Watching the Los Angeles Lakers this season has been the equivalent of scarfing down a decadently lavish dinner, and then, when you're full to the nines, riding a roller coaster teeming with loops, twists and turns.
That feeling you get when you're overwhelmingly satisfied, only to abruptly become violently nauseous—that's the Lakers.
In what was supposed to be a dominant campaign marked by winning, contention and dynasty-esque aspirations, Hollywood has stumbled, ultimately fallen and picked itself back up, only to repeat the whole process again.
Still fighting for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, the Lakers have traveled back and forth between the team we thought they'd be and the crumbling faction absolutely no one envisioned.
Inside of seven games to go in the regular season, they're still maddeningly inconsistent. They've been good and bad. Domineering and passive. Cohesive and ugly.
And so, we're left torn, wondering which version of the Lakers is a genuine representation of the team and its future together.
After falling to the depths of the Western Conference at 17-25, Los Angeles has (nearly) turned its season around.
Since their implosion against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers are 23-12, climbing above .500 and re-entering the playoff picture.
Tinseltown's rise to competency hasn't always been pretty, but through the injuries, general attrition and spotty execution, a formula for success has taken precedence.
Kobe Bryant has emerged as a point man of sorts. He's strictly a volume shooter no more and has instead shouldered additional responsibilities as a playmaker.
It's a blueprint that isn't always followed, but one that is yielding results when it is. Los Angeles is 32-16 when Kobe dishes out at least five assists, 22-9 when he has seven or more and 8-2 when he hits 10.
That Bryant has dished out 10 or more assists 10 times this season is huge in itself. In his previous three seasons, he dropped at least 10 dimes in eight games combined.
There will always be contests when we say that Kobe should have passed more or that he shot too much, but for the fourth-leading scorer of all time, he has readily accepted a shift in roles more than most could have predicted.
"You're just trying to do whatever it takes to win," Kobe said back in February (via Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press).
When he's done "whatever it takes," when he's holstered his itchy trigger finger (Los Angeles is 24-12 when he attempts fewer than 20 shots), the Lakers have won.
They're also winning because Dwight Howard looks more like himself.
Prior to the All-Star break, Superman was averaging 16.3 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks on 57.8 point shooting and 10.2 shots per game.
Not even close, but very un-Howard-like. He attempted fewer than 10 shots in 22 of his first 48 games and scored under 15 points 22 times as well.
Since the All-Star break, Howard is averaging 17.3 points, 14.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks on 56.1 percent shooting and 11.2 shots per game. He is navigating the floor better and operating more freely in the post on both ends of the floor, which is huge.
The Lakers are 26-16 when Howard scores at least 15 points and 27-11 when he takes at least 10 shots. When he's more involved on the offensive end, they win, and as of late, he's played a bigger role.
And so has Steve Nash.
With Kobe taking the reins on offense, Nash has become more of a scorer. He's averaging just 12.7 points per game, but shooting 49.7 percent from the floor and 43.8 percent from beyond the arc, emerging as the team's top three-point assassin. He's also toiling with the fifth 50/40/90 season of his career.
Let's not undersell Los Angeles' turnaround. Bryant and company haven't iced a playoff berth (yet), but the numbers initially suggested they had no chance.
As disappointing as the season has been overall, there are beacons of hope and splendor to be found in certain performances. The Lakers haven't embodied perfection by any means, but their heads are (finally) above water and they're on the precipice of salvaging a season that looked lost.
It hasn't all been dandelions and ice cream sundaes in sunny Los Angeles.
The Lakers have incurred a multitude of problems, and none is more pressing than their health.
Hollywood's bench ranks 28th in points per game (26.8), so depth is not a luxury. Injuries have crippled this team all season long, and as it enters the home stretch, nothing has changed.
The same can be said of Dwight Howard's free-throw shooting. He's knocking down just 48.6 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, the lowest conversion rate of his career. He has attempted more than 10 free throws 28 times this season, and while Hack-a-Howard is not beyond reproach, it's been employed rather frequently.
For an outfit that fancies itself a legitimate contender, Howard's deficient foul shooting is a liability, one that could cost the Lakers victories. And as we know all too well, they can't afford to lose.
They also cannot afford to deviate from the successful game plan we alluded to earlier.
When Kobe passes, the Lakers win, but his inherent (and somewhat admirable) need to keep the Lakers afloat has proved detrimental.
Los Angeles is 16-25 when Bryant attempts 20 or more shots. Various circumstances have accounted for the Black Mamba's many shooting brigades, but it's disconcerting to know the Lakers are actually worse when Kobe jacks up his average number of attempts.
Imploring Kobe to continue his balanced offensive attack equates to beating an already thrice-dead horse at this point, but it's necessary. With so much at stake, with so much already having gone wrong, repetition is imperative.
Pau Gasol is just as bad.
The four-time All-Star has appeared in just 43 games this season, and despite having scored 14 or more points in three of his last five, he's still playing through the worst season of his career.
Gasol is averaging 13.2 points on 45.8 percent shooting, both of which are career lows. Though he's played better over the last five games or so, the Lakers still need more.
They need more from him and Howard together, too. The Lakers are being outscored by an average of 2.5 points per 100 possessions with both on the court. Housing two star big men was supposed to make for easy living, not develop into a fatal flaw.
So much about this Lakers team is predicated upon the favorable sides of "if."
If Gasol plays up to snuff, they'll be fine. If Kobe balances scoring with facilitating, they'll win. If Howard's free-throw woes aren't exploited, there's nothing to worry about. If they get healthy, contention is within reach.
Too many "ifs" don't make for illustrious crusades, though. Not ones that culminate in championships anyway.
Oh, it burns.
Life in the City of Angels hasn't just been difficult on occasion, it's also bordered on unwatchable.
On the court, we've bore witness to some terrible defense. The Lakers are 24th in points allowed overall (101) and 29th in fast-break points allowed per game (16), hardly indicative of a locale that Dwight Howard calls home.
Worse than their defense is their performance against teams above .500. They're 14-26 on the season versus winning factions. To go along with their sorry road record (15-25), by losing to the Los Angeles Clippers for the fourth-straight time this season, they're now 3-18 as the "away" team against squads above .500.
Aside from hideous on-court dealings, the Lakers have been forced to deal with more than their fair share of off-court theatrics.
Mike Brown was fired five games into the season, and then the organization spurned the legendary Phil Jackson in favor of the oft-criticized Mike D'Antoni. The "We want Phil" Chants still echo throughout the Staples Center even now.
Dave McMenamin @mcten
D'Antoni on the 'We want Phil!' chant: "He only won 58 rings, why wouldn't they?"4/3/2013, 5:44:48 AM
Then you've got the Dwight Howard drama.
His refusal to commit to the Lakers beyond this season, while justified, prompted a slew of speculation leading into the trade deadline. The rumors just wouldn't go away. Not even the Brooