Wednesday night's trip to the FedEx Forum was supposed to mark yet another new beginning for the Los Angeles Lakers, a second midseason press of the reset button.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Lakers were left staring in the face of their fourth straight defeat and an uncertain immediate future for Dwight Howard.
Howard, who was listed as probable with a nagging shoulder issue, aggravated the injury late in the second quarter.
The big man would not return to the action, and the extent of the aggravation remained unclear following the night's events.
If Yahoo! Sports NBA scribe Adrian Wojnarowski's source got it right, Laker fans shouldn't have much to worry about:
Dwight Howard will have shoulder checked out in L.A., on Thursday, but initial sense is that injury is "not very serious," source tells Y!— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) January 24, 2013
Coming from Howard himself, though, his reaction set a much more ominous tone:
Dwight Howard on aggravated right shoulder "felt real bad. I didn't want to try to play through it. I didn't want to hurt it any worse."— Mark Medina (@MedinaLakersNBA) January 24, 2013
Dwight Howard seemed to be having trouble raising his right arm but didn't want to say much, telling me: "We'll talk about it later."— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) January 24, 2013
Howard already missed three games earlier this month after first suffering the injury in the team's Jan. 4 loss to the Denver Nuggets. And he sounded as if the aggravation was a more painful experience than the actual injury itself:
After visiting with fans for a long time, Dwight said as he left arena that unlike last time when pain went away: "I still feel it."— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) January 24, 2013
Whether or not it proves to linger this time around won't be L.A.'s biggest concern. It's not as if the team was winning basketball games with him on the floor.
That was part of the reason behind the Lakers' spirited discussions at Wednesday morning's shootaround.
But an extended absence for Howard could leave the effectiveness of that impromptu meeting in doubt for some time.
Did Kobe feel like his Wednesday morning message got through to Dwight? "I don't know," he said.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) January 24, 2013
This game was supposed to answer some lingering questions surrounding the plummeting franchise. More than the chance to knock off the Western Conference's fourth-best club and solve some of its recent road struggles (the Lakers entered the contest having dropped six straight away from Staples Center), that team discussion appeared to at least hint that coach Mike D'Antoni was open to modifying his schemes.
But it ended up being nothing more than another glimpse of the players' inability to perform under D'Antoni's direction. The coach appeared to have affected the energy level, but that didn't lead to a different result.
Well, not a different one for this Lakers group. As for the franchise, this ship wasn't headed for entirely uncharted waters, but certainly ones it hadn't visited recently:
Lakers' 106-93 loss to Grizzlies is their 25th of the season. LA hasn't lost more than 25 games in an ENTIRE SEASON since 2006-07.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 24, 2013
Lakers fall to 2-10 in January; #Elias points out their last month with 10+ losses was April 2005 (1-10).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 24, 2013
The Lakers can't suddenly erase the start of the season. These 25 losses are not coming off their record.
What's scary for Laker fans, though, is the fact that no one's even sure if this is even rock bottom. We just know it's getting ugly:
Nash: "It's another chapter in a difficult season... It's been a nightmare the last three weeks."— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) January 24, 2013
Kobe when asked if this has been his hardest season: "It's getting there." Compared Brown/D'Antoni year to Rudy T/Hamblen season— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) January 24, 2013
The Lakers are a billion dollar trainwreck.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) January 24, 2013
Mike D'Antoni on @twcsportsnet "We just didn't play well." I think we could just keep replaying the same post-game over and over...— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) January 24, 2013
That awkward moment when you realize that the best game Kobe was a part of this season was when he live tweeted his 81 point game from 2006.— Not Bill Walton (@NotBillWalton) January 24, 2013
Laker fans (and analysts) have long been quick to point out the club's mathematical possibilities for a playoff berth. As it stands now, the team would need to win 28 of its final 40 games to reach 45 wins, which might not even be enough to qualify in the deep Western Conference.
Considering the team has just two winning streaks spanning three games or more on the season, a .700 winning percentage from here on out is more than a long shot. The clock hasn't quite expired on the year, but it will take a Derek Fisher-type miracle to salvage this mess.
Although they suffered through some hibernating stretches earlier in the year, Wednesday's loss wasn't from a lack of effort.
Laker fans might have hoped that it was, though. That would have been so much easier to comprehend:
Mike D'Antoni: "I think they played as hard as they can play. That's what's scary."— Mark Medina (@MedinaLakersNBA) January 24, 2013
Even Bryant was left nearly speechless by the night's events:
Rare occurrence of Kobe taking a page from the old @shaq "SHAM" approach(Short Answer Method). Very clipped responses to reporters.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) January 24, 2013
The reality of the situation is that the right coach isn't calling the shots, but the mismatched roster might be one that's uncoachable. Some of the players would prefer an uptempo style; others don't have the physical tools nor the desire to entertain that system.
And the roster is largely handcuffed from making even remotely impactful moves.
The Lakers have already committed over $100 million to this roster (via hoopshype.com), so there's an understandable apprehension at taking on any bad contracts in a potential deal involving any of their underperforming stars. Bryant and Nash aren't going anywhere. Howard and Pau Gasol may each hold the lowest trade value of their careers. And frankly, there aren't any other desirable pieces on the roster.
The coaching situation is equally unlikely to change. The organization is still on the hook for eight figures to both D'Antoni and the fired Mike Brown. Any name the Lakers deemed worthy of replacing D'Antoni would certainly command a similar financial commitment.
Laker fans have to be wondering how much worse it can really get.
Well, they (along with the rest of us) will likely find that out over the coming weeks.
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