If there is anything obvious about this wild and crazy, strike-abbreviated, deal-busting, emotional basketball season for the Los Angeles Lakers, it's that the team as presently constructed has very little (if any) chance of winning a world championship. It's thundering 102-93 loss to Oklahoma City last Thursday at Staples Center certainly proved that.
Kobe Bryant, winner of five NBA titles, the league's leading scorer and a perennially-optimistic, glass-is-half-full sort, was extremely calm following the Lakers' recent loss to the Thunder. And though he still feels the Lakers can win the crown this season, he also sounded realistic about their chances.
When asked by L.A. Times beat writer Mike Bresnahan why the Lakers could not sustain a strong effort against OKC and were ultimately run out of their own building, Bryant said: "Because they were better and have more of it than we do. It's as simple as that. That's a formidable foe...."
Yes, it is simple as all that. What's frustratingly odd about this group is that while the Lakers possess three tremendous All-Stars in Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, the talent pool falls off a cliff from there. And, as the Dallas Mavericks proved last year and the Thunder are demonstrating now, you win with a full complement of players, not just two or three (take note, Miami).
And, so, with just 12 games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers find themselves drifting rather than sprinting towards the finish line. They did manage to rebound this weekend and defeat two inferior teams, New Orleans and Golden State.
Both performances were mediocre by L.A.; they almost lost to a Hornets team that is 13-40 and missing a number of starters from a vastly-depleted lineup. In that game, Kobe Bryant missed his first 15 shots, the most misses to start a game of his 16-year career.
The simple truth is that these Lakers are not as good as: Oklahoma City, Chicago, Miami, or San Antonio, all teams they very well could face in the playoffs. The first three are younger, deeper, stronger and quicker than L.A. San Antonio is long in the tooth like the Lakers, but much deeper than the Purple and Gold..
Are there fixes to what ails this team? Of course there are. Can they be fixed in time to make a deep run in the playoffs and get back to the Finals? Probably not, though miracles do happen.
Take a look at just what the Lakers need to do in order to get over the hump and make a run at the league's elite. In a perfect basketball world, this could happen, though we all know there is no such thing as perfect.
Just who do you start blaming for the Lakers' woeful lack of a consistent offense?
The players need to shoulder the biggest part. Coaches can only do so much in practice and during a game; the results are determined by the play of the team. And, in the case of the Lakers, inconsistency has been their most consistent quality this year.
Kobe Bryant is having the worst shooting percentage year since his rookie season almost 16 years ago. He shot just 40 from the field during February and March and isn't being double teamed as often as he was in the past. Though he still leads the league in scoring (28.1 ppg), Bryant also leads the NBA in most field-goal attempts.
Only Deron Williams (41 percent versus Kobe's 42.4 for the year) is less accurate for the league's top 10 scorers, and only Kobe takes more than 20 shots on average per game (23.4).
Pau Gasol's numbers are off this year. I suppose you could attribute some of that to his unease at being the center of numerous trade rumors all season, but he's been just as inconsistent since passing the trade deadline knowing he was to remain a Laker. His 16.8 PPG are the worst of his career, and his shooting percentage of just over 50 percent is his second worst.
How is that the Lakers offense could look so crisp and sharp during the first quarter of their loss to OKC and then fall completely flat in the second half? The answer is inconsistent play, lackadaisical passing and no real direction from the coaches in just what sort of offense they wish to run.
This team has players (Metta World Peace, Troy Murphy, Matt Barnes, Steve Blake) who all can score; rather, they all have brought those reputations as scorers to the Lakers. None of them, outside of Barnes, has been even close to consistent.
And why has Andrew Goudelock been banished to the end of the bench? The rookie shooting guard should be getting seven to 10 minutes per game; he can fill up the hole in a hurry, and the coaches are just letting him rot on the bench. No rationale for it.
The Lakers have one of the league's worst benches. Is that the fault of the players, coaches or management? Probably all three.
There must be a number of corrections in order for the bench to play better, score more and hold leads, all things they've not been able to accomplish most of the year.
Since Steve Blake returned to the bench and Sessions became the starter, the second unit has really floundered. Mike Brown explained as much to ESPN.com's Andy Kamenetzky:
I thought he (Blake) played well at the beginning of the season and then he got hurt. And then he came back in basically the same role and there was a stretch where he didn't play as well and he really hasn't consistently gotten back to where he was in the beginning of the year.
I must be watching a different team, because I cannot remember Blake playing particularly well at any time during the season. He'll make a couple of three-pointers, and that's about it.
The Lakers let Lamar Odom, their best second-unit player, go last year. How do you just trade away the league's recipient of the Sixth Man of the Year Award (14.4 ppg, 8.7 rebounds and three assists) and get nothing in return and expect your bench to be better?
