“It hasn’t been the year we’ve hoped and prayed for,” Howard said, “but we still have an opportunity to change it. We’ve made it a lot tougher than it should be, but there’s still a chance. We just can’t stop believing in each other – and just give everything we’ve got.”
In October, the Lakers were a consensus pick to finish among the top three teams in the Western Conference. With Howard and Nash added to a lineup that included holdovers Bryant and Pau Gasol, the expectation was that the Lakers could give the Oklahoma City Thunder a run for top spot, once they integrated all their new faces into the system.
Nash repeatedly called the Lakers “a work in progress” through an uneven exhibition season in which they lost every single game. It should have been a red flag, but it wasn’t because Howard hadn’t received medical clearance to play and coach Mike Brown was bent on introducing a new Princeton-style offence – and the learning curve was steep.
From there, it has just been one setback after another. Howard didn’t play until the end of training camp, recovering from off-season back surgery. Nash broke a bone in his foot in the second game and missed eight weeks. Howard’s shoulder continues to bother him and now Gasol is out for six-to-eight weeks with plantar fasciitis in his foot.
Brown took the fall for the slow start five games into the season. After briefly flirting with the idea of bringing back Phil Jackson to coach, the Lakers settled on Mike D’Antoni as their new coach. D’Antoni had a history with Nash dating to their Phoenix Suns days, and his up-tempo philosophy was supposed to be far better suited to the Lakers personnel than to the more methodical approach Brown was trying to sell. But the pick-and-roll, the bread-and-butter of Nash’s game during his MVP years in Phoenix, hasn’t become a staple part of the Lakers offence that they’d anticipated.
Off the court, there have been the conflicts – real and imagined – among any and all of the big names, meaning that now, any perceived slight, any whiff of body language that looks sour, turns into fodder for the chattering masses.
Accordingly, with the all-star break coming up, the term “damage control” jumps to mind, as the Lakers speak of how to salvage a vastly underachieving season.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming off what I had, with the back and everything,” Howard said. “Then I hurt my shoulder. Then Pau going out, Steve being hurt, those are some of the things that really hindered us from being the team we wanted to be. That said, we still have an opportunity to get it right and change our destiny and do something that’s never been done.”
Work may have been done, but is there any progress being made?
Howard says yes, but “with all the drama, and all the other stuff that goes on outside the locker room, people really forget how far we’ve come. But we’ve just got to keep it up and continue to play and continue to believe in each other.”
Gasol should be back by the end of March or early April. Howard’s shoulder may or may not get better, but he is doing what Bryant advised him to last week – playing through it. In the meantime, his contract is up after this year and there is speculation he may not stay. Nash is signed for two more years, so he’ll remain in the fold.
Bryant’s points-per-game average is down about 10 per game over the past fortnight, as he’s tried to ramp up the playmaking part of his game. On Tuesday, Bryant had just four points on a one-for-eight shooting night in a win over the lowly Phoenix Suns. That same night, the respected Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke took Nash to task, noting that his “best trick this season is that nobody has blamed him” for the Lakers’ struggles and that “on an underachieving team, filled with big-name targets of national criticism, he has given scrutiny the slip.”