The Los Angeles Lakers are flailing and failing out in public. To make matters worse, Dwight Howard is out with a torn labrum and Pau Gasol is out with a concussion (via ESPN.com). This would seem to be a debacle of epic proportions.
But, imagine if I had told you before the season that Dwight Howard's back would never be healthy in 2012-13. What would your expectations for the Lakers have been then?
This is lost in so much of the howling over a disappointing Lakers season. People are so fixated on what the expectations were that it's drowned-out commentary on what the expectations should have been. If Dwight Howard's back wasn't right, the Lakers were always dead in the water.
Last season, the Lakers had a plus-1.4 margin of victory, which is even lower than their current plus-2.1 pace. This essentially means that Los Angeles got lucky with its winning percentage last year but has been unlucky so far this season. It also means that expectations should have been tempered a bit below what they were.
Hobbled by a rehabbing spine, Dwight Howard has been worse than last year's Andrew Bynum, the guy who played on the plus-1.4 point differential team. This was a wholly predictable outcome, because spinal surgery is no minor undertaking. For whatever reason, my sense is that people would have been more braced for a drop in production had Dwight been returning from a torn ACL.
Howard is still producing offensively, albeit at a worse clip than in his past. His PER and win share average are at their worst levels in seven seasons.
Though diminished offensively, you can really see his injury on the defensive end. Howard, before he tore his labrum, just didn't consistently have his old lateral mobility. He also was stilted and sluggish in his defensive movements.
There was excitement over how 38-year-old Steve Nash would help the Lakers, but Los Angeles wasn't going anywhere without an improved defense. L.A. was tied for 14th in defensive efficiency last year, a far cry from what a team needs to win a championship.
Also, Steve Nash represented yet another suspect, slow, defensive player that Howard was called on to compensate for. It wasn't the only superhuman task, assigned to a former superman. Dwight was also expected to make up for Kobe Bryant's defensive lapses, and the historically awful defense of Antawn Jamison.
Then, there was the Pau Gasol problem. The Lakers had been getting away with playing two centers in a league that was becoming increasingly inhospitable to the strategy. When L.A. was at its most successful with the twin tower approach, it had Lamar Odom available to play power forward off the bench to give Gasol and Bynum a long break from each other.
The two-center approach is problematic because it compromises a defense and an offense in certain situations. Offensively, two centers means less space for three-point shooters and the inability to play at a fast pace.
L.A. tried to make the situation workable by asking Pau to shoot threes on the perimeter. Sadly, he simply lacks the skill set for that kind of job.
Defensively, two centers means that an opposing team can "go small" and run one of your slower, bigger guys off the floor. How does Pau Gasol guard, say, Kevin Durant when the Thunder decide to play KD at the four? Since the Lakers lack a bench, they lack a counter punch to that kind of move.
The Lakers have, in many ways, surpassed expectations. Howard has been a productive offensive player despite looking like he's wearing an invisible body brace. Bryant is having his best season in years and years.
If our expectations were sane, we wouldn't tear our hair out and scream at every Lakers loss. With a rehabbing Dwight Howard, the Lakers were never good enough to be great in the first place.