The Los Angeles Lakers have 41 games to get it right (Getty Images)
Things have gotten so bad with the Los Angeles Lakers that the team’s Next Big Deal rumors have now shifted to All-Star center Dwight Howard. After working through two coaches and dismissing a Hall of Fame-level candidate in Phil Jackson, and making their way through months of rumors about a possible Pau Gasol deal, the crown jewel of the Lakers' 2012 offseason is now up for consideration. Partially because the free agent-to-be is set to become the crown jewel of the 2013 offseason, but also because he’s given the Lakers very little of what they assumed he’d contribute.
This comes mainly because the team can’t fire Mike D’Antoni and expect a quick fix, and because there are likely no takers for the massive final two years and $38.2 million left on Gasol’s contract. With a paucity of options outside of L.A. and a lot of guys talking within it, ESPN Los Angeles reported that off-the-record sources relayed to them the idea that Los Angeles “might be forced to reconsider its position” when it comes to dealing Howard before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, in anticipation of him fleeing as a free agent in July.
And, as one on-the-record source in Kobe Bryant told Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski early Tuesday morning, “this isn’t working.”
No, it isn’t. And every prominent member of this franchise is to blame for the team’s disastrous 17-24 start, and the fact that they’ll need to win 26 out of the next 41 games in order to overtake an eighth-seeded Houston Rockets team that is on pace for 42 wins this year. On some worrying levels it would make sense to deal Howard or Gasol or both, but it would also make more sense to attempt to win 63 percent of your games from here on out by smartly utilizing the players you already have in place.
Here’s what the particulars need to do, starting from the top:
Owner Jerry Buss: You gave your son Jim Buss as much control over your franchise as GM Mitch Kupchak has, even though Jim has no scouting nor playing nor analytics nor executive background. You’ve already done the irreversible damage. Go back to the poker table, and say “hi” to Sasha for me.
Son Jim Buss: Your damage is already in place as well, but I don’t mind dancing on the ruins.
You made Phil Jackson’s life uneasy, and no good came from that. You declined to hire Brian Shaw in 2011 when Jackson left, merely because he had the whiff of “Phil” on him, and all he’s done is move on to be the associate head coach of the Indiana Pacers, a team that runs the top-ranked defense in the NBA and currently boasts a winning percentage that your Lakers need to match over their final 41 games just to stay out of the lottery.
You decimated your scouting staff in that same summer of 2011, a staff that really could have worked wonders as you desperately searched for cheap depth to round out your terrible bench this season and in 2012. Last November you spurned Phil again, mainly because you and your father (like Jerry Krause and even the insecure Jerry West before them) hate it when Phil Jackson comes in and appears the savior.
(Even if he was.)
Just go re-watch tapes of the 2005 NBA draft. You did fine work that day.
"The buck stops THERE." (Getty Images)
GM Mitch Kupchak: You’re not some betrayed martyr, you’ve made mistakes along the way as well, but don’t compound those by assuming that any series of trades could turn this around. If any trade could right this ship, especially one involving Howard, it would have had to be considered weeks ago and acted upon yesterday. Not in a few weeks. No amount of players dealt for on Jan. 23 or Feb. 21 is going to turn this record around and put Los Angeles in the playoffs.
And the playoffs are the point. Don’t forget that. Not just because Phoenix has your draft pick this year, but because your team can shorten its rotation and set to a series of seven-game trials with six months’ worth of storm or stress under its belt in April. On top of that, you field two players taken in the 1996 draft. The clock is ticking.
Also remember that Dwight Howard can be talked into anything. He was talked into picking up his player option with the Orlando Magic because he didn’t want to hurt Quentin Richardson or Glen Davis’ feelings. Now try that sort of juice card in July, overlooking Chavez Ravine, while offering far more money than any other team can give him.
(Also, tell Kobe not to helicopter into that meeting.)
Center Dwight Howard: You’re almost unredeemable at this point. I’m not sure what’s worse — your immaturity, petulance, hypocritical nature or the outright lies you tell.
What you can do is realize that if the Orlando Magic dumped you off in a relative NBA Siberia last summer (like, say, with the Houston Rockets — a team with a better record than your current one), you would be under contract to play basketball to the best of your ability. The same would be in place even if the Magic declined to trade you, because you were the one that decided to pick up that player option (excuse me, “decline your early-termination option”) last March.
It’s true that the Lakers’ spacing is all gunked up, and taking just five shots in a loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday is inexcusable even if Kobe was hitting half (instead of seven) of his 22 shots. That’s not what you’re in Los Angeles for, though. As was the case in August, you’re there to hound the screen and roll, and talk on defense. You’re there to be Tyson Chandler. And in a modern NBA that makes it easier and easier to make life rough on post players, you’re letting your team down by whining about what’s going wrong offensively on your 20th-ranked defensive club.
Power forward Pau Gasol: Now that the spring appears to be back in your step, perhaps it’s time to start breaking plays. For the last two seasons, Laker observers like me have whined about how the team looks away from you in the post, but if you find a way to clear out and set up shop down low, even with Howard out there and the play calling for you to leak out to the perimeter … you think Kobe or Steve Nash aren’t going to pass you the ball?
