In a season that's becoming progressively bleaker by the day, could today be the death blow to a prospective championship season on life support?
All within the last 24 hours, three Lakers big men toppled towards the hardwood, as if they were gigantic dominoes being flicked by the oversized pincer of the injury bug. Following yesterday's game against the Denver Nuggets, reserve forward-center Jordan Hill added to his already thick medical folder with a torn hip muscle that will cause him to miss at least a week of action.
That wasn't all: more apparent in Sunday's contest was the bloody injury to Pau Gasol. At the time, announcers Bill McDonald and Stu Lantz postulated he had suffered a broken nose from a flailing JaVale McGee elbow (is there any other kind?). Today, news came down that Gasol's nose was merely lacerated, but the real damage came from within--the Spaniard had been concussed, and would miss at least the next two games.
Surprisingly, the most devastating news of the day was yet to come. Dwight Howard, who sprained his shoulder on Friday in a loss against the Clippers, had re-aggravated the injury against the Nuggs and was noticeably wincing during the game. An examination afterwards revealed that Howard was playing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, which led the team to list the center out "indefinitely". Later in the day, Dwight was adamant that he wouldn't need surgery to correct the injury, but rather just rehabilitation. Either way, the Lakers' starting center would be out at least one week, if not more if surgery is deemed necessary. It seems impossible, but Howard's cartoonishly gigantic shoulders weren't even exempt from a storm of health problems for the Lakers' frontline.
It's not that all of these injuries are that devastating in the short-term--all of them call for the Lakers' bigs to miss no more than two to five games. However, it's the nature of the injuries that could prolong the players' absences for a serious stretch of time. Hill's latest boo-boo is the nineteenth of the season, seemingly. So far, the former Wildcat has been sidelined with a herniated disc and a sprained ankle. Though a hip injury is another short-term problem, it's obvious at this point that Hill is just an injury-prone player. Gasol's concussion calls for just a two-game leave, but concussions can range from temporary setbacks to lifelong disabilities. It's improbable that Pau could be done for the season or anything close to that, but there's no telling how he'll respond in the coming days. Howard's shoulder is another wild card--though he's insisted that surgery isn't an option, labrum tears can be assuaged by anything ranging from rehabilitation to invasive surgery, depending on how large the tear. For now, he's saying that this is just a rest and strengthening process, but again, the pervasive cloud of uncertainty rolls over the Lakers.
The swath of maladies couldn't have come at a worse time--the 15-18 Lakers face an incredibly tough week, with a back-to-back in Texas against the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs and a game Friday at home versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. Before these injuries, LA was looking at the prospect of a potential 15-21 record by week's end. At this point, it almost seems inevitable.
IF the injuries are what they're presented as--one week absences--the Lakers shouldn't lose that much in all honesty. Yes, they'll probably get blown out by Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, but could the team have been expected to win two out of three even with this fully healthy squad playing like a group of drunk D'Antoni brothers in a Thanksgiving pick-up game? Probably not. Losses are losses, whether they're blow-outs or two-point differentials. IF--and we're working with Kareem-sized "ifs" here--the injuries are just short-term blows, then all the Lakers are losing is a better opportunity to win probable losses and of course, valuable time to create more on-court chemistry.
However, if these health problems linger for longer as I've guessed they could? We might be looking at a lottery team. The rotation for tomorrow night's game against Houston will include regulars Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Darius Morris, Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon, as well as little used bench players like Antawn Jamison, the prodigal Ronny Turiaf in Robert Sacre and Earl Clark. Yes, Earl Clark will be getting actual NBA minutes. However, that's not even the most devastating news here: the Lakers don't even own the potential lottery pick. They dealt it to Phoenix in the Steve Nash deal. This is the best comedy Woody Allen never wrote.
Regardless of whether the big men miss one week, one month or mid-way between the two, the Lakers are going to have to make due with a skeleton crew who look as equipped to run an MDA system as would Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.
