinion the Lakers would do much better against San Antonio, viewed (wrongly) by many as being too old.
Be careful what you wish for: As the Lakers suffered even more injuries they were swept by the Spurs. The Game 3 loss was by the largest margin (31 points) of any Laker home playoff defeat in franchise history.
Howard drew two technical fouls and as a result was ejected in the third quarter of Game 4. He was heavily criticized by former Laker greats for “not going down with the ship.”
My conclusion: The Lakers were doomed from the start when they spent most of the money allowed by NBA rules on their starting five, leaving little for reserves.
They used to have Sasha Vujasic and Jordan Farmer coming off the bench to increase the tempo and increase leads. Before that they had Michael Cooper backing up Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon. This year they had little firepower in reserve. The substitutes were outscored by most opponents’ reserves, and the toll became greater and greater on the starters.
That most likely contributed to the unusual amount of injuries.