Just about every part of the Los Angeles Lakers’ NBA basketball franchise is larger than life, something you’d expect from an organization operating in the entertainment capital of America that once had an incarnation known as Showtime. There are the 16 championship banners. There are the statues outside the Staples Centre, immortalizing everyone from Kareem and Magic to Jerry West and broadcaster Chick Hearn. Actor Jack Nicholson is usually courtside.
The parade of Hall of Famers and all-stars who gravitated to play for the Lakers spans generations – West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, and now Kobe Bryant.
About the only unassuming part of the entire Lakers operation is their practice facility, located not far from LAX airport, which they share with the NHL’s Kings. Warehouse-style and located in an industrial area, it is unprepossessing in its sheer modesty – not much different from a high-school gym in Anywhere, USA.
Here is Bryant, on the brightly lit floor, nailing a three-pointer. Here is Steve Nash, draining free throws with metronome-like consistently. Here is Dwight Howard, long after practice ends, working with the training staff and a medicine ball, trying to strengthen his ailing shoulder and back.
In short, here is where the solutions are supposed to come, as the Lakers stumble into the NBA’s 2013 all-star break following a crash-and-burn 125-101 defeat Thursday night to the Los Angeles Clippers, who happen to be the new No. 1 team in town, if results (as opposed to cachet or marketing reach) is the criteria.
Until they were stomped by the Clippers, the Lakers had been on a modest 8-3 run and entertaining hopes that, even if a division title might elude them, at least a playoff spot was within range. Instead, the Clippers raced out to a 15-0 lead and when the Lakers bench got them back to within three points midway through the second quarter, the starters gave it all back before the half. It was an ugly conclusion to the first part of a star-crossed season, where everything that could go wrong in Laker-land pretty much did.
“It’s a loss,” Nash said. “A loss isn’t going to knock us out of t he playoffs and a win’s not going to put us in. Obviously, we’ve got blown out tonight. Maybe it’s the right time to take a big L like that and we can regroup and start fresh after the break. But we’re not going to hang our heads and we’re not going to give up. We’re going to keep fighting.”
Unintentionally, that last sentence – “we’re going to keep fighting” – could be fraught with meaning for anyone following the Lakers’ carnival show this season. Nash, naturally, didn’t mean it to be taken literally, even if there is a perception that many of the Lakers’ woes this season are the result of internal squabbling, especially between Bryant and Howard. Bryant disputed that conclusion and upon returning from the road, noted that while a public discussion of his issues with O’Neal were “warranted” because they were real, this conflict with Howard was “silly” and “comedic” and “manufactured.”
What is indisputably real is the Lakers record at the break – a mediocre 25-29, good for 10th place in the Western Conference standings, a half-game behind the Portland Trail Blazers and 31/2 games behind the eighth-place 29-26 Houston Rockets. The Utah Jazz are seventh and moving up, while the Golden State Warriors are 30-22, but coming off five consecutive losses and in something of a swoon. Effectively there are three playoff teams within reach, if the Lakers can get their act together during the final 28 games of the season.
Whatever positive momentum they gained from their recent surge was pretty much frittered away against the Clippers, a team that looks young, united, athletic and harmonious. As for the Lakers, there are moments when the latest incarnation of the Dream Team looks as though it is getting its act together – and other, longer stretches when it looks like an impossible dream, the idea that players with such disparate playing styles and agendas can morph into a consistent whole.