You’re a low-post big man who can change the course of a game, and a season. Should various Laker employees and players realize that, be ready when the ball comes your way.
Small forward Metta World Peace: You’re good, dude. We just know how much you hate it when you’re left off lists like these.
Shooting guard Kobe Bryant: Massive applause for the way the season started. Thank you for taking good shots, after three years of pump fakes and pump fakes and pump fakes and pump fakes.
Your defensive rating is somehow worse than Antawn Jamison’s is this season, and we didn’t think something like that could be possible. We also were not aware that bad off-ball defense by a shooting guard — the league’s least important position to defend — could actually change the tone of a game. You made it happen, though. This is an ignominy that cannot stand. This isn’t us nit-picking — this, and the lazy transition defense, hurts the team badly.
Worse, your self-aggrandizing is worse than ever. Repeatedly blaming yourself for the Lakers’ recent woes because you’ve “got to find a way to make shots” does you a double service. You’re allowed to appear contrite in the wake of a week of taking 26 shots a game and making 32 percent of them, and you’re also allowed to keep shooting because you’ve identified the “problem” under the guise of taking one for the team.
The Lakers’ problem isn’t Kobe Bryant missing shots. The Los Angeles Lakers could take five out of six games in two weeks with Kobe averaging 17 shots a game and making only seven of them. This is a team that was designed so that Kobe Bryant doesn’t have to shoot his way out of slumps, or shoot a ton at all. And certainly not the six 3-pointers a game Kobe shoots at under the league average. And it was certainly not one built to evoke the “you know Kobe, he’ll keep trying to shoot his way out of this” guffaws from fawning TV announcers as he continues to fire away with so much talent around him.
Even when things were going well, when Kobe was shooting at fantastic rates and hitting for high percentages, he was practicing bad habits. Fool’s gold, for a team that still has no identity exactly half a season in, as Howard and Gasol and Nash try to figure out their respective roles. Because the identity of the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers was never meant to be “Kobe shoots a lot.”
Bryant has done well to encourage the uncaring Howard, to pump up the tortured Gasol, and to fawn over the addition of Nash. He also did well to shoot a ton early this year at an efficient rate.
The martyr turn, as was the case in January and February of the eventual championship season of 2000-01, has to end. Kobe needs to stop pretending he’s surrounded by a cast of Kwames and Smushes, and stop pretending that 2006 was so damn fun.
What should be a very, very good backcourt (Getty Images)
Point guard Steve Nash: It’s an impossible situation. You’re asked to dominate the ball next to Kobe Bryant, who has never played with a point guard that dribbled more than three times in a quarter. Then the injury (fractured leg) hits, and the wake of that injury (nerve damage) is even more debilitating. Also, you’re almost 39.
It’s time to start running things, though. It’s obvious upon watching all these Laker games that not only is Nash a bystander of sorts, but he’s tentative at times and a step slower than he was last season in others. It’s a critical mix of bad that has left the Lakers far less potent than they should be, despite Kobe’s fabulous first 38 games of the season.
Nash takes about 40 percent of the 3-pointers that Kobe Bryant does, despite shooting far better than Bryant both this year and in his career. Switch those, and see what happens to the Laker interior. Let Nash while away the clock, poking and prodding. Make it so Bryant, Howard and Gasol are actually moving off the ball, instead of just standing around and demanding it.
It’s time to let Steve Nash have a go at this offense.
(Also, his defense stinks, but I’m not sure what to do about that.)
Coach Mike D’Antoni: You are not the star of this team.
Dwight should be, but he’s too much of a brat. Kobe should be, but he can’t be tamed. Pau should be, but his role is undefined. Steve should be, but he’s not himself.
It’s your job, coach, to turn them back into stars. To adapt to their style of play and not force this team — full of players in their 30s and a center with a bad back — to adapt to yours. Even that supposedly rigid Triangle offense let the players make decisions as to where the ball ended up.
What you have to be is a different sort of leader, and not a star on par with your players. I’ll fall back on something that a roadie once told Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, after Fagen asked the roadie why he put up with all the nonsense and long hours associated with his work.
“Our job,” the roadie said, “is to provide an atmosphere that allows for you to create.”
(Obviously, the roadie was English.)
Mike D'Antoni is not finished (Getty Images)
Kobe shooting the ball 26 times a game while you look on in three consecutive losses isn’t playing to Kobe’s strength. Steve Nash being asked to look off his own shot off of screen and rolls isn’t playing to his strength. Endless perimeter jumpers for Pau Gasol? Not his strength. I’m not quite sure what Dwight Howard’s strengths are, at this point, but I’m not at practice or on the plane — that’s your job to find what works for him.
And it’s the Los Angeles Lakers’ time to realize that they’re out of changes, and running low on games. The season started 41 games ago, and it could end 41 games from now. And the best chance this team has, as was the case in the offseason and when its healthy lineup returned under Mike D’Antoni, is to do this together.
Intelligently. Like champions. Like nothing we’ve seen out of this team, thus far.
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