The NBA's schedule makers envisioned a well-hyped meeting between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James when they matched the Los Angeles Lakers against the Miami Heat on Christmas Day. A year ago, the Lakers, armed with Dwight Howard, hoped for an eventual meeting with James and the Heat in the NBA Finals.
"Well, we are a long ways from that aren't we?" Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said in a recent moment of levity.
Bryant won't be playing this Christmas after a knee injury that will likely sideline him for at least six weeks. The Lakers' dreams of a Finals run this season have also faded. Not with Howard now playing in Houston and Steve Nash joining Bryant, not to mention Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar, on the sideline.
If D'Antoni had a script for how he wanted his first couple seasons as Lakers coach to play out, he's had to rewrite it several times. Not much has gone according to plan to since he was hired a little more than a year ago.
D'Antoni inherited what appeared to be one of the strongest rosters in the NBA after he replaced Mike Brown as coach. Injuries, however, soon began to pile up and Howard was slow to regain his All-Star form. The Lakers did make the playoffs, but that was after Bryant tore his Achilles tendon to end his season. The San Antonio Spurs swept them in the first round of the playoffs.
"We could just never get the right footing," D'Antoni said. "Obviously, the thing was the chemistry just wasn't right and guys' injuries just decimated us. Our guys weren't right that were even playing. Dwight wasn't right until about February. With all the expectations, it kind of crumbles you a bit."
Howard left in the offseason despite the Lakers' attempts to re-sign him. Asked if there was anything the Lakers could've done to keep Howard, D'Antoni said: "I don't think so. …He's the only one that knows that."
The Lakers began this season without Bryant. He returned Dec. 8 but played just six games before suffering a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. D'Antoni is confident Bryant will eventually come back and finish this season strong.
"I thought it was weird because we didn't hear about it until two days [after the injury] when he got the MRI," D'Antoni said. "Just weird stuff. Just 'Wow, OK.' But we are so used to [the injuries] that you just close ranks and keep going forward."
The Lakers also have missed Nash, who has played just six games and is expected to be out at least another month. Even Nash has said he doesn't know what to expect once he returns. With a decimated roster, the Lakers could be headed for the draft lottery. D'Antoni, however, still plans to keep fighting for a playoff spot.
"I'm not going to crush or fade or 'woe is me,' " D'Antoni said. "There is no time for that."