However, there's a silver lining to injuries to three key players. The best Lakers post player has arguably always been Kobe Bryant, but now second and third place will be manned by Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison. The slowest Laker regular to get up and down the floor was Pau Gasol, but now it'll be Jamison and World Peace, again.The Lakers are going to play incredibly small for the "indefinite" future, with shooters lining the perimeter and Robert Sacre as the only rim protector of the bunch.
Isn't that Mike D'Antoni's dream?
With Gasol, Howard and Hill sidelined, this team is going to have to forgo a lot of their traditional defensive schemes and run, shoot and run. In that order. And then run some more. And then shoot enough to make Jamal Crawford say "Wow. That was a lot of shooting." Seriously, he'd say that.
The Lakers are going to start tomorrow with Nash, Kobe, World Peace and Sacre, with either Jamison, Meeks or Morris as the fifth starter. Regardless of how D'Antoni leans, the Lakers are going to be stacked with shooters from their starting unit, as well as from the bench with Duhon. The Show is going to have to heavily rely on ball sharing from Nash, Kobe and Duhon, moving the rock quickly around the perimeter and hoping for a Sacre or...Earl Clark finish in the post behind undisciplined help defenders. However, as much as the Lakers will lack in post play, they'll make up for it by being able to run in transition, which has been a surprising weak point even with a Nash-helmed team.
Will the Lakers be able to even get on the break? LA has been fourth in rebounds per game thus far, a bright spot from an otherwise lackluster season. Hill, Howard and Gasol have represented over half of the Lakers' total rebounds to date, which doesn't bode well for a team without their services. Sacre and Jamison will have to try their best to sop up the uncorralled loose balls, but Tawn's time as a solid rebounder is most likely over, and for all his energy, Big Rob was never a great rebounder even in his time at Gonzaga (averaging just 6.3 boards his last two seasons). Also as I mentioned, the Lakers are going to be without their three leading shot blockers, leaving them laughably thin on their last line of defense. To allay the lack of interior presence, the Lakers are going to have to adjust their defensive schemes from relying, in my opinion over-relying, on Dwight Howard's massive frame clogging up the middle.
Mike's boys are going to be forced to communicate better and rely on their newfound quickness and athleticism, rather than consistently expecting Howard to clean up every penetration play. This was on prime exhibition last night against the Nuggets, as the Lakers stood pensive and stared at one another blankly while Ty Lawson constantly got to the rim unimpeded by a confounded Los Angeles D. Help defenders were reluctant to commit to moving in front of slashers and drives, with each Laker not knowing whether to be aggressive or not.
Without Howard or even Gasol back in the paint, the Lakers won't have a fallback option. Hopefully, the lack of a proven shot blocker will get LA to play more aggressively on defense, communicate clearer and scrap harder for boards. The Lakers will lose the nightly rebounding battle, as well as points in the paint, but will have to make up for it by picking up the pace, hitting a higher volume of threes, using their more active perimeter players to isolate wing players and move more crisply on pick and rolls. Perhaps this attitude will embolden the Lakers to do the same when Howard and Gasol return, creating a more cohesive defensive presence altogether.
Could a team with just 45 games left in the season win enough to gain a top five or six seed in the Western Conference, let alone a playoff berth...period? Last year's eight-seed, the Utah Jazz, would have won 44 games with their .545 winning percentage, prorated over the course of a 82 game season. To get to 44 wins, the Lakers will have to go 29-16. That shouldn't be difficult given the talent on this team, but hasn't that been the mantra all year long? LA could be facing long odds if they go six games under .500 by week's end to merely make the playoffs, much less gain a seed which would avoid the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio, OKC or the Clippers in the first round.
The Show is going to face a major handicap whether their bigs miss two games or two months, but in order to merely keep themselves afloat in the interim, they're going to have to transform the way they play into a true small-ball run-and-gun squad that jacks up three-pointers at a break-neck pace and scraps on every possession. Maybe, just maybe, this will help the Lakers in the long run.
Are the Lakers' title hopes dashed? Perhaps this is ultimate death knell to the notion of title number 17.
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