The nightmare season, all over again

Harry How

Fans and writers alike said that the Lakers couldn't experience the same injury-riddled catastrophe that we all saw last year. Could we?

In the midst of the Lakers fumbling their way to a loss against the Golden State Warriors, newly signed point guard Kendall Marshall made his LA debut. In just six minutes of playing time, Marshall looked every bit the draft bust that his reputation dictated. The former 13th overall pick just 18 months ago in the 2012 NBA Draft committed nearly one turnover per minute played with a combination of ragged half-baked pass attempts. Marshall looked completely unprepared to play with his new team, grasping to adjust to the nuances of Mike D'Antoni's offense and misreading the habits of his new teammates. One can hardly blame Marshall in a sense, seeing as he was plucked out of the Delaware 87ers D-League rotation and 24 hours later put right back into a NBA game.

With injuries to Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake, it's clear that whether or not he's ready for it, Kendall Marshall must play a role with the Los Angeles Lakers this season. As the 15th and final man on the roster, he's quite literally the last resort for a broken, battered team that looks to be careening down the mountain quickly. Not that we're at all foreign to this situation.

Last season, starting point guard Steve Nash broke his leg in just the year's second game. His primary back-up, Steve Blake, was hurt shortly thereafter with an abdominal tear that required surgery. With Kobe playing heavy minutes at point guard, soon players like a washed-up Chris Duhon and unprepared second-year man Darius Morris were sopping up major minutes when, quite frankly, they had no business as serious NBA contributors. We watched on with a sort of bemused disbelief as Duhon launched 35-foot jumpers and Morris struggled to finish shots at the rim even Duhon couldn't miss. It was embarrassing and unfathomable, a similar feeling that I got watching the Lakers on Saturday night.

In many ways, the 2013-2014 season is unfolding as every bit of the injury-bitten nightmare that 2012-2013 was. Last year, we saw Dwight Howard, Bryant, Nash, Gasol, Blake and Metta World Peace go down or recovering from every injury imaginable--labrum tear, back surgery, ruptured Achilles tendon, broken leg, concussion, plantar fascia tear, torn abdominal muscle, groin strain, torn meniscus, nerve damage, high ankle sprains and a parking lot spike through the freakin' foot. All that actually happened, and that's not even counting some of the season's more...distinctive moments: Mike Brown's firing a week into the season, the controversy of Phil Jackson's "almost hire", the controversy of Mike D'Antoni's hire, in-fighting between Dwight and everyone, in-fighting between D'Antoni and everyone and of course, 45 wins which were 15-20 victories short of where everyone expected them to be. The entire season was absolutely wretched, all leading up to Howard bolting the Lakers for less money, less years and a (respectfully) less prestigious franchise.

The expectations were low this year, lower than they have been in a decade. But even as bloggers and writers everywhere predicted just how bad the Lakers would be, some recoiled at the notion that this season could be worse than last year. There was no way that the team could hit as many snags in regards to injury, or that the locker room discord could reach such heights (or lows, I suppose). Even as the doubters ignored just how poor this team would be defensively, many thought that the team's offensive synchronicity and good personal chemistry might help them surprise people.

This year, we're looking at Bryant, Nash, Blake and Jordan Farmar all going down with serious injuries. Though the health epidemic hasn't yet been as prevalent as last season, in some ways the injuries to the two former All-Stars, Kobe and Nash, is worse even when not during a season with championship expectations. This year, a broken knee and recurring nerve root problems mean something different than simply not competing for a title--it's a scarier indication of ongoing injury problems for both men who are past their prime and at various points in their career twilights. For Nash, many have wondered aloud if this is the very real end to a fantastic career. For Kobe, many have wondered aloud if he should be suiting up again this season and if he'll ever get to be more than just a very good role player. On the bright side, there is no coaching controversy this season, but for a team treading water in the middle of the NBA pack, there rarely is such a quibble. The Lakers aren't bad, but they're not good, and thus no one is asking questions of whether or not Mike D'Antoni is capable of guiding the organization to its 17th title. Is not having this debate at all in some ways worse than having it to begin with? Especially if we're talking about the Lakers?

