The Los Angeles Lakers are struggling. It's easy to see this; one could point to any number of issues plaguing them on a game by game basis and conclude that they are a team destined for another early playoff exit. Turnovers are stacked up like the reporters buzzing around the locker room trying to find a tasty soundbite from a locker room facing adversity. Opponents are recovering their missed shots at alarming rates in these despicable losses; as if opposing players are being being controlled by the likes of Dennis Rodman and Moses Malone in some elaborate marionette scheme. The defense? If Mike D'Antoni could joke about not having a D in his last name prior to coaching this Lakers team he needs to go ahead and take out any remaining letters of the word defense out. Mik Atoi. Though, whether he deserves the blame or not remains in the air as the players on the floor seem to care little about solving this issue. We can go on and on as we pick at the age of the players on the roster (which happened to get older as Dwight Howard ticked another year older, now 27), the lack of players who give a damn about playing the aforementioned defense, fragility; some mentally, others physically, and consistency as solid as water.
Yeah, there are problems here.
The Utah Jazz went in and outplayed the Lakers. That could have been written at least another 11 times this season, and likely over 80% of the quarters that have been played. There's something missing here, and from one coach to the next it has remained a void for the Lakers who want more than anything to fill it. Is it heart? Do these Lakers simply lack the desire-- the motivation -- to be great? Fated to be mired in mediocrity and complacency for an 82 game season and a handful of playoff games? Should that be the case, where do you begin to fix the "Tin Man" syndrome the Lakers have developed?
Is it a flaw in the chemistry they are conducting? Do they lack the ability to create 99.1% pure "blue sky" in the way that Walter White and Jesse Pinkman have perfected? If so, that comes as no surprise. The Walter White of the Lakers-- Steve Nash, master of all things chemistry -- has been sidelined with a cracked fibula. By and large this is a team of players who were just plopped down onto a team together, aside from Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, and Pau Gasol (Devin Ebanks you only get a side mention in parentheses. Same for you, Darius Morris). Adding players with larger than life abilities, and personalities, in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash isn't as simple as plugging in a keyboard and pecking away at the keys. There are drivers to install, then you have to restart, then you have to update and restart all over again. By my count, the Lakers have wanted to hit that restart button 12 times this season in order to try again.
Empires rise, and empires fall. For the last three years the enemies have scaled the castles walls of Lakerland and have walked away victorious. The Dallas Mavericks ended Phil Jackson's tenure in the kingdom with absolutely no remorse. A cold blooded assassination. Dirk Nowitzki delivered his head to Mark Cuban on a silver platter as they rode their momentum to the ultimate prize: an NBA title. With a weakened military and an army that was reinforced with low-tier hands in battle, the following year the Thunder proceeded to deliver a crushing blow to the Lakers with a second round exit that signified that the purple and gold clad warriors were not only not good enough to defeat the long tenured teams of the NBA in the Mavericks, but the Thunder had arrived in full force to take the Western Conference by any means necessary.
The 2013 incarnation of December is only 10 days old, the 2012-2013 NBA season is only 25% over for the Lakers, yet the people see the trouble in their domain. It's hard to ignore when the losses have been piling up for years. It's right there in the open; impossible for any to ignore. And, this isn't just a few measly regular season losses to attribute the dissonance to. This is three seasons of underachieving, disappointment, and expectations that remain higher than the sky. Where is the distress coming from? This can all be summed up by a simple quote from Mike D'Antoni Sunday night.
"We're not very good right now," Mike D'Antoni told the scribes in the Lakers' dominion as he opened up his post-game press conference. There aren't many arguments to be had to dispute this quote, and should you choose to, there's really only one question to ask yourself; why are you saying otherwise? To protect the kingdom that once was; banners flying high from the towers surrounding? The finest wine and harvests every year once belonged to the Lakers. It's been three years in the making for them now, all coming to this single point where it's just as simple as that quote. They aren't very good right now.
Yet, there's still that caveat. Right now. To say that Steve Nash and Pau Gasol won't change the issues at hand for the Lakers remains incredibly myopic. Steve Nash is no defensive stopper, and Pau Gasol is a shell of the skilled Spaniard the Lakers swindled from Memphis, thus the stigma exists. Which is all very understandable, but it's at this point that distance equates to clarity.
Add Steve Nash and Pau Gasol to any team and that instantly makes them better. No, not acquire the two by some ugly trade, or any other means. Simply add Gasol and Nash to a team. The Lakers have been playing through extended minutes of Antawn Jamison, Chris Duhon, and Darius Morris. In an offense that will be heavily predicated on the play of Steve Nash, and the ability to find a clear cut role for Pau Gasol who has struggled to start the season... while playing through severe enough tendinitis in both of his knees that the team felt it was in their best interest to sit him while they struggled to get things together to start the season.
The Lakers will soon be adding both Steve Nash and Pau Gasol to their roster without having to lose anything.
Until this team plays with a healthy Steve Nash and healthy Pau Gasol for 25% of the season, just as they have had to play without both key elements in the first 25%, it's foolish to write off the Los Angeles Lakers. The tremendous upside envisioned in the off-season has gone nowhere as it has yet to get a chance to breathe. Yet to see the light of day. The kingdom walls may be taking damage with each blow, but Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family were fully aware of the armies awaiting outside. Armies that want nothing more than to deliver the final strike to the Buss monarchy. They've done all they can to arm themselves with the best army they could possibly assemble, and while it has it's flaws, it has yet to be battle tested.
There is plenty of reason for skepticism; it's right there in the numbers. The Lakers continue to give no damns about taking care of the ball, adding another 14 turnovers against the Jazz, a stat where they are at the bottom of the league. Utah had 19 fast break points in the game; the turnovers are killing the Lakers. An older, slower, ill equipped to deal with streaking young legs kind of team. On top of those turnovers, they gave up 16 offensive rebounds, which adds up to 30 extra possessions for the Utah Jazz.
30 extra possessions to attack a Lakers team that isn't built to withstand that type of exposure. Dwight Howard isn't a cure all, he's the best answer they could have possibly come up with to try and lift the defense to a respectable level. The perimeter defense is far too slow, the offensive output potential is far too high, and these are the facts of the group that has been assembled. There will be poor defensive stretches, the goal will be to minimize the amount of damage allowed to happen to the castle walls. The Jazz used their bevy of bodies to throw at a Lakers team having to try and squeeze the freshest juice possible out of second-grade fruit while having to deal with injuries and the like. The result of the Jazz depth left them with six players in double digits; three starters and three bench players. Surprisingly, the Lakers matched this, having six of their own players reaching double digits, with Commander Kobe Bryant leading the way with 34 of his own points. That, of course, was on 9-24 shooting.
Need I remind you that the Utah Jazz had 19 fast break points? There was an intriguing article a few days back that broke down what a "Kobe Assist" is. It had all sorts of statistics and data to back the notion that Kobe Bryant taking a shot that had a high probability of turning into a put-back took away the detriment of him taking a "bad" shot.
How about the Kobe anti-assist? The one that turns into a fast break for the other team off of a defensive rebound. The one that forces the defense to try and set up while being mixed and matched in a jumbled mess. The one that has him lightly jogging back for defense, even at times never crossing the half court line while his team is unable to stop a secondary break.
Despite how efficient Kobe Bryant has been, with the talent the Lakers lack with both Pau Gasol and Steve Nash being shelved till further notice puts an immense amount of pressure on him to produce, and produce big. Dwight Howard? The Utah Jazz threw doubles at him and forced him into a game-high 4 turnovers. He ended the night with 11 points, 16 rebounds, and 4 assists but force feeding Howard in the post would have been clunk and ultimately would have produced poor results. The Lakers, and Kobe, took what was given to them. Chris Duhon is no shot creator, nor is Metta World Peace (though at times he just "does things"), nor is Antawn Jamison. Going down to the bench, Jordan Hill had a fantastic game with 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 4(!) blocked shots but he is no shot creator either. Jodie Meeks? About every two out of every ten attempts he makes at creating a shot for himself ends poorly; this man must catch and shoot. Luckily, this was mostly a night of catching and shooting for Meeks, and it landed him 16 points off the bench. Despite Chris Duhon being Chris Duhon, he still had a fantastic shooting night with 12 points on 4-6 shooting, along with another double digit assist effort (11).
The defense, though, couldn't hold up. The effort wasn't there. The Jazz were throwing half-court, even full-court, passes for easy layups. Whether it was in a fast break after one of the 14 turnovers, or directly after the Lakers scored and casually strolled back to play defense, the Jazz took advantage of a team that had no intention of making a statement defensively. Yes, the Jazz pillaged the outskirt farms of Lakerland and came away with food for their own people. This has become a normal occurence now; nothing that can't be withstood.
But trying to lead an army without the Lieutenant General and Brigadier General? That's a tall task for any kingdom. Thankfully, the Lakers dynasty has spent a great deal of time reinforcing those walls, which will buy time till they're prepared to squash the skirmishes on the outside. The people must stay strong while that time looms closer than ever. It isn't easy to watch from the outside; these losses, however small, are beginning to add up. But the war is long, and unforgiving. Only when they launch a full strength counter-attack will we know the potential of restoring the kingdom to the days of glory in the past.
Hold down the fort, do what you must to survive. Help is on the way. Let's just hope it's soon.
- Follow this author on Twitter @BallReasons
- SLC Dunk is surely celebrating with champagne after dropping an absurd 248 points over the last two games. Go enjoy a drink. We could all use one.