The season from hell. A nightmare. The cursed year. These are the words being bandied about Lakers Nation now that the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers has been mercifully put to rest. From the fans to the bloggers, the players and even the coach, everyone agrees this year was an abysmal failure on all fronts. Therein lies the problem ... on all fronts. If the Lakers' troubles were singular, or uniform, knowing what to do next would be easy. If the problems all stemmed from poor chemistry, or ill-fitting personnel, then the solution would be much simpler. If injuries were all that kept the Lakers from being great, there wouldn't be a need to do anything at all. But the Lakers organization is not that lucky. Instead, they have many difficult decisions to make, and very little real information with which to make those decisions. That's the worst part of the debacle that was the failed 2012-2013 Lakers season: Not knowing whether to try it again.
This year was a waste, and not just in the entitled "Every year we don't win a championship is a waste" sense of the word. It was a waste of a year's worth of invaluable data points as to whether the experiment the Lakers cocked up last summer could work. When you throw together four huge names like Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard together, you never know how exactly its going to work out. It takes time for them to figure each other out, to learn each other's games. We were prepared for that, prepared that you can not just throw superstars onto a team together and have everything work perfectly immediately. But we were not prepared to have an entire year pass before we could even start learning whether it could work. We were not prepared to have another summer's worth of decisions to make before we could even pass judgment on the decisions made the summer before.
Injuries were the primary reason the Lakers failed this season, but hardly the only one. Steve Nash was a shell of himself the whole year, bringing none of the magic his career has been known for. But he also got injured in Game 2 and may never have fully recovered. Is he washed up? Does he just need rest to re-capture some of what made him special? Or did he struggle because he and Kobe can't share the same ball? At 38 years old, it is unreasonable to believe that Nash can be the MVP version of himself, but the Lakers need to be able to trust Nash with the keys to the offense, and whenever they did this year, they struggled.
What about Pau Gasol? The Spaniard started the season off so poorly that a trade for pieces and parts seemed the only solution. He shot terribly from any kind of distance, meaning that teams only had to guard one of him and Dwight Howard when they shared the court together. Of course, the two sharing the court together was a rare occurrence because Pau missed the most games of any of the big four. He missed time due to injury on three separate occasions. But the end of the season provided a glimmer of hope, as Pau re-discovered his mojo and started playing like the Hall of Fame version of himself.
Kobe? He had a spectacular year ... on the offensive side of the ball. He came down from some of the career numbers he was posting in December, but he still just held on to post the best shooting year of his career (by eFG%) while also taking control of the offense in a way we've never seen from him before. With Nash either injured or ineffectual, Kobe became the team's point guard, and he did not monopolize the ball at all. Instead, he posted a career high for assists and made the right basketball play 90% of the time. But his defense was awful for all but the rarest of occasions, and his leadership early in the season as the Lakers struggled can certainly be questioned. Still, Kobe was responsible for almost all of what was good about the Lakers this season. And his reward for it was the most devastating injury an older player can suffer. Kobe's ruptured Achilles was the worst of the worst this season, because it is the only fragment of this cursed season which is already poisoning 2014.
And then there's Dwight Howard, the toughest card in the Lakers deck to read. Dwight was good this season, but he wasn't great. He was recovering from back surgery the whole year, and spent most of the year dealing with a torn labrum in his shoulder as well, and those two injuries could easily explain the slight drop-off in numbers. After all, Dwight still led the league in rebounding, still shot the ball well from the field. The only significant difference in his per 36 minute numbers from this season to last is two fewer shot attempts. But his slow recovery from a difficult injury ... just ... doesn't ... quite ... explain it, does it? It's been hard to finger, but there has been something, besides health, which has been wrong with Dwight all season. It seemed like whenever the Lakers needed him most, he would go and do something stupid ... take a dumb foul, get ejected from a game the Lakers needed to win. His effort waxed and waned in a way that he's never shown before, and his defense was not of the DPOY quality the Lakers needed it to be. And a couple of his stunts along the way (most notably taking a stat sheet around the locker room to complain about shot attempts) brought into severe question whether his attitude was right this year.
And then there's the coach. Mike D'Antoni was put into an tough spot when he took the reigns of this Lakers squad. Because of the flirtation with Phil Jackson prior to his arrival, his legs were cut out from under him before he even coached a game, certainly with the fans, and quite possibly with his own players as well. He dealt with the injuries and was the exact opposite of the coach so many pegged him as. Known as a "system" guy, D'Antoni tried everything to get the Lakers going in the right direction, but nothing worked. In the end, MDA's year was a failure. His short rotations left the Lakers severely lacking in energy for winnable contests. He failed to motivate the team to play the right way for at least the first 40 games of his tenure, and to this day, we don't know what defensive scheme, if any, the Lakers were trying to accomplish. And, whether science backs it up or not, some folks will blame him for all eternity for what he "did" to Kobe Bryant. All in all, there are three immutable truths of the Mike D'Antoni era so far: 1) Between the injuries and the details surrounding Phil Jackson, he was placed in an impossible situation when he took the job, 2) He could have done much better with that impossible situation than he did, and 3) Lakers Nation was ready to scapegoat him for everything that went wrong with this team.
Everybody failed, in their own way. Nobody lived up to the billing. But nobody had even a decent opportunity to do so. It is impossible to separate the shitty play and the shitty attitudes from the shitty health this team had. They started the NBA race so far behind the pack that they had to scrape and claw the whole season. There was no time for strategy. There was no time for feeling out. It was desperation right from the start, which means we learned next to nothing about how this team could operate if they ever were able to fire on all cylinders.
And here's the thing: on paper, the concept of these Lakers still looks like a good idea. Because Steve Nash, for all his struggles, still was one of the best shooters in the league. Because Dwight Howard looked better and better all season, and the defense is what carried the Lakers into the playoffs once the offense fell off a cliff in the absence of Kobe and Nash. Because, right at the end, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard looked to be figuring some things out together offensively and defensively, and having Gasol to throw lobs at Howard might be the most unstoppable offensive play in the entire league. Because Kobe just put together one of the finest offensive seasons of his career 17 years in. Hell, they managed to go 28-12 in the final 40 games using mostly duct tape and super glue.
Yes, the Lakers roster is in desperate need of athleticism (something which has been true for years). Yes, they desperately need to bring in a shooter that can actually shoot. And, while we can't know for sure, the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers were probably not ever going to be as good as we thought they would be. There was just too much failure for injuries to be the only thing that went wrong. But so many people thought the Lakers would be great, so many experts saw this team and saw the same concepts that led to Miami's ultimate success. The NBA is a league in which the talent at the top of your roster is more important than the talent in the middle or at the bottom. That talent is still there. The Lakers still have four Hall of Fame players on their roster, each of whom performed, in certain ways and for brief periods, as their best selves. With a few small tweaks, with a full training camp, with a decent bill of health, there is still reason to believe this version of the Los Angeles Lakers could be special.
There is also reason to believe it will never happen. The injuries make a good excuse ... hell, they make a great excuse, but at some point, injuries can only explain so much. This team's chemistry was bad. It's leadership was bad. It's defense was bad. The personnel didn't compliment each other, and the coaching didn't compliment the personnel. You can look at what little evidence we have and make a perfectly valid argument that the grand experiment that was the 2012-2013 Lakers was an abysmal failure that should be scrapped completely. You can also look at the blueprints for that experiment and be absolutely convinced that it can still work. That's the worst part of this terrible, cursed, nightmare of a season. We don't know whether to try it again.