Yesterday, the Los Angeles Lakers saw their season come to a stunning, early, and shameful end, losing to the Dallas Mavericks, 122-86, and being ignominiously swept out of the playoffs a full two rounds earlier than they have advanced for the past three years. Stunning? I meant predictable. After all, before Game 3, I all but called how this series would end, committing to words exactly how badly Laker teams have flamed out in those of the last 15 years that haven't ended with parades. Early? Hindsight is obviously 20/20 here, but based upon this series, and what we know of the limitations of the team faced in the last round, one has to ask if the Lakers would even have advanced past round one if they had faced any team but the one they did. It is no coincidence that, of the eight teams which advanced to Round 2, all the other ones are still playing, because they are all better than whatever it is the Lakers became in their final weeks. Using the Hornets as a baseline, and the Mavericks as the team to measure against, one has to believe the Lakers would likely have lost to any other team in the West.
Shameful? Yes, yes, a hundred times yes. For both the plays, and the players, this team, and its fans, should feel shame. But even that shame, for which there is no mitigating or explanatory circumstance in the moment, mixes with, and is ultimately shaded out by, its counterpart, pride. Because yesterday signaled the end of an era, historical context and perspective must be processed right along with the emotion of what has happened. The historical perspective is that the Lakers have gone on a magical run, and no level of shame and disappointment can remove, or tarnish, that magic, no matter how hard the team seemed to try.
Pride and shame. To feel both at the same time, regarding the same entity, is a surreal experience, and it is one that we are all sharing. We are proud of our team. We are ashamed of our players.
First billing goes to the man who demands this perspective in the first place. If Phil Jackson weren't retiring, likely never to coach again, but certainly never again coaching this group, there would be no need to look at the events of this series with a wide lens. We would be allowed to be consumed by the rage and disappointment of this failure, and then with what solutions exist to fix it. It is his imminent departure, and the subsequent effect it will have on the future of this roster, that demands we remember the years of good more than the days (weeks? months?) of bad.
Even for Phil Jackson, there is pride and shame. PJ has left a legacy that may never again be touched. 11 championships in 20 years as a head coach. As coach of our beloved purple and gold, five championships, seven NBA Finals trips, and a perfect 11 for 11 seasons ended with a trip to the playoffs. While that list of accomplishments doesn't quite measure up to his time in Chicago, there can be little doubt that some of his finest coaching happened in L.A. He guided two completely different teams to two amazing runs. He is, without doubt, the greatest head coach in the history of professional basketball. But this was also the year that all the things Phil Jackson did, all of those seemingly bizarre and nonsensical acts and behaviors that always end up leading the team to victory, this was the year when none of it worked. His refusal to call a time out as the Mavericks made short work of the Lakers' large 3rd quarter lead in Game 1 changed that game. His willingness to let players play through their issues backfired at every step of the way this year, with the most pointed incident occurring in Game 2 of this series, in which, as Steve Blake was visibly choking with horribly missed shots and terribly errant passes, Phil Jackson played Blake more in that game than in any other in the postseason. And this is also the year when he lost the ear of his team. Perhaps shame is the wrong word to use for Phil Jackson. We should not be ashamed of his coaching this year so much as we are disappointed in it, but we are disappointed. It doesn't change how we feel about his as a coach and as a legend, doesn't change how much we wish the team had sent him out more appropriately and more respectfully, but no team can fail like the Lakers just did without the coach taking a lion's share of the blame.
For Kobe Bryant, there is pride and sadness. Pride because he was the one player in the playoffs that always went after it, the one who always did everything he could. Pride because he had another tremendous year. Pride because this team's run has finally cemented his status as one of history's finest basketball players, giving him his own two legs to stand on with championships and MVP trophies. But sadness, because this season was the beginning of the end of the period of Bryant's career in which he can be consistently dominant. Lord knows the world does not need any more debates about Kobe Bryant's overall ability, or his performance in the clutch, but this year, at least, he was godawful in the closing minutes of many games, and his inability to do what he has done so many times in the past killed this team all season long. Statistically, the Lakers were one of the worst 4th quarter teams in the entire league, and that lost them at least two of the four games included in their quick exit from the playoffs. It is not impossible that Kobe can recover at least some of his closing form, that perhaps his ability to dominate games can be restored with a longer period of rest than he is currently used to, but it is more likely that we are entering the period of Kobe's career in which he is no longer a top 5 player, no longer able to dominate a game or a season for long stretches.
For Pau Gasol, we should be proud of his emergence as one of the best post players in the game, even as we are ashamed, disappointed, and confused with how quickly and voraciously he disappeared this season. It can be difficult to remember, but Pau began this season so well that people were discussing him as an MVP candidate. Without him, the Lakers do not win two championships, do not make the Finals in 2008. Without the trade of Pau Gasol to the Lakers, the NBA's entire landscape might be different right now. But Gasol is also the primary reason why the Lakers crashed and burned this season. His postseason play was terrible, and even worse, a large chunk of it lacked passion. In 2008, Gasol was punked by the Boston Celtics, and you know what, that's totally acceptable. Kevin Garnett is one of the game's best defenders ever, Kendrick Perkins is of similar ability, and that 2008 Celtic defense will remain legendary for years and years. Now, he just had the same trick pulled by Dirk Nowitzki. Don't get me wrong, Dirk is an amazing player. Spectacular. But Dirk has never, ever been known as a defensive force, and yet the Lakers' second best player, their second All-Star, the 2 in their 1-2 bunch not only failed to take advantage of Dirk's one weakness, he was completely erased by The German. Pau always acted with dignity, and towards the end you could see him trying his best, even if the results didn't change, but he is exhibit 1 in determining what went wrong with this team.
