The Los Angeles Lakers are in the midst of a five-game losing streak that's seen them drop to 15-20 on the season — a record that puts them in 11th place in the West, a full five games south of the Denver Nuggets for the conference's eighth and final playoff spot. After firing Mike Brown and bringing in Mike D'Antoni to right the listing ship, the Lakers have gone 10-15, been the league's fifth-most permissive defense in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool, won four games by 15 or more points, lost five games by five points or less, and generally been amazingly erratic and difficult to depend upon, thanks in part to an array of injuries suffered during the season's first 2 1/2 months. Their inability to stop anybody and Jekyll-and-Hyde offense have led fans of the boys in forum blue and gold, somewhat understandably, to panic. (Let's be honest: Many started to panic during the Lakers' seven-point opening night loss to the Dallas Mavericks and haven't stopped since.)
[Related: Wake up, Lakers; trade Dwight Howard now]
If the fans are losing the faith a bit, though, the front office isn't. During a Thursday interview with 710 ESPN Radio in Los Angeles, Jim Buss — the Lakers' executive vice president and son of Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss — emphasized his belief in an L.A. roster led by Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, and dismissed any notion of selling off high-priced assets at the Feb. 21 trade deadline, according to a transcription of Buss' interview by Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times:
"How can you not believe in this team? This team is built to win and it's a very, very solid team," Buss said. "In my mind, we would not consider a temporary fix or blow it up. Why blow up something that we have a future with?"
Well, "future" is kind of a relative term — the Lakers presently have one player under contract beyond next season, and while it would sure make sense for Howard to re-up in L.A. for the maximum amount of money and exposure he could get, he's yet to do so. With all due respect to Mr. Buss, this team was built not for the future, but for now, for today, for this very second. So when the seconds continue to pass without wins, continuity, structure or any seeming semblance of inherent identity, yes, people's beliefs start to get shaken.
Not Jim Buss', though. In the radio interview, Buss stressed the importance of remaining calm, citing that rash of injuries as the main cause of the team's difficulties and refusing to succumb to mounting fan anxiety:
"I don't know if we've had five games where all our players are playing," Buss said. "When you have injuries like that, you can't play enough games together to get chemistry."
So far the Lakers have played 24 games without Steve Nash, 10 without Pau Gasol and two without Dwight Howard. Gasol is currently recovering from a concussion. Howard, who had back surgery in April, now has a shoulder injury that will be reevaluated next week. [...]
"I'm still excited about the team but injuries have played such a huge part in this. I'm not frustrated with the players at all," Buss said. "Am I upset that we might not make the playoffs? Of course."
"To panic?" asked Buss. "No, we're not going to panic."
On one hand, Buss' comments make sense, and echo a common refrain sung earlier in the season by the likes of Bryant and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak — that you can't reasonably evaluate the Lakers' chances until all of their primary pieces are healthy, working together and have had the chance to coalesce into a full-fledged unit.
It's undeniable that the Lakers' string of injuries — Howard's continually troublesome back, Nash's fractured leg less than two games into the season, Gasol's tendinitis-stricken knees, backup point guard Steve Blake's surgery-requiring abdominal injury, the simultaneous spate of new big-man woes, etc. — have all but scuttled any attempt to develop continuity on a roster that underwent a massive overhaul this offseason. It was an argument that made a ton of sense when the Lakers rashly decided to part ways with Brown five games into the season, or when fans and national commentators were rending their garments about D'Antoni's system after a 1-2 start.
The problem now, though, is that the Lakers are 35 games into an 82-game season; at some point, all these seconds, minutes, hours, days and losses mount to a point where cold hard math renders the team's title hopes all but dead, as ESPN.com Insider Bradford Doolittle writes:
[...] while the Lakers might still climb over .500 and squeeze into the playoffs, what they almost certainly can't do is win the championship, which is what marks this season as "dead." We can see that in L.A.'s current Hollinger playoff odds, which give the Lakers a 0.2 percent chance to win it all. That mostly conforms with the numbers at Basketball-Reference.com, which has L.A. with a 0.1 percent shot at a championship. [...]
My latest run of simulations has the Lakers with a 0.1 percent chance of winning it all, which matches the number at Basketball-Reference.com. This means they won exactly one of my 1,000 simulations. The Lakers won an average of 43.5 games in the simulations and made the playoffs 55.3 percent of the time.
The most wins L.A. ended up with in any individual simulation was 54, which in this year's Western Conference would almost certainly mean no better than a No. 4 seed. The system gives the Spurs, Clippers and Thunder all more than a 90 percent chance to finish with more than 54 wins.
As Doolittle writes, simply making the playoffs isn't anything to sneeze at — hell, for a team sitting at five games under .500 with 47 games remaining, it'd equate to a borderline-miraculous run of health and good fortune. Plus, as Buss noted in his radio interview, if the team does make the playoffs, that will mean they're coming off a heck of a stretch of basketball, entering the postseason playing well and featuring enough star power to throw a scare into most opponents; not only would that theoretically bode well for L.A.'s chances of advancement, but it could also bode well for the Lakers' chances of convincing Howard to re-up in Hollywood and take a long-term max contract to be an organizational centerpiece moving forward.
Even in that, though, we're talking about a "Good job, good effort" kind of resolution to a season that began with imperial expectations and has regressed into a sea of questions with few easy or readily available answers. The good news is that the Lakers get their next four games at home, where they've played considerably better (10-8) than on the road (5-12).
The bad news, though, is what the schedule actually tells us — that three of those games are against playoff-caliber teams (the second-best-in-the-West Oklahoma City Thunder, the swag-resurrected Milwaukee Bucks and the defending NBA champion Miami Heat) and that the fourth is against Kyrie Irving, a point guard who's already made the Lakers look silly this season and is the exact kind of dribble-penetration chaos-bringer that makes the L.A. defense look like a scrambling high-school team at times. I'm interested to see what happens if the Lakers run this stretch to nine straight; it'll be fascinating to see what kind of faith Jim Buss has then.
Hat-tip to Brett Pollakoff at ProBasketballTalk.
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