It's time for the Los Angeles Lakers to push the panic button, right? At 9-13, they're done? With losses to the Sacramento Kings, the Orlando Magic, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Houston Rockets, this team should just give up?
Maybe...if it were March or April rather than mid-December. The Lakers still have two healthy-ish All-Stars (Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard), two others on the mend (Steve Nash and Pau Gasol), a coach (Mike D'Antoni) who—despite the avalanche of criticism under which he's already been buried—doesn't need Stuart Smalley to remind him of his own qualifications for the job...yet.
And, most importantly, they have time to figure things out—60 games-worth to be exact.
To be sure, there are plenty of potentially fatal flaws that run deep through this squad and may ultimately be beyond repair in the immediate term. The Lakers' primary perimeter players are all intelligent guys with impressive resumes, but none can be considered anything close to an elite defender in the here and now.
Nash's return doesn't figure to make the Kyrie Irvings, the Russell Westbrooks and the Chris Pauls of the NBA any easier to slow down.
LA's inability to contain guards and wings (and not just the superfreak athletes among them) has placed tremendous pressure on their bigs to carry the load defensively. The fact that Howard still isn't fully recovered from back surgery, Gasol's knees are worn out and Antawn Jamison has been asked to play big minutes has made relying on the front line to erase those mistakes something of a fool's errand.
According to Team Rankings, the Lakers are 23rd in the league with 42.8 points in the paint allowed per game, despite their tremendous size.
Throw in their inability to force turnovers, their lackadaisical approach against the fastbreak and the general absence of camaraderie, communication and trust among a revamped roster, and it's no wonder the Lakers are merely middle-of-the-pack on that end of the floor overall, and even worse since D'Antoni took over.
The offense hasn't necessarily been a reprieve from the abysmal, either. For all the finger-pointing folks have done in D'Antoni's direction, the Lakers aren't running anything resembling the Phoenix Suns' vaunted Seven-Seconds-or-Less scheme. The pick-and-rolls have been few and far between in the absence of quality play at the point, replaced largely by isolation plays for Kobe and post-ups for Dwight.
The Lakers are still searching for an identity, one that Nash may or may not sew together if/when he returns from nerve irritation near his left fibula. In the meantime, there's plenty of blame to be shared by those who are healthy enough to play. Kobe has taken plays off defensively, Dwight can't seem to hit a free throw to save his life and the rest of the supporting cast has been inconsistent, at best.
But the players are who they are, and the men most responsible for bringing them to LA—general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president Jim Buss—had to have known that coming in. They certainly can't be faulted for upgrading at the point with Nash and essentially swapping Andrew Bynum (who has yet to play for the Philadelphia 76ers) for the best big man on the planet.
Talent is good, and more talent is better (duh), but more important is how all that talent fits together. The Lakers have thrived with twin towers before; they won two titles with Gasol and Bynum in the middle.
The difference then, was Lamar Odom.
With Odom coming off the bench, the Lakers could mix and match the minutes for their three bigs. Phil Jackson never played more than two of them at a time, and typically trotted out Gasol and Odom in crunch time while sitting Bynum.
The Lakers have no such luxury now and haven't since dumping a downtrodden Odom on the Dallas Mavericks last December. Lamar's unique skill set, as a versatile point-forward type, allowed LA to play big without clogging the floor and squandering what little spacing their subpar perimeter shooting could provide.
Nowadays, the Lakers don't have anyone with whom they can effectively stagger their minutes in the middle. Jamison can spread the floor to some extent, but he's well past his prime and is a defensive sieve. Jordan Hill brings plenty of energy on both ends of the floor, but has trouble enough converting a layup, much less a mid-range jumper.
Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon are both capable of knocking down long jumpers, albeit not regularly. And, please, don't expect Darius Morris to do much more than run around like a headless chicken.
Taken as a unit, these reserves have been nothing short of catastrophic. According to NBA.com's stats database, the Meeks-Duhon-Jamison-Hill quadrant, which has shared the court for 46 minutes this season, has been outscored by 34.9 points per 100 possessions.
That is to say (rather inelegantly), they stink.