For Ron Artest, this was the year he turned the corner from thug, to loony, to lovable. His work off the court, and his transformation from the guy who punched fans to the guy who won the NBA's citizenship award is incredible. The raffling off of his championship ring, the radio singles, the crazy talk shows, everything about Ron Artest has been awesome. But his play on the court was not. The norm is for a player to gain some level of comfort in the Triangle offense in their second season, but Ron Ron never managed, and his statistical contribution to this playoff series was terrible. To make matters worse, he spent a large chunk of the season playing sub-par defense with poor effort, both of which are not usually part of the Artest experience. His defense in the 2nd half of the season improved dramatically, so the obituaries on his ability to contribute are premature, but there can be no question that the potential for Artest's five-year contract to become an albatross is as real as it is scary.
For Derek Fisher, he has much to be proud of over the course of his career, but this was the year in which his failings (which are many) could not be made up by his attributes (which are few). His play this season, and in the big moments in which he has so often shown his value, showed that Fisher has fully entered the Long Goodbye portion of his career. Words cannot express how much Derek Fisher has meant to this franchise, but it is probable that few words will be required to describe his contributions going forward. He does not have much left to give.
For Lamar Odom, the pride and shame share the same airspace. This was the year Lamar finally got it right. After 10 years in the league, he finally spent an entire season playing his best basketball. Buoyed by a trip to the World Championships as Team USA's veteran and captain, Lamar was at or near his best the entire season, and finally got some recognition (as the league's 6th man of the year) for all the understated contributions he has brought to this team over the years. We were waiting for Lamar to fall off all season, waiting for him to disappear, waiting for the inconsistency which has plagued his entire career to rear its ugly head, and it never came. This was the year Lamar finally got it right, only to get it wrong at exactly the wrong time for the Lakers. In the playoffs, Lamar was rarely effective and he is the captain of a bench that was so bad, they practically removed all chance of the Lakers being successful. And for the cherry on the crap sundae of his playoff performance, he was the first player to lose his cool as Dallas pummeled the Lakers in their final game. His shove/hip-check/whatever the hell that was on Dirk Nowitzki was embarrassing and needless, and his ejection was deserved. But give him some credit ... at least the man went after somebody his own size.
For Andrew Bynum, there should have been so much more pride than shame. This year, Drew killed off quite a few of the unfair labels he's been given over the years. Injury prone? Despite a couple scares, Drew was basically injury free throughout the year. A selfish black hole interested only in his own numbers? Drew became the star of this team's late season turn around without being the focal point of the offense, spending a brief six week period looking like the second best defensive player in the game. And, on a team in which passion was in short supply, Drew was the one guy besides Kobe who looked like he cared. This was Drew's breakout season, in so many exciting and team-dynamic changing ways, and prior to his ungraceful exit from the Lakers' final game, he was the only member of this organization for whom there should no individual disappointment. But, with one stupid, irresponsible, dangerous act, he consumed a huge portion of his built-up good will and revealed himself as a player that, should he not correct whichever part of his brain allows him to be willing to level a child (J.J. Barea is most certainly a man, but the difference in size here is what it would be for an adult to go after a child in similar fashion), will be very difficult to keep in our hearts. Drew is a Laker, and the Lakers are like family to us all. As long as he wears the uniform, I will support him. As long as he has Lakers across his chest, I will want good things to happen for him. You do not wish ill on your brother. You love your brother, and hope that he turns things around. But you can choose to not like your brother, and it's very difficult to like a player that did what Andrew just did.
Pride and shame. When such diametrically opposed ideas are combined into one, the results can be shocking, difficult to understand, and dangerous. Nearly 24 hours after yesterday's events, I'm still dazed as I try to sort through the emotional melting pot in my brain, and this is the same phenomenon that led to the behavior displayed by the team. The Lakers are a proud team, and for good reason. Their list of collective accomplishments over the past few years is unmatched. And they were ashamed of themselves, ashamed that they couldn't hit a shot to save their lives, ashamed that their defensive effort and execution were pathetic, ashamed that they were utterly destroyed by a team you can be sure they still think they are better than. That's what caused Phil and Kobe to feign confidence like they did. That's what caused Derek and Pau to play like they did. It's what caused Lamar and Drew to act like they did. These two emotions are yin and yang, never meant to be combined.
Now, their combination defines the end of Phil Jackson's legacy, and potentially marks the beginning of the end of Kobe Bryant's as well. There is no telling, as of this moment, where this team is heading. The Lakers remain supremely talented, but they also remain supremely old. With a new coach coming in, with the potential of a lockout taking away one more season of youth from the team, we can have no idea whether the Lakers in their current form will ever be capable of performing up to the impossible standard they set for themselves. They may not even be given the chance to try, because now, Mitch Kupchak, Jerry Buss, and all the other members of the Lakers front office are dealing with the combination of pride and shame as well.
Pray that they handle it a little better than the players did.