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.
“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.”
Nash, who turned 39 last week, acknowledged: “I’m not as efficient as I’ve played in the past” and then tellingly went on to say: “I’m just trying to embrace the role I’ve been given. I’m not going to wonder about how I look here. This is about the team. We have enough voices around here. We don’t need to add mine to the mix.”
Two nights later, when asked how the Lakers should embrace the home stretch once they return from the all-star break, Nash answered in his usual even-keeled manner: “I think just get up for it, embrace it. We’ve got a big challenge and really embrace it and look forward to it and try to come back with a lot of fire and a lot of fight and just give ourselves a chance.”
The NBA trading deadline is next week and the Lakers will likely stand pat, on the grounds that any further changes to their core group at this stage of the season would not help them get into sync.
According to D’Antoni, the Lakers are in the playoff race until the arithmetic says they are eliminated, but acknowledged: “Every day that goes by, it gets a little harder. We’ve had a lot of turmoil, on and off the court that we had to get through – and we’re starting to get through it a little bit. It’s getting better.
“I always said, we’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of pieces that are as good as anybody’s, but they have to fit together … We need to get to the point where we’re as good as anybody in the league – and we still have time to do that.”
Maybe so, but in what began as such a season of promise, the clock is ominously ticking away in Laker country. Tick, tick, tick.