The way some things have gone with less than 30 games down, it's hard not to start comparing the two seasons. As the injury problems have flowed out of last season and into this one, what we all failed to understand wasn't that this team wasn't snake-bitten because of bad luck--they were as unlucky as they were old. When heavily depending on guys like Nash, Gasol, Blake and Kobe, the minutes will take their toll, especially when there isn't quality depth. This season, the same problem has surfaced--guys like Steve Blake, Nash and Kobe were expected to play heavy minutes without the benefit of quality depth behind them. It was foolish to think that there was no way that last year's injury problems couldn't be replicated. Of course they could. That's what happens when your team of veterans are asked to play major minutes because of the lack of options behind them.

Still, somehow, the injuries haven't completely taken their toll. The team is 13-14 heading into the end of December, a record that many would have been overjoyed with when prognosticating at the end of October. The Lakers have cobbled together a mediocre defense predicated on sheer effort and athleticism, despite a lack of any legitimate rim protection and shot blocking. Whereas last year's team lost games based on apathy, this year's edition wins by outhustling and outshooting and loses simply because they just don't have the requisite talent.

In some ways, this is great: this team plays extremely hard, every single night, endeavoring to exceed every expectation (or perhaps lack thereof) set upon them. Rather than four potential Hall of Famers suiting up in the starting line-up, the '13-'14 Lakers had three lottery busts filling those spots Saturday night, with several more waiting to check in as reserves. It's been a miraculous development, a manifestation of the Los Angeles Lakers we're not used to seeing: a scrappy team of ne'er-do-wells, "has beens" and "never wases", who relish the ability to show the world their middle fingers. In a purely basketball sense, this is probably the most enjoyable Lakers season I've watched in years--it's great if they win, but if they don't, I know it won't be for a lack of effort.

But the sordid truth is that this season is every bit a nightmare as last season. Except this is one that we're not sure how to wake up from. Or if we want to?

It starts with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. As I've written time and time again, the injuries they've faced are bad, yes, but the real problem is that at their ages, injuries just lead to further injury. Whether it's the athlete compensating for old wounds or a lack of the requisite conditioning time needed to keep their high mileage bodies in tune, both players might never be fully healthy ever again. We've been prepared for the end of both men's careers for several years now--Nash much moreso than Kobe--but actually seeing it come to fruition is equal parts jarring and devastating. Watching stars in your favorite team's uniforms decline is almost always a painful exercise. But watching two of the greatest players of all time decline? A massacre of the heart.

The second part of this nightmare scenario? As I wrote right after the news of Kobe's knee injury, it is more imperative than ever that the Lakers get in the next great star to even stay afloat the next two seasons. It's all too apparent to me that LA might not be able to count on Kobe being the franchise star until his 20th season that the organization can buoy even their playoff hopes on. This being the only NBA draft pick the Lakers have complete control over for the next several seasons, it is vital that the Lakers take the bold step of choosing to rebuild, in whatever manner that makes it possible.

The problem is that this particular team might not allow that to happen. They care too much, are too experienced and have too high personal stakes to nab the requisite losses needed to garner the top-7 pick the Lakers truly need going forward. This, more than anything, is a nightmare scenario for fans: a team you love watching because of their grit and effort and routinely root for onto victory, but at the same time have the conflicting notion that they should lose as often as possible. It's a strange imbalance that has me simultaneously hoping for a win but knowing a loss is the properly prescribed medicine for the franchise going forward.

I don't believe this team can survive without Kobe, Nash or any other point guard to speak of. The next two months should be extraordinarily difficult for a team that will be putting an overwhelming load on the back of a 33-year-old Pau Gasol. I believe that this team will begin to come closer to the team they look like on paper, despite their best efforts to do otherwise. But I also believe in their ability to make those last few sentences look monumentally stupid. Both thoughts please me and terrify me. It's a cyclical torrent of emotions over and over, and then once again.

And thus, the nightmare season continues. Again.

--MAMBINO

--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino

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