I've been angry, Silver Screen & Rollers. Very, very angry.
We're watching one of the worst seasons possibly in the history of the Lakers franchise. One of the team's--and the league's--greatest players ever is on the shelf and soon facing the very real end of his career. Another all-time great, respected Lakers competitor and now starting point guard (well, according to his checks, anyway), isn't just at his twilight--this may very well be the end. The team has been an absolutely horrible, injury-riddled mess, tumbling down the hill from 2012-2013 preseason title contenders to 2013-2014 lottery-bound losers.
Again, I am displeased. Very, very displeased.
Part of it is just how putrid the team has been on the court. It might very well be by design, but regardless of how much of a "plan for the future" type of team this is, a particularly terrible defense is unbearable to witness on a day to day basis. Friday's bombardment at the hands of the Clippers was just the latest in unwatchable blowouts to old foes that the Lakers used to own.
But part of my discontented disposition is the fact that some people didn't think it could be this way this year. Here is a summary of some of the thoughts I heard from around the internet, the Twitters, my e-mail inbox and in every day conversation:
"The Lakers couldn't possibly be as unlucky as they were last year!"
"There is no way the Lakers will be as banged up as they were last season with Dwight, Kobe and Nash. It's just not possible that the team could face a wave like that again."
"With a little more luck, this team could be better than most people think."
Well, here we are, nearly halfway through the season and lo and behold: different season, same disappointment.
I've gone through this before, but I'll go through it again. During the 2012-2013 campaign, the Lakers saw injuries including, but not limited to: torn labrum, recovery from back surgery, ruptured Achilles tendon, high ankle sprain, concussion, tendonosis in both knees, torn plantar fascia, fractured leg, nerve damage from said fractured leg, torn meniscus, torn wrist ligaments, torn hip muscle, torn abdominal muscle, and a parking spike through the freakin' foot. Every team goes through injuries during a long year. But nothing like that last season.
This year, the casualty list has been long, with different, but no less devastating injuries including, but not limited to: recovery from ruptured Achilles tendon, tibial plateau fracture, nerve root irritation, torn hamstring, another torn hamstring, ulnar collateral ligament tear, upper respiratory infection, (possible) cartilage tear and back spasms. The damage hasn't been as profound, but the year is only half over folks--there could be more to come.
I'm not disputing that there hasn't been an element of pure bad luck in either season. Far from it, in fact. There is no predicating factor that could have foretold that Damian Lillard, in the first NBA game of his burgeoning NBA career, would potentially end Steve Nash's with a perfectly placed knee that wound up fracturing the two-time MVP's leg. It was, quite literally, a 1 in 1,000 shot. Moreover, there's no rhyme or reason for Steve Blake's elbow injury or Pau Gasol getting clocked in the face and having to sit out a handful of games with a concussion. Things were out of Kobe's control when Dahntay Jones took it upon himself to put a well placed foot below Bryant during a game in Atlanta, causing an ugly sprained ankle.
There has been a gigantic spell of bad breaks and unfortunate incidents that have befallen the Lakers in the past two seasons. Even the biggest cynic couldn't deny that.
The thought that this spell of injuries couldn't happen again this season is an absolutely ludicrous assertion. This Lakers team, just like last season's, was built in such a way that injuries could very easily pile up, with or without bad luck. It was never the case that the injury wave of 2012-2013 was so anomalous that it could never repeat itself. The very same problems that led to last year's bad luck very easily could and did flow over.
The biggest problem is a very simple case of how this team was constructed: the nucleus is mainly comprised of thirty-something veterans, some of whom have very significant injury histories.
Think about last season: the Lakers were built for a title run around a 34-year-old Kobe Bryant and a 38-year-old Steve Nash, as well as, to a certain extent, a 33-year-old Metta World Peace and a 32-year-old Steve Blake. Dwight Howard, 27, was perhaps the second-most important piece, but coming off back surgery, even he had his injury caveats.
The Lakers made a very high risk, high reward gamble. Like the 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks and 2007-2008 Boston Celtics, last year's squad was built around older veterans who, if they stayed healthy, could lead the franchise to a title. It worked for the Celts and Mavs, who featured players like Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and P.J. (effing) Brown, each of whom stayed healthy into June. It's a calculated gamble, that's for sure, but one that could work with some luck. Without it? Well...you know what happens.
Each older, key component to the Lakers got hurt last season at some point. For some, it was simply the ravages of wear and tear: the former Ron Artest and Gasol were prime examples. There were also the freak injuries, but a problem that shelves a veteran player isn't the same as one that hits a rookie. Guys like Nash, Kobe, Allen and Nowitzki have been able to stay elite into their mid-thirties and beyond because they take care of their bodies better than any NBA players have ever been able to before them. They are regimented machines that go through meticulous, painstaking detail during the season and offseason to keep their ever more fragile athletic frames in peak physical condition. However, if there is any disruption in this schedule, the whole ecosystem could be thrown off. Thus, when injury strikes at advanced NBA ages, it will naturally take a thirty-something longer to recover. It will be doubly difficult to round into shape for players who depend so heavily on the fine-tuning it takes to remain an elite player later into their careers.
That was the problem with last year's team and it has carried over into the new season. Gasol, Kobe and Nash were all coming off of major injuries that in Pau's and Bryant's cases, required serious surgery that kept both players off their feet for months. All three players missed the offseason recovering and healing instead of strengthening. To me, it always seemed inevitable that they'd get injured again, from recurring injuries, lack of conditioning or compensating. All of that has happened.
The second part of the equation relates to the first. With such a top heavy team of well-paid veteran stars, the Lakers ran into a common problem with the modern NBA salary cap: a lack of quality depth.
Without solid reserves, most teams don't stand a chance against the rigors of an 82-game season. It just won't happen. However, compound that with injuries to the stars, there's a good chance the team will be decimated. Exhibit A and B, right here.
It's not so much that the Lakers haven't had solid supporting players--quite the opposite, in fact. World Peace, Jamison, Hill, Farmar and Blake are all very nice players behind the superstars. In fact, a couple of those guys won titles while playing those roles. However, if the quality supporting men only number two or three, then when injuries spring up, they're going to be over-extended. For example, it's not that the Lakers have to play Jordan Farmar in a pinch. He's great. But it's that they had no other ball handling guards on the roster, so even as he was hobbled, Jordan had to play far more minutes than he should have had to in order for the team to stay competitive. We saw it last season with MWP specifically--his minutes were far too high for a 33-year-old and as he was called upon to take on more and more on-court responsibility, his body crumpled under that weight.
The lack of quality depth has killed the Lakers the past two seasons with injuries to their stars. Again, this was a fairly easily identifiable problem before the season: if Nash were to sit out for long stretches, a 33-year-old Steve Blake, who has been through several serious injuries in recent years, would be called upon to play major minutes. This would start the same domino effect as last season--everyone has to hold up more than their fair share of the load.
To say that this couldn't happen again to the Lakers this season isn't understanding that unlucky happenstances were just a fraction of the problem. This team was constructed with a high risk for injury on multiple levels, in the age of their players, the knowledge of their offseason recoveries and the lack of quality depth behind them. I would go so far as to say that it wasn't impossible that this could happen again to the Lakers--it was probable that last season would repeat itself. This team was constructed in a way that very easily lent to 2012-2013 playing itself over and over again. And thus far, on the court, it has.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino