This team’s disaster of a season has been the subject of so much national media attention, I hesitated to even write this piece. But, hey, it’s the ’30 in 30′ for a reason, so I’m obliged to provide my 5 readers with analysis of all 30 teams. (Plus, I think there’s a small part of all of us non-Lakers fans who derive a small bit of pleasure from their struggles.)
So let’s break it down. After a 24-point home loss to the Clippers on Thursday night, the Lakers are 25-29 and 3.5 games out of the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed. Sure, the playoffs are still within reach, with Golden State, Utah and Houston, the West’s No. 6-though-8 seeds, relatively untested and not immune to a late season collapse. And the Lakers are on the cusp, or at least that’s what we’ve been saying for weeks now; after all, they are the NBA’s only non-playoff team to be outscoring their opponents thus far this season.
Schedule-wise, L.A. has 14 home and road games remaining, each; they’re 16-11 at home, but 9-18 away from Staples Center. 14 of those games are against likely playoff teams, and two are against Portland, currently the only team standing between them and 8th-seeded Houston, whom the Lakers play in their regular season finale April 17. My bet is still on L.A. not earning a postseason bid, but should one of those 3 teams start to skid, Mike D’Antoni’s team is the logical choice to slide into that final spot. (But, hey, nothing’s been logical about this team this year!)
So what is going wrong in Southern California? Here’s a team that, after the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard acquisitions, almost everyone was penciling into the Finals against Miami. Metta World Peace even speculated in September that L.A. could tally an NBA-record 73 wins. (If L.A. were to win out, they would finish with 53.) But the crazy thing is, with a starting lineup of Nash, Kobe Bryant, World Peace, Pau Gasol and Howard, four of whom are likely Hall of Famers, that mark seemed within reach, at least on paper.
The Lakers fired Mike Brown after 5 games, only to hire Brown’s coaching opposite, D’Antoni, less than a month into the season — a move with which I cautiously expressed concern at the time. In a roster with two talented post players, I still do not quite understand the move to hire such an up-tempo offensive coach. D’Antoni is by no means the sole reason for this sinking ship, but an insistence on starting Earl Clark over Gasol, as well as a borderline criminal misuse of Howard, though still not healthy, has to be seen as head-scratching in NBA circles.
L.A. puts up a 6th-ranked 101.6 points per game, but surrenders a 23rd-worst 100.9 to opponents. This summer, the Lakers brought in Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks, Clark and Chris Duhon, as well as re-signed Jordan Hill, to improve upon their 30th-ranked scoring bench from a year ago, but this year they’ve only climbed 4 spots to 26th, with Gasol’s 7 games as a reserve padding those stats. Nash, a 2-time MVP in Phoenix and this generation’s preeminent passing point guard, has been relegated to an off-the-ball spot-up shooter, contributing to his lowest assist numbers (7.4 per game) since 2002-03. As a team, the Lakers are 15th in assists, even with Kobe’s recent emergence as a facilitator, and the pick-and-rolls, staples of a Nash and D’Antoni offense, just aren’t there with a slow, ailing Howard.
Health is a major factor outside of L.A.’s control. Howard’s still recovering from back surgery that prematurely ended his 2011-12 season in Orlando and has yet to resemble his explosive, dominating self this year. A torn labrum has limited Howard in recent weeks, even prompting Bryant and Nash to essentially say, ‘Hey, suck it up!’ Gasol’s torn plantar fascia should keep him out of the lineup well into March. Nash missed 24 games early this season with a left leg injury, Blake has only played 17 games due to abdominal surgery, and Hill has already been ruled out for the rest of the season due to hip surgery. Bryant is the only Lakers player to suit up in all 54 games.
Kobe is, from an efficiency perspective, playing some of the best basketball of his career. His 12th-ranked PER is tops on the team, and despite all his struggles, Howard’s 19.2 PER is ranked 41st. Bryant’s scoring has hardly dipped over last year, yet his 46.4% FG percentage is his best since 2008-09, and his 5.6 assists per are his highest since 2004-05; in his last 10 games, Bryant is averaging 7.4 assists.
Defensively, though, L.A. has issues. Nash, 39, is and always has been a liability, especially against the West’s faster point guards. (Lakers’ opponents drill 7.2 3-balls a game, showing how slow they are in spaces on the perimeter.) Howard, a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year, is clearly hampered by health issues, though he still leads the league in rebounding, 11.8 per game, and is 5th in blocked shots, 2.33. Bryant and World Peace are both capable defenders, though Metta has seen his lateral quickness slow with age. Jamison, the team’s leading scorer off the pine, has always been a poor defender, adding to just how much the Lakers miss Hill’s athleticism.
Financially, L.A.’s even more of a mess than on the floor, with a league-high $100+ million on the books this season. Howard’s a free agent this summer, and whether he sticks around remains to be seen. General Manager Mitch Kupchak’s stuck paying Pau’s $19.3 million next year, since his injury and shattered confidence equals little trade value, and World Peace’s $7.7 million player option expires in the summer of 2014. The Lakers owe a combined $8 million to backup 1-guards, Blake and Duhon, next season, and another $9+ to Nash through 2015. But, fortunately for L.A., even if Howard is lucratively re-signed, Nash is currently the only contract on the books for 2014-15, meaning a run at LeBron James or another max free agent is plausible, if not probable.
Future aside, this year has to go down as one of the most disappointing seasons in the history of professional sports, should the Lakers not earn a postseason berth. This would be the first time since 2004-05, a team that starred Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, the purple and gold have failed to make the playoffs. No pressure.
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