In early January, the Los Angeles Lakers went through an almost unthinkable wave of injuries. Within a two-game span, the team's entire big man rotation crumbled with a laundry list of various maladies; Dwight Howard with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Pau Gasol with a brutal concussion after an errant JaVale McGee elbow and reserve Jordan Hill with a torn labrum in his left hip. At the time, it was frankly implausible that this could happen all at once. The Lakers had already been snake bitten all season long, with Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Gasol missing huge chunks of games with various injuries. The thought of one star going down was devastating enough--but a coach's entire front court getting hurt? All in a 48-hour period? Ridiculous.
And then it happened again.
During Game 2 in the opening round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs, Mike D'Antoni's back court rotation cratered with various physical problems. In addition to Kobe Bryant (ruptured left Achilles tendon) and Jodie Meeks (sprained left ankle) being on the shelf in the past week, Steve Blake strained his hamstring, while Steve Nash aggravated an already painful nerve irritation affecting his back, hip and hamstring. Blake has already been ruled out for tonight's game, while Nash and Meeks are listed as doubtful. It appears that much like that fateful 48 hour period in early January, what remains of an already fragile Lakers guards corps has gone down in 3 short days.
The odds of this happening once, let alone twice is of course, astronomical. With the exception of Antawn Jamison (who has been playing through a painful tear in his right wrist) and Earl Clark (who only began to play during the aforementioned January apocalypse on any man 6'11" and above), every single Lakers rotation player has missed time with injury, almost all of them serious health concerns. To punch the point home, let's go to the tape:
Steve Nash: Missed 32 games (Hip/back/hamstring: 8 games, fractured right fibula: 24 games)
Steve Blake: Missed 37 games (Torn abdominal muscle: 37 games, strained right hamstring: 0 games, but out for tonight's game)
Pau Gasol: Missed 33 games (Tendinitis both knees: 8 games, concussion: 5 games, right plantar fascia tear: 20 games)
Jordan Hill: Missed 53 games (Torn labrum/damaged cartilage left hip: 53 games)
Dwight Howard: Missed 6 games (Torn labrum right shoulder: 6 games)
Metta World Peace: Missed 6 games (Right torn meniscus: 6 games)
Kobe Bryant: Missed 6 games (Left ankle sprain: 2 games, ruptured left Achilles tendon: 4 games)
Jodie Meeks: Missed 0 games (Left ankle sprain: 0 games, but expected to miss tonight's contest)
That is a combined 171 games, and according to Lakers reporter Mike Trudell, 81 games for the starters. Even this docket doesn't cover the injuries in its entirety: Dwight Howard has played through recovery from back surgery, Gasol competed with knee tendinitis for weeks in first couple of months and Jamison has gutted through a wrist injury that will need offseason surgery. The vaunted Bryant-Howard-Gasol-Nash-World Peace core has started together roughly half the number of games (19) than they have combined All-Star appearances (35). In those games, the Lakers went 6-13, an unimaginable record considering the type of talent on the court, but completely understandable with the surrounding circumstances. Head trainer Gary Vitti has said that he's never seen anything injury situation like this before, with so many key players going down with such serious issues.
Every single facet of LA's attack has been affected by these injuries, whether it be their offense (Nash, Kobe, Pau), defense (Howard, Hill, MWP), bench production (Hill, Blake), rebounding (Howard, Hill, Pau) or passing (Nash, Pau). For those keeping track at home, that list comprises every motion the sport of basketball.This isn't to say that it's just a question of age--Hill (25), Meeks (25) and Howard (27) have missed just as much time as Nash (39), Bryant (34), Gasol (32), World Peace (33) and Blake (32). Yes, the Lakers front office had to know the risks in trading for Dwight fresh off of back surgery, a nearly 40 year-old Nash and keeping Bryant and Gasol with so many playoff minutes wearing on their joints. But many of these injuries were completely random occurrences (Nash's broken leg, Meeks' ankle, Kobe's Achilles tendon, Howard's shoulder), while yes, others were consequences of wear and tear (Nash's hip/hamstring, Blake's hamstring, MWP's knee). Still, I would argue that the Lakers have been less vulnerable to the ravages of age that has affected the New York Knicks, whose 37 years+ club of Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby have all missed massive amounts of time with "old man injuries".
