Biggest Roadblocks to LA Lakers Restoring Their Powerhouse Identity
Things are just different in Los Angeles.
Losing streaks are disastrous—ominous at best, season-ending at worst.
Winning streaks are equally magnified, as the Los Angeles Lakers' recent three-game mini-surge has shown.
Just two weeks ago this was a franchise in shambles. It had hired the wrong coach, assembled the wrong players and tasked those players with playing the type of basketball that they'd never succeed in.
But once L.A. rattled off three consecutive wins, handling a championship contender (the Oklahoma City Thunder), a playoff hopeful (the Utah Jazz) and a spoiler (the New Orleans Hornets) along the way, they reemerged as championship contenders.
The 10th-best (or sixth-worst for the cynics) record in the Western Conference (20-25) has somehow earned the Lakers the seventh-best position in the conference (and 12th-best in the NBA) on ESPN's Hollinger power rankings.
Their most recent effort, a back-breaking 92-86 loss to the Phoenix Suns (which included an early exit for Dwight Howard), will likely once again strike a death sentence in the court of public opinion.
With the talent on their roster, the optimism isn't hard to follow. But given their lethargic performance over the first half of the season, neither is the pessimistic viewpoint.
An unbiased look at the club shows at least long-shot playoff hopes, but only if the team can steer clear of these roadblocks.
5. Dwight Howard's Uncertainty
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Dwight Howard and the Lakers can certainly delay their conversations about the impending free agent's future with the franchise. At this point in the season, both sides may see no other options.
But a public commitment to the organization could go a long way toward solidifying what has appeared to be a rocky relationship.
No situation will afford the on-court history and off-court endeavors that the Lakers could offer Howard. But few teams would leave Howard as the second (at best) option, something he's destined to be in L.A. until Kobe Bryant walks away from the game.
More than just the obvious uncertainty revolving around his impending free agency, there are legitimate reservations with regard to playing inspired basketball over the remainder of the season.
How long will Howard accept a secondary role in the team's offense? How much did that fateful meeting actually repair his and Bryant's relationship?
If coach Mike D'Antoni's presence could push him away from L.A. over the summer (as speculated by Yahoo! Sports scribe Adrian Wojnarowski suggested), how long before it limits Howard's aggressiveness and tenacity?
Perhaps the biggest question after yet another apparent flare-up of his shoulder injury (via Royce Young of CBSSports.com), though, remains is he even healthy enough to offer answers to any of the above questions?
4. Some Daunting Dates Left on the Schedule
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Teams have a tendency to raise their level of play against the NBA elites, and the Lakers rank among that group if for no other reason than the historical dominance by the franchise.
But those efforts will only increase with intensity with rival Western Conference foes knowing that not only can they keep the mighty Lakers out of the postseason, they can remove the possibility of squaring off with them in the playoffs.
Unfortunately for L.A., its schedule features more than just spoilers down the stretch.
The Lakers still have some remaining games with the Eastern Conference elites, including a game each with the defending champion Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls (a March 10 meeting which should feature a healthy Derrick Rose, via ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell), Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers and two left with the Atlanta Hawks.
Their in-conference schedule offers few gimmies as well.
The Lakers have home games left with the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies, away games with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets, and home-road sets with their Pacific Division rivals, the L.A. Clippers and Golden State Warriors.
3. Plenty of Ground to Make Up in Deep Western Conference
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If the previously mentioned tough draws weren't bad enough on their own, they take on a new meaning when combined with the Lakers' sluggish start to the season.
Affording teams the kind of head starts that the Lakers did via their 17-25 record through 42 games doesn't just increase the gap in the standings, it also builds confidence in the teams they're now trailing.
Although they may have some variance in terms of final seeding, the top six spots in the Western Conference playoff picture appear to be locked in place.
That leaves the Lakers fighting with at least the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers for the remaining two spots, with the Dallas Mavericks some Dirk Nowitzki magic away from joining the fray.
As it stands, the Lakers will need to win 25 of their last 37 games to reach the 45-win plateau. Given the depth of the conference, even that might not be enough to punch their postseason ticket.
2. Refocusing Pau Gasol
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Gasol has unfairly drawn a disproportionate amount of the blame for the team's struggles, and this is anything but piling on the 32-year-old.
But there's no denying that the team needs more out of him to be successful—a fact seemingly lost on Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. Gasol's move to the second unit delivered a healthy blow to the four-time All-Star's ego, but it wasn't one that D'Antoni couldn't have talked his way through.
But there are no words that can convince Gasol that it's in the team's best interest to leave him as no more than a fourth-quarter observer with a good view of the action.
D'Antoni's experiments with Gasol have teetered on the brink of becoming impossible to salvage.
The big man's comments to LA Daily News reporter Mark Medina following the team's 116-104 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Jan. 29 show that his patience is wearing thin:
I’m a competitor and think I bring a lot to the table. It’s something I don’t like and don’t appreciate.
We've all seen what an energized, focused Gasol can bring to the table. Lakers fans are hoping that we won't soon catch a glimpse of the opposite.
1. Continued Stubbornness of Mike D'Antoni
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No matter the external pressures that a Phil Jackson hiring would've brought the front office, it's been obvious for quite some time that the team whiffed on its selection of D'Antoni over Jackson.
Sure, Jackson's triangle attack would've limited the effectiveness of Steve Nash, but reducing the responsibilities cast onto a soon-to-be 39-year-old point guard would have been a far superior option over asking D'Antoni to somehow incorporate two post scorers into his perimeter-based schemes.
Since they can't go back in time and remain on the hook for eight figures to both D'Antoni and former coach Mike Brown, the Lakers cannot change who's pacing their sidelines. (Well, not this season, anyway.)
Credit this club for finding any success in spite of the flawed fit of the coach and his roster. Credit Bryant for taking over the distributing role that Nash no longer has the legs to fill.
But at some point, the obvious mismatch in system and personnel remains the biggest threat to L.A.'s postseason hopes.
D'Antoni won't suddenly implement the interior into his attack. Gasol won't miraculously discover the perimeter touch that D'Antoni tries so hard to convince himself is in there somewhere.
The Lakers have myriad problems to solve, but none greater (or more threatening) than this.