These Los Angeles Lakers are bad. Not bad by Lakers standards, mind you. They are out and out awful.
Their current starting rotation consists of these five gentlemen, each with these ignominious distinctions:
- Kent Bazemore: An undrafted free agent selection from a mid-major college, the unheralded guard had played just 268 minutes over 44 games on his former squad, the Golden State Warriors, this season. He's played more than half that number of minutes in just 4 games for the Lakers.
- Kendall Marshall: The 13th overall pick just 20 months ago, Marshall was given up on by the Phoenix Suns, who at the time had little guard depth to speak of. He was traded along with Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards, who decided he'd be more of a burden taking a roster spot than seeing if he could still play. He is now the Lakers' best point guard.
- Wesley Johnson: The 4th overall pick less than four years ago, the 26-year-old swingman only spent two years in Minnesota before they realized he couldn't play. He was then sent to Phoenix, where the 25-57 Suns realized he couldn't play. He is now one of the stalwarts of a Lakers rotation that's been in shambles most of the year. He plays 28 minutes a night, giving the Lakers paltry offensive production (9 ppg) and not nearly the type of defense you'd like to see considering the guy looks like an Olympic-level athlete.
The reserves, of course, aren't much better:
- Robert Sacre: The codename "Mr. Irrelevant" is a tongue-and-cheek knock at the player taken last in the NBA Draft. It's an honor to be drafted at all, as Kent Bazemore will tell you, so in that regard, Sacre has to have some juice. As an alleged "defensive specialist", big Rob is supposed to be the anchor in the paint that's helping the Lakers have any semblance of defense. Unfortunately, the second year man just doesn't look ready for primetime. Thus far, he hasn't shown signs of elite skills as a big man.
- MarShon Brooks: If the fact that the Lakers are his third team this season, including the equally rebuilding Celtics, doesn't tell you anything, I'm not sure what will. Brooks showed some promise as a scorer in his rookie season on a very poor Nets team in new Jersey, but has been on a downward slide since then. He's a "Jamal Crawford-type" player, but if that player isn't putting up points, he's just a conscienceless, inefficient gunner. I'm not sure he's proved to be much more than that.
- Ryan Kelly: Yet another second round pick, the 48th overall selection of this past year's draft has been pressed into service because of a lack of better options. As a fourth year product from Duke, Kelly looks a little more NBA-ready than say, Sacre or even Wes Johnson at times. He's even shown a NBA average stroke from three (at 34%), not a bad mark for a rookie. But he's still far from being an NBA contributor and doesn't have the athleticism, strength or rebounding chops to compete at a professional level.
These six players are playing just as much as proven NBA contributors like Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman and Jodie Meeks. Part of it is the Lakers' obvious desire to establish free agent market value for their guys and to see just how they can develop given time and responsibility with the ball. But part of it is sheer necessity.
The Lakers have seen their players miss well over 200 games due to injury, far and away the most in the league. Guys like Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Nick Young and Xavier Henry continue to miss time with various serious leg injuries and current healthy Laker Jordan Farmar has been falling in and out of the rotation with hamstring troubles over the past three months. Steve Blake had just come back to the land of the living as of a few weeks ago before he was dealt for salary relief the night before the trade deadline. Even if the Lakers decided they didn't want to give so much playing time to the young guys and instead gave heavy minutes to Kaman and Hill to pair with Meeks, Farmar and Gasol, they'd still need significant contributions from at least three inexperienced players. It's not just that the Lakers are preferring to play their "prospects" (quotation marks have never been fiercer in a post I've written), they have to play them. There is no other choice.
It should come as no surprise to anyone watching this team on a regular basis: they do not have the requisite NBA talent to win basketball games. Marshall, Johnson, Brooks, Bazemore, Sacre and Kelly might not crack the rotation on teams like the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies...two squads that are lingering on the outskirts of the Western Conference playoff picture. It's not that I don't believe those six guys can find a place in NBA rotations at some point in their careers. It's that they wouldn't deserve one on most teams in the West today. They are just not ready, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
And that's the crux of why this Lakers team is so terrible. They surrender the second most points per game and the 7th most points per 100 possessions. They force the sixth least amount of turnovers per game. They have the worst rebounding deficit in the league per game by an average of three rebounds. To put that in perspective, three rebounds is the differential between the 29th place Brooklyn Nets 19th team, the Clippers. Amazing.
To this, most people would say, "Why doesn't coach Mike D'Antoni fix this? Why doesn't he play his bigs more? Why doesn't he coach them into being a better defensive team? Why doesn't D'Antoni do more?"
How can you do more with nothing?
There is no rim protector on this team. Pau Gasol has never been that guy. Ever. He's been a great help defender during his career, nothing more. Robert Sacre might have the tools one day, but no one would suggest that he's ready yet for that responsibility. Jordan Hill is a solid one on one defender and a decent pick and roll defender, but he is no shot blocker or paint protector. As we saw last week against Houston, Chris Kaman isn't that guy either. Aside from Hill, the other three front court players are not so much "rebounders" as they are "big guys who get rebounds".
Moving from the paint to the perimeter, Kendall Marshall is fairly universally acknowledged as a terrible defender. Johnson looks like he should be Andre Iguodala but he's just...Wes Johnson. Bazemore's reputation as a defensive stopper has preceded him...but hasn't necessarily followed him.
It's not that this team won't play defense or doesn't work hard. Having watched every single game this season, I can tell you that this team rarely takes a possession off. They simply are unable to play defense. They do not have the requisite parts to build around. This isn't Chicago with Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler. This isn't Indiana with Roy Hibbert, Paul George and George Hill. This isn't even Charlotte with young, able athletes like Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Josh McRoberts. The 2013-2014 Lakers can't be better because they aren't talented enough.
Thus, when this team and especially coach Mike D'Antoni gets criticized, I don't understand it on most nights. They aren't capable rebounders. They aren't quick enough with solid defensive instincts. They don't have a defensive anchor on either the inside or the perimeter. They don't have enough experienced leaders on the floor to take care of the ball. Sometimes, yes, they don't run hard enough in transition or simply look to the rim for the rebound. But other times, they're getting beaten to the ball off the rim because of size and strength. They're getting blown up from the baseline with quicker players and beaten to the hoop underneath poor shot blockers.
I truly believe that these Lakers are playing to the best of their ability. I truly believe that coach Mike D'Antoni could not possibly do better in that he is coaching players that do not belong in NBA rotations right now. How can he be criticized for that? What rational argument is there against a man who doesn't even have the tools to field a competitive team?
There isn't. It boggles my mind when Lakers fans call for D'Antoni's head because of this season. Phil Jackson couldn't lead this team to the playoffs. John Wooden couldn't lead this team to the playoffs.
I would not claim to love to watch these Lakers play. It hurts. It hurts in that my love of competitive basketball with an emphasis on defense, rebounding and great ball handling has been offended by my favorite team. It's embarrassing to watch guys regardless of if they're able. But that doesn't mean I'd criticize them. It's just not enjoyable to watch them.
If fans want to criticize the front office for this debacle of a season (even though it's the same front office that won back-to-back titles just four years ago...), that's another issue altogether. But looking to the coach or the players for how this team is performing is illogical.
I would argue that this is the worst Lakers team in Los Angeles history. The record should bear that out at the end of the year. I doubt many people would argue that sentiment.
So how is it that this team is worthy of criticism...and not understanding?
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino