It's not quite yet the end of the world, but you can see it from here. As illustrated yesterday, one can believe what you will concerning the Lakers' prospects for making the playoffs, yet alone being competitive once they get there, but the bottom line is that it is a long shot. Accordingly, there is a very large possibility that the Lakers will be in the unfamiliar position of being on the outside looking in. One doesn't need to be told that this would constitute a colossal failure for a core that was assembled with the express intent of chasing a championship, but at a certain juncture, the team needs to acknowledge whether it remains a realistic endeavor. It is not necessarily an indictment of this core, as the tide of injuries and the coaching change make it very difficult to ascertain this group's ceiling and this inflection point has not arrived yet, although it certainly is coming at this rate.
Should we get to that juncture, however, you have to consider ways to salvage this situation, which would be much easier to do if the Lakers still had their 2013 draft pick. Being bad comes with its caveats and the last time Mitch Kupchak was at the helm of a lottery team, he nabbed an All-Star center. Granted, even if they did have their own pick, the Lakers wouldn't be nearly awful enough to compete for a top pick barring an injury to Kobe Bryant, but there are worse things than picking up a rotation player with upside in the teens. Bereft of any means of signing significant free agents and constrained by the enhanced luxury tax, a draft pick is a godsend from a talent and financial perspective for this squad. In this line of thought, the moves the Lakers need to make change from fixes to the short-term situation to those that can help next year or in the event of the apocalypse known as Dwight Howard leaving in free agency, the long-term.
This comes back to Pau Gasol, as you can approach trading him with a very different calculus if you don't especially care about what happens to the team this year. Of course, this might all be a moot point as Pau's value has deteriorated and his contract situation makes it all the more likely that he will be dealt in the offseason, but it highlights the changed priorities present if the playoffs aren't your goal. Ten cents on the dollar now might be fifty cents or more by the time next year rolls around. We would say that one could apply this same philosophy to everyone else outside the main core, but there is so little other trade value on the roster besides perhaps Jordan Hill that it's not really worth discussing. In other words, trading Pau becomes less a question of what happens with the pieces you get this year as versus the next.
The primary elephant in the room though is whether Dwight Howard decides to bolt in the offseason and at this point, it's not really clear what is going to happen given that his favored destination in Brooklyn has no way of obtaining him. Atlanta and Dallas stand as alternatives for him, however, and can't be discounted. Howard leaving sets in motion a true rebuild of the roster, seeing as any real hope of competing for a title evaporates, and then we start asking Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant whether they want to retire or be dealt to a contender. Next season becomes a year of playing the young guys and more or less tanking in hopes of obtaining a super phenom in Andrew Wiggins or one of a very decent top three after him in Jabari Parker, Andrew Harrison, and Julius Randle. Keeping Howard essentially gives us a mulligan for this season and a building block for the future as we continue with Nash and Kobe and proceed to build around Howard in 2014. Either way, the incoming inflection point of whether this season is to be thrown away is coming up and how the Lakers deal with this situation may very well change the fate of the franchise for years to come.
- Earl Clark -- Hello, random throw-in into bigger trades that seemingly turns into a rotation player out of the blue. Of course, Clark has to prove that his phenomenal performance against San Antonio wasn't just a flash in the pan and a teaser of the talent that got him drafted in the lottery in 2009, but he did an awful lot of good things in what arguably was the best game in his career. He hit his pick-and-pop jumper, which probably will be his meal ticket to staying in the rotation if it becomes consistent, nailed shots around the rim on the roll or on drives, and looked alarmingly like Lamar Odom, a common comparison in college, when he took the ball coast-to-coast. Even if you think his offensive performance was a huge outlier -- a very reasonable position -- what he did on defense was equally impressive, as he guarded four positions, attacked the boards, and was generally decent in his rotations. Not a lot of guys can defend Tim Duncan straight-up in the post and then take Manu Ginobili with no help on a drive and force him into a bad shot. On a roster bereft of impact defensive players besides Dwight, Clark stands out and will be at the forefront of our attention the next few games to see whether this type of play can be continued.