But even more than that, the Lakers simply haven't been able to put together any type of momentum or chemistry without another injury batting it down, like a petulant five year-old bowling through a house of cards. Just as the team had learned to play without Dwight Howard in early February, Pau Gasol tore his plantar fascia in Brooklyn. Kobe Bryant had been pushing himself past the brink of exhaustion, resuscitating the dying Lakers offense seen the past two games in San Antonio. As the team had won six of seven games, he ruptures his Achilles tendon, all but extinguishing what little hope the Lakers had as a dark horse Western Conference Finals team. One and a half games into the season, Damian Lillard accidentally nails Steve Nash in the sweet spot on his right leg, fracturing his fibula and sabotaging what could have been a nascent basketball giant. From Week 1, the Lakers haven't caught a break.
It's not just the departures that have hurt the Lakers--it's also the returns. Unlike other coaches that have regimented systems in which one player can simply fill in for another (i.e. Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls, Doc Rivers' Boston Celtics), LA's pieces are uniquely talented entities that couldn't be replaced no matter who was sitting on the bench behind them. Howard, Gasol, Nash and Bryant all command much effort from their teammates to provide complimentary play. The massive adjustments needed to accommodate their distinctive games has set the Lakers back further than they already had been--after all, the entire premise of these five All-Stars starting together was a massive adjustment itself, let alone the addition and subtraction of one of them seemingly every three weeks. Where they each want the ball, how they react on defense, the speed at which each player runs the court, reacting to subtle movements between each other...the list goes on and on. None of that continuity could be built without long periods of time together on the court, no matter how great the players, how smart the head coach or how brilliant the front office.
Take the 2010-2011 Miami Heat, for example. They went through the season relatively unscathed, finishing 58-24 behind neither LeBron James, Dwyane Wade nor Chris Bosh missing more than 14 games between the three of them. Even with their excellent health record, youth, combined greatness, coach Erik Spoelstra (considered one of the smartest coaches in the game) and team president Pat Riley (one of the greatest front office maestros of all-time), the Heat still couldn't win the NBA title.
The 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers, with all their injuries, could not have contended for a NBA championship, no matter who coached the team or who sat up in the front office. These injuries have crippled the team beyond repair, setting into effect a domino chain of calamities. Before the season, we here at Silver Screen & Roll were most concerned about injury and chemistry issues derailing a potential title contender. Turns out that the 171 missed games from seven primary rotation players, all spread out throughout the season and leaving no part of the team unaffected, fulfilled both doomsday scenarios.
These Lakers were a wide color palette, dotted with varying hues and tones. Put together, they could make up the next "Starry Night"--a complex canvas with potential for aesthetic disaster, but together makes an unparalleled work of art. Instead, Lakers Nation got a finger painting in which the colors all bled together to form a crude, brown semblance of a masterpiece. It may be true that Mike D'Antoni isn't a world-class painter with the ability to throw all these very diverse elements together and build something that will stand the test of time. He very well could deserve every bit of criticism hurled his way. However, even if MDA isn't the right man going forward, looking into what's already unfolded, he has to be given a great deal of leeway considering the incredibly difficult hand he's been dealt. There's a lot of disparage about the moustachioed menace, but he's seen his starting five play together a mere 18 times, even less with his key bench players. No coach--not even John Wooden with a staff of Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and Pat Riley by his side--could have managed this team with these circumstances to contention. In many ways, this 45-win behemoth plodding their way to a potential first round sweeping is actually an impressive feat. Without Kobe Bryant's brilliance and Dwight Howard's late season resurgence, should this team have won more than 33 of its contests?
There's been a lot to complain about this year about the Lakers, but the lion's share belongs to simple misfortune. The front office has made some questionable decisions, which in turn has given fans a controversial coach, but the swarm of injuries have changed their grades from a "fail" in bright red marker to a very nebulous "incomplete". Going into next season, Mike D'Antoni, Jim Buss, Pau Gasol or whoever the target of the week is could be primarily responsible for the Lakers downfall. But for the past seven months, it's just been thunderbolt after thunderbolt of bad luck. Save your venom, friends. It's not the time, nor the place.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino