Becoming the first team eliminated from playoff contention in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Lakers are sitting far below where management, players, and fans expected them to be after their commanding Oct. 29 victory over the Clippers.
With a record of 22-44 and embarrassing home record of 11-20, Mike D’Antoni will get nearly all the blame for Los Angeles missing the postseason for the first time since the 2004-05 season. It will also be the second missed playoffs during the Kobe Bryant era. If you take a moment to think about it, that’s quite a remarkable feat. It’s still not up to the level of the San Antonio Spurs, who just notched their 15th consecutive season with at least 50 victories. Since Tim Duncan fell into their arms atop the 1997 NBA Draft, San Antonio hasn’t missed the postseason, and are yet to hit the funk that the Buss family has had to deal with since losing Phil Jackson.
There’s a couple of points worth noting for many of the Spurs’ homers and people that will use that argument in any Duncan vs. Bryant debates for “greatest of the era.”
The first of two instances Bryant missed the playoffs came under the coaching reigns of Rudy Tomjanovich, a coach that was known for his success in Houston (back-to-back NBA titles), but was far from the coaching talent that Los Angeles was used to, coming off a trip to the 2004 Finals. Jackson was largely missed, and the Lakers stumbled the entire 2004-05 season to a record of 34-48. It was also Bryant’s first season operating without Shaquille O’Neal, and it was blasphemous to expect immediate success without a strict adherence to the triangle offense that Jackson would’ve focused on.
This season, which is on pace to be just a 28-win season with 16 matchups remaining, has been stripped from Bryant due to an infectious injury bug. Recovering from the torn Achilles tendon, Bryant overcame the monumental obstacle and was set to bring Los Angeles back to playoff prominence, or at least a seven or eight seed this season. When he hit the floor (literally) with the left tibial plateau fracture, the responsibility of winning games was forced upon the shoulders of his teammates …. many that he won’t even see in practice next season.
Bryant played six games this year, and it truly doesn’t do him justice to include this dreadfully plagued season in the category of missed playoffs. Who honestly knows the win total for this roster with a Mamba’s healthy knee and Steve Nash‘s nerve root irritation taking a backseat to his Hall-of-Fame legacy?
D’Antoni appears to be on his way out of town, and everyone associated with the Lakers for the past 18 years — their five-time champion and the fans — aren’t going to complain when it finally happens. Three players are guaranteed to return (Bryant, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre), but one of those is a 40-year-old point guard that turns back the clock for two or three games and then finds himself hobbling to the sidelines the very next game. And, of course, one of those three is a center that will likely never be more than a defensive backup that needs offensive post lessons from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Nick Young, who might as well go ahead and admit that he’ll opt out of his contract with the player option he has this summer, is still out indefinitely with a swollen left knee and the reasoning for him to return is diminishing by the day. If you’re the Lakers and the best you can realistically do is split the last 16 games by going .500, how can any positive mentality strike you as we near the end of March?
During the final stretch the Lakers are set to hold their breath and dive into, only four of the 16 games are against Eastern Conference teams.
After a third meeting with the West-leading Spurs on Wednesday, the Lakers remain at home to host three of those East squads — Washington, Orlando, New York — before traveling to Milwaukee. It’s safe to say …. if any bright ray of sunlight is going to shine in Los Angeles to close the year, it will have to be during the next two weeks.
Even basketball fans that give their undivided attention to the NCAA — while currently up in March Madness — are aware that reaching the Western Conference playoffs is an achievement that eight teams have to give their blood and guts to accomplish, figuratively. Why is that important for Los Angeles?
Seven of the last nine games the Lakers will encounter are against playoff teams in the West. For a second straight year, the month of April will not be kind to the NBA’s most storied franchise, or it’s fans that somehow always remain optimistic through this path to the dumpster. Give them credit, as allowing 108.4 points per night hasn’t been enjoyable. It’s been uncharacteristically laughable, non-Laker like, and embarrassing that over half of the league has stormed past an organization that was on top of the world four years ago.
Focuses throughout the last push of the season should include playing with pride (although it’s nearly impossible), at least attempting to lock down defensively, and individual auditioning for next season.
You never want to see players going out of the team’s way to boost their individual performance, but for a lot of the players coming off the books this offseason, time is running out to make an impression. Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson are the foremost examples here, with both expressing their desire to remain with Los Angeles. If you ask someone that’s watched them attentively this season (when injuries or sickness haven’t kept them sidelined), you’d be told over and over that Meeks and Johnson are in top three or four of hardest working players on the court. Both give you their all on both ends, while Meeks’ production is discovered more on the offensive side from the perimeter and Johnson thrives on defense due to his length/athleticism.
There’s little doubt that Bryant would have a problem with management re-signing both this summer, as long as the price doesn’t prevent any more meaningful moves. Yes, I know that’s ironic considering he’s taking a large chunk of the salary cap with the $48.5 million extension. But, ultimately, he was worth every dime of the decision to do so, and it goes without saying that he’s earned the right to still be paid superstar money after the 2012-13 performance. Building around him with just enough salary room to sign one other top ten star (such as Kevin Love or Carmelo Anthony) is not so egregious when you take into account Bryant’s championship aspirations. It’s like a religion to him …. it’s his culture to win rings for a franchise, and they had to trust that he’ll be worth the whole dollar package.
Stiff defensive execution and mentality have to be focuses as the season winds down, even though D’Antoni probably won’t coach this team next season.
Six of the seven games Los Angeles has played this March have resulted in their opponents eclipsing the 110 point mark, with four of those breaking the 130 point plateau. It’s not just unacceptable. It’s unwatchable. It’s almost a slap to the face of Lakers fans that have waited all season for just the utmost effort on the court. That’s not giving it to them.
To finish a sour year on a tolerable note, aim for the following goal: Split the final stretch with an 8-8 record, allowing less than 102 points per contest.
I don’t know why we keep asking the Lakers for favors.
It’s not like they did us one when they chose a defensive ignoramus over a guy that needs four hours to shine all 11 championship rings.