- Steve Nash -- Nash keeps plugging along even though he really doesn't have a big who can catch a pass on the roll and two wings who would prefer to stop the ball and take their man in isolation or in the post. Fatigue was perhaps a factor in San Antonio, as he missed a lot of easy shots he normally makes -- although one could consider practically any shot Nash puts up to be in this category -- and his defense was exposed more, but continuing to produce as he did despite a lot more attention to him on his drives is impressive. Nash as the high turnover man is something to be expected as a result, but the Lakers in general don't give him a lot of help should he get trapped on the sideline or the baseline.
- Metta World Peace -- Even if his defense isn't remotely close to the Ron Artest of old, MWP finds ways to be effective on the court as he nails threes, finds ways to finish around the rim against pressure by using awkward angles, and capitalizes on his weird assortment of post moves. Against San Antonio, he was everywhere sending balls astray as he accrued seven steals, although this was also concurrent with the Lakers' effort stepping up significantly in general. We could twiddle our thumbs and point towards his lack of dimes -- as he gets huge tunnel vision on his drives or post-ups once he decides to score -- and so-so efficiency, but frankly, that a guy who was supposed to be a role player on this squad stepped up and took on a larger offensive role was a huge boon for a struggling team.
- Honorable mention to Darius Morris, who acquitted himself slightly better these past two games, but still has a lot of the problems that has plagued his play so far this season. He simply doesn't process his reads well enough or in a sufficiently decisive fashion to be effective whenever he has the ball, and this leads to most of his problems. His defense has also slipped somewhat and against San Antonio in particular, he was a far cry from the guy who gave Tony Parker a hard time the last instance these teams met. In particular, he falls too easily for misdirection or crossovers instead of staying steady and using his length to bother the opposing player and while we can justifiably point to the fact that he's a very young sophomore in the league, it is not helpful towards his case of being a rotation player at the moment.
- Kobe Bryant -- Two games after a genuinely good defensive performance against Chris Paul and the Clippers, Kobe decided that that was good enough for the year and truly mailed it in against both Houston and San Antonio. It is hard to even call it free safety defense nowadays because that at least implies that he's trying to take away options such as driving or passing lanes, whereas his current play on that end is typified by a complete lack of effort. He could care less about his man cutting, lazily switches on the pick-and-roll to avoid fighting hard through the screen, and persists in thinking that he can project magical powers to contest the shot of his man ten feet away in the corner. This is all particularly relevant since it stands out when Kobe isn't his usual outrageously efficient self on offense this year, and while he was effective going towards the rim, he missed an awful lot of the same midrange shots he's nailed since forever in the past two games.
- Jodie Meeks -- Meeks is starting to get the leash with regards to his play time, which is an indictment of both his moronic willingness to attack the rim and his wayward shooting. He's certainly not a liability defensively since he competes and does a reasonable job, but there's not a whole lot of utility he offers on the floor if he can't hit from outside. It really comes down to that and it's perplexing because if anything, this offense should be a great fit for the strengths Meeks brings onto the court. He's no longer the spot-up guy surrounded by four All-Stars, but that shouldn't detract from what has been a consistent stroke on some horrific offensive teams in Philly.
- Chris Duhon -- Duhon is okay in small doses when Nash has to sit, as he does a reasonable job at managing the offense, but having him in a two point guard lineup as was the case against San Antonio means that he's especially useless. He doesn't get involved enough as a spot-up shooter to be effective in that context, likely owing to the fact that he's camped five feet behind the line. Meeks losing his minutes was the likely reason, but Duhon doesn't offer a whole lot else on the court and unlike Meeks, is a huge defensive liability. Making the situation somewhat comical is that there is a free agent on the market who fulfills both roles as a point and off guard and happens to be a decent defensive player.
- (Dis)honorable mention to Robert Sacre, who more or less did well for the last pick in the draft and a guy who really should be getting reps down in the D-League. He does have flashes, such as his respectable post defense and good awareness in pick-and-roll situations, but he sabotaged an awful lot of offensive possessions with downright Kwame Brown-esque hands. Further compounding this is his inability to score on what should be a very accurate jumper from ten feet out, but we might want to give him a break altogether considering that he alone on the team had to go through a back-to-back-to-back since he played in a D-League contest before hopping over to Houston. His so-so performance in Houston and poor one in San Antonio are much more easily explained in this light.