One obvious move would be to work point guard Ramon Sessions back into the second unit, where he seems to connect very well with small forward Matt Barnes. That is where Sessions played when he first came to the Lakers, and the bench was markedly stronger.
For reasons we may never fully understand, the Lakers traded away the heart (Derek Fisher) and soul (Odom) of their team. D-Fish would have been just fine getting mostly bench minutes and tutoring some of the young talent, such as guard Andrew Goudelock and forward Devon Ebanks.
At this point of the season, we can only hope that Troy Murphy, Blake and forward Josh McRoberts pick up their games, both offensively and defensively. Otherwise, the Lakers will exit the playoffs in a hurry.
The Lakers just don't have enough good players to carry them all the way to the Finals. They apparently were very close to having a deal to acquire young power forward Michael Beasley from the Minnesota Timberwolves, but it was nixed at the 11th hour.
And so, the team then went to plan B and traded for Ramon Sessions. The young point guard is definitely an upgrade, but as I wrote about last summer, there are only so many elite PGs in the league, and he is not one of them. The Lakers still need another impact player.
Some thought the team might use its $8.9 million trade exception that it acquired in the deal that sent Odom to Dallas to acquire a strong outside shooter; the Lakers still need that type of player, and someone like Beasley would fit the bill. He's getting less minutes at Minnesota, mostly coming off the bench to spell rookie forward Derrick Williams.
The Lakers should still make a run at Beasley in the offseason. The 23-year-old is a career 15 points-per-game scorer and makes 36 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He would fill a hole created by the absence of Odom.
The Lakers need to add young, significant pieces to the lineup. That much is obvious. Whether they do it by trade, free agency or the draft—or all of the above—this team is currently lacking in enough pieces to make a serious run.
Mike Brown is an accomplished coach, especially on the defensive side of the ball. His teams in Cleveland (2005-2010) were contenders every year, advancing to the Finals for the first time in team history in 2007.
Brown's Cavs won a franchise-best 66 games in 2009 and topped 60 games again the next year. They also became the first team in NBA history to win that many games back-to-back and still not make the NBA Finals.
The Lakers hired the defensive-minded Brown because the team was so lax in that area following their four-game sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks a year ago. What the team should have done was hire Brown or someone with his pedigree as an assistant and give the head job to Brian Shaw, longtime Lakers assistant under Phil Jackson.
It's always to second guess and blame the coach, but in this case, I think it may be warranted. The Lakers publicly say they support their coach, but you wouldn't know it by some of their actions.
In recent days, Brown has seen fit to bench Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum during critical junctures of close, important games. Benching Kobe late in the fourth quarter in a home game against Minnesota made no sense. Bryant was not playing that poorly, the game was close and the team needed him on the floor.
Bynum took an ill-advised three-point shot in a recent road win over Golden State and was benched by Brown. Bynum was seen laughing on the bench, and after the game, told reporters he would take more three-point shots in the future, clearly thumbing his nose at his coach.
During an on-air discussion Monday of Bynum's behavior and Kobe's apparent backing of the young center, Skip Bayless of ESPN said, "This is close to a full-blown mutiny."
Can the Lakers win a title with Mike Brown as their coach? I highly doubt it.
If I were management, I would make a change at the end of the year and try to lure Shaw from the Pacers back to L.A.
All I know is that the Lakers look like a listing ship at the moment, and no one can seem to identify the captain. It's time to right that ship or sink.
How is it that the Lakers can have such a tremendous first quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder only to fall flat on their collective faces in the second half and get run out of the building?
Why is it that L.A. can be counted on to build big leads only to let opponents climb back into games in the waning moments and often beat the Lakers at their own game?
How is it that the Dallas Mavericks won the title last year with an overall team that lacked the firepower of teams like the Lakers and Heat?
The answer to all of these questions: heart, passion and hunger for 48 minutes every night, every game. All three elements are missing on this Lakers team, and these intangibles are most difficult to manufacture.
How were the Lakers' title teams in 2009 and 2010 able to overcome adversity and win back-to-back championships? Talent, coaching and luck all play a role, but without heart, passion and hunger, they don't win. The team's Game 7 deciding win at home against the Celtics in the 2010 Finals so proved that theory.
Losing their heart (Fisher) and soul (Odom) certainly did not help the Lakers this year. Pau Gasol has become the de facto leader, and though he plays hard and stresses communication between the players and coaches, he is a reluctant co-captain.
Kobe Bryant, a leader by example on the court, is not the guy to inspire the team. Unfortunately, the Lakers may need to suffer a year or two of hard times before seriously contending again.
You can't trade for heart, passion and hunger. They need to exist night in and night out for a team to contend. The Lakers still may find that magic formula this year, but time is not on their side.