If you thought things were bad for the Los Angeles Lakers after their 125-112 loss to the Houston Rockets Tuesday night, just wait until you see what comes next.
This figures to be cold comfort for this club. The Lakers will start their next Staples Center stint against the high-flying Oklahoma City Thunder, then welcome in a Cleveland Cavaliers squad that ran them out of the building in December and, after taking on the interim-coached Milwaukee Bucks, brace themselves for a date with the Miami Heat on January 17.
Oh, and Pau Gasol's tender noggin is concussed. And Jordan Hill's hip is banged up. And, worst of all, the labrum in Dwight Howard's shoulder is separated.
To be sure, Gasol could be back in time to face the Thunder on Friday. Hill will miss at least a week, but doesn't seem likely to miss too extensive of a period of time and is hardly the linchpin of the Lakers to begin with. As for Howard, he claims that his injury is far milder than was originally reported and could be back in action soon after he's reevaluated next week.
Not that the return of those three would portend any sort of turnaround. The Lakers were three games under the .500 mark prior to the team's latest health-related setbacks, after all. They were 12-13 in games in which Pau played, and 10-13 when Hill played at least 10 minutes.
Things haven't exactly improved for those three in particular, or for the Lakers in general, under Mike D'Antoni. Tuesday's loss moved LA's record under D'Antoni to a troubling 10-14, including defeats in its past four games in a row.
Strangely enough, the Lakers played more prototypical D'Antoni basketball in Houston than they have perhaps all season. Without Dwight, there was no need to dump the ball into the post and wait for him to make a move. Without Pau, there was no agony in anticipation of watching a 6'11" post-up savant launch a jump shot from beyond 16 feet.
Instead, the offense ran exclusively through Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, who combined for 17 assists while running pick-and-rolls and getting the ball out to perimeter shooters. All told, the Lakers hit 14 of their 31 three-point attempts.
Trouble is, the Lakers also played D'Antoni ball on the defensive end. They allowed the younger, quicker Rockets to shoot 55.2 percent from the field and score a stunning 60 points in the paint.
Those numbers figure to improve once Howard, Gasol and Hill return, but by how much? The Lakers have already surrendered the 10th-most shots within five feet in the NBA and rank 20th in overall defensive efficiency, as measured in points allowed per 100 possessions.
LA also surrenders 1.903 points per fast break (fifth-worst) and forces the third-fewest turnovers per possession. These numbers aren't likely to improve much, even when the big men come back. The Lakers will still be counting on the old, slow feet of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash to be the first ones back in the transition from offense to defense, to stay in front of guards and wings, and to occasionally apply ball pressure in the hope of creating miscues.
To this point, that hasn't worked out so well, and those guys aren't getting any younger. The Lakers could look to upgrade the roster in that regard, but that would likely require that they trade Gasol.
Good luck to Mitch Kupchak, Jim Buss and the rest of the Lakers brain trust if they think they can hoodwink another general manager into taking on Pau (and his exorbitant salary) while giving up quality players without receiving a draft pick or sending back another cap-clogging contract. Any move involving Gasol would likely require the Lakers to forfeit their dreams of having financial flexibility in 2014, when everyone but Nash will be off the books.
But there are other dreams in danger in the interim. The latest loss moved the Lakers to 15-19, still in 11th place in the Western Conference but now a full four games back of the eighth seed. Merely climbing into the playoff picture will require that LA get some measure of help from the 10th-place Utah Jazz, the ninth-place Minnesota Timberwolves and either the Portland Trail Blazers or the Denver Nuggets, who are in a virtual tie for the last two postseason spots.
If the current winning percentages hold, any team hoping to claim the eighth seed will need approximately 46 victories to do so. In the Lakers' case, that means going 31-17 the rest of the way. That's a tall order for any team, but especially for one that stumbled through a weak, home-heavy schedule in the early going and still has a lengthy, Grammy-related road trip to endure.
And even more so for one that relies so heavily on so few players. Kobe has logged 40-plus minutes all too regularly, and D'Antoni has been riding Nash well beyond his usual 32-minute limit since the point guard returned from a tricky leg injury. Those two aren't exactly spring chickens—Kobe is 34, Nash is fast approaching 39—and the additional workload isn't likely to do anything but speed up the aging process.
And don't expect D'Antoni, who's notorious for his exceedingly short rotations, to go easy on them. Not with a bench that features the likes of Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison, Chris Duhon and Darius Morris, and ranks as the third-lowest scoring such unit in the NBA.
But despite all the doom and gloom (and the stats that confirm it), there's still some hope for these Lakers. They have Kobe and Nash, who will challenge for the scoring and assist titles, respectively. Dwight and Pau shouldn't be out too long and aren't all that far removed from playing like the All-World big men that they may well still be. And don't count out Kupchak, who's pulled off his fair share of trade-market miracles before.
With that said, even the most optimistic forecasters would have to admit that things will get worse before they get better for the Lakers. All signs point to more losing now and, probably, more losing later.
And, as the poor results pile up, so too will the chances of this star-studded squad, once a presumptive title contender, missing the playoffs entirely.
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