The off-season begins early for the third consecutive year. L.A.’s only certainty is uncertainty.
Whew, it’s a good thing that’s over.
The year started off ill, a winless preseason transitioned to a so-so regular season and finished with a disastrous postseason. The NBA’s latest super team, the Los Angeles Lakers, were supposed to be great.
Instead, they were just OK (regular season record of 45-37). It was championship or bust this season and boy did this team bust. A first-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs buried the Lakers, mercifully killing off this mismatched year.
With the Lakers, there’s always drama. Even when they win championships something is brewing. You never hear any controversy from teams like the Milwaukee Bucks. But this is Hollywood, it wouldn’t be exciting without surprises.
The 2013 Lakers surprised in an awful way. I haven’t seen a team play this poorly since the Sedale Threatt years. L.A. didn’t make the playoffs until the last day of the regular season. The artwork for this story was ready the night of the regular season finale; if you saw the Lakers play, you knew this season was going to end poorly. They might have been better off not making the playoffs, it would have saved the embarrassment of the postseason.
Acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were supposed to put this team in championship contention.
When asked to sum up the season Howard didn’t hold back: “This is like a nightmare. A bad dream. And I couldn’t wake up out of it. It seemed like nothing could go right from the start.”
Neither Mike Brown nor Mike D’Antoni were the right coaches to manage such a star-studded squad. But blame must be placed on the players as well.
The playoffs, however, finished in a way that nobody could have predicted. Their sweep was beyond surprising, it was out of nowhere. By the beginning of the third quarter in Game 4, the Lakers had only three of their nine rotation players in uniform. Kobe Bryant, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and Nash were sitting out the game because of injuries. I have never known of an entire starting backcourt and both of their backups to sit out a game at the pro, college or high school level. It was unheard of.
Oh, that wasn’t all. Metta World Peace, the former Ron Artest, was injured as well. To complete the perfect storm, Howard was ejected at the beginning of the second half.
This injury bug was one of those hulking insects from “Starship Troopers.” The epidemic reminded me of the calamity of Mr. Burns All-Star softball team in “The Simpsons.” All but one of the stars, Darryl Strawberry, missed the game for a variety of reasons, some of which included clucking like a chicken, radiation poisoning and drinking nerve tonic.
At no time this season did the Lakers look consistent. Yeah, they won some games, but superior talent will do that.
“The Lakers had such a battle of ego this year on so many fronts,” NBA TV analyst Brent Barry said. “They didn’t have enough guys to put those things aside for the greater good.”
The Lakers sunk low under D’Antoni, who replaced Brown after the former Cavaliers coach was fired after starting 0-5.
“We were 17-25 and had serious problems and were going the wrong way,” D’Antoni said. “They aired out the differences. From then they went 28-12, one of the best records in the league and got us in the playoffs. They fought as hard as they could fight. As a coach you appreciate it. Stuff happens in a year that was all upside down.”
D’Antoni was an extremely curious hire, especially since Phil Jackson was ready to accept the vacant coaching job until Jim Buss pulled the rug out from under Jackson at around midnight one night.
Jackson could have managed the regular season madness, but not even he could have guided Howard, Pau Gasol and a bunch of back-ups to playoff success.
The former Lakers coach was insightful as to the current team’s expectations even when they were eight games under .500.
“They might have to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment to get their defense in order, but they have the talent,” Jackson said.
The Zen Master failed with the Lakers’ last super team, the 2004 team. That Big Four of Bryant still in his prime, Shaquille O’Neal in his prime, Gary Payton and Karl Malone at least made it to the NBA Finals. They were a championship or bust team, but they could win some ball games.
This team going forward has nothing but question marks.
“We have plenty of pieces but it’s up to management and ownership what pieces to keep, what pieces to change,” Gasol said. “I would like to be part of another championship team here, but it’s not totally up to me. There’s definitely potential for this team.”
The team’s priority needs to be Howard. He’s an unrestricted free agent and didn’t get the alpha dog treatment he should have. When asked about playing for D’Antoni, Howard said he wasn’t going to talk about anything for next season.
D12 played through pain this year, bouncing back from back surgery to lead the NBA in rebounding average (12.4 per game) while putting in 17.1 points per game on limited touches. Howard was also fifth in the league in blocked shots with a 2.45 average. This big dog need to get fed.
Gasol could be a goner simply because of money. The Lakers can amnesty one player and right now, Gasol could be that guy. Or he could be traded. Gasol produced OK this season despite getting very limited touches and D’Antoni’s screwy “system.”
Artest should be the one to go. His erratic shooting and questionable shot selection often clanks the Lakers right out of games. There’s a reason defenses leave him open for so many shots.
And what will become of Bryant? A 35-year-old player is slowed already, but having to come back from an Achilles injury may be too much.
Bryant will be too old, too stubborn and plays horrendous defense. D-ing up LeBron James for a few minutes in the All-Star game doesn’t count. Worst of all, Bryant probably won’t defer to Howard and Gasol, who can get easy shots in the paint.
He’s the toughest competitor I’ve seen in any sport, returning from injuries and playing through pain more often than any athlete. Age catches up eventually though.
Bryant’s contract is up after next season. He’s already a step behind the NBA’s elite, it’s difficult to imagine him willing the Lakers to another title. Bryant has to share the load, something he has never been able to do (see driving Shaq out of town as an example).
So how will this franchise hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy again? Simple. Sign Howard. And hope King James trades in the Atlantic Ocean for the Pacific (he can opt out of his contract right as the Black Mamba’s expires).
This sounds far fetched. Remember, the Lakers were left for dead after Shaq left. They suffered for three years until the Spanish Jesus resurrected them.
Maybe the King can help rule the L.A. court in 2014.