Their ineptitude is no flattering reflection on the Kupchak-Buss braintrust. As ESPN's John Hollinger recently noted, those two have made more than their fair share of mistakes on the open market. They overpaid a backup point guard (Steve Blake, at four years and $16 million) when such players are more wisely treated like relief pitchers in baseball (i.e. expendable and replaceable).
What's worse, they let another, better, younger guard (Jordan Farmar) go as a result.
The same could be said of the franchise's decision to part ways with Shannon Brown. He ended up signing with the Suns at a reasonable $3.5 million per season after the 2010-11 season, leaving the Lakers short a promising, athletic wing to spell Kobe.
They've dished out dollars to Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy, parted ways with last year's most effective sub (Matt Barnes), and passed up a slew of quality contributors who ended up signing for minimum salaries, among them Ronnie Brewer, Sam Young and Nate Robinson.
And that's just in free agency.
LA's search for bench help in the NBA Draft hasn't gone much better. In 2009, the Lakers sold their first-round pick (29th overall) to the New York Knicks for cash and a second-rounder, when players like Marcus Thornton, Danny Green, Chase Budinger and Patty Mills were still on the board. The pick from that deal became Andrew Goudelock in 2011, who was cut during training camp this past October.
In that 2011 draft, which also brought Morris to LA, the Lakers could've just as easily acquired a backup shooting guard (E'Twaun Moore) or a diminutive-but-effective point guard (Isaiah Thomas) toward the end of the proceedings.
The failings, then, go far beyond whether Superstars A and B "fit" next to Superstars C and D. It's a matter of the Lakers' inability to build a solid roster beyond a few flashy names.
But who's really at fault here? Kupchak usually gets a free pass for engineering trades for Gasol and Howard and thinking creatively enough to land Nash. But did he not play a part in filling out the bench, and if so, what part?
Or is Jim Buss as much the genesis of LA's ills as so many (including Magic Johnson) seem to think he is?
With all of this being said, the Lakers aren't going to right the ship by playing the blame game or worrying about what they "don't" have or "can't" do. The key is to accentuate the positive and focus on what they can do while remaining optimistic that help is, indeed, on the way.
As Eric Freeman of Yahoo! Sports and Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated both mentioned, Nash's return might, indeed, be the light at the end of the tunnel for this team. So much of the chatter about Steve's age and inability to guard his own shadow ignores a few simple but fundamental points: that basketball is not a sport that can be so easily compartmentalized, that the two sides of the floor blend together, and that attitudes and approaches don't necessarily change all willy-nilly once players cross the half-court line.
Nash may not be the same guy who won two MVPs in Phoenix, but he's still one of the brightest basketball minds around, on top of being someone who makes the game fun to play. He lends a clear identity to any team on which he plays—smart passing, plenty of pick-and-rolls and sharp perimeter shooting when he's not dribbling around the court.
A player like Nash could, theoretically, gives Kobe a reprieve from having to do everything himself (or feeling that way). He could also set up Dwight for easy dunks and put Pau in his sweet spots. He runs his team efficiently, without turning the ball over and fueling the opposition's fastbreak, as the Lakers have done all too frequently this season.
He's the sort of player and leader who inspires confidence in his teammates—the kind of confidence that the Lakers so clearly have lacked in recent weeks, if not all season. He transforms the game from a painful slog to a rewarding group exercise. If the Lakers are having fun and succeeding on offense, they're likely to carry that joy, passion and refreshed enthusiasm with them to the other end.
Of course, that's a lot to pin on a 38-year-old veteran, and there's no telling how effective he'll be once his leg finally allows him to play.
In the meantime, the Lakers can kick the tires on Farmar, Jonny Flynn and Delonte West to play the point while Nash and Steve Blake (and, let's not forget, Pau Gasol) wait for their respective wounds to heal.
The Lakers' list of needs is lengthy right now, from point guards and perimeter defenders to shooting bigs and healthy stars. What they need most, though, is a reprieve from the endless frustration, from the unrelenting pressure that's part-and-parcel with great expectations.
What they need is some good news to get them out of this funk.
Perhaps a nationally-televised win against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden would do the trick. Perhaps not. Either way, these Lakers are anything but a lost cause. Their imperfections are many and varied, but they still have the requisite experience, the talent and the time to turn things around.
The only question is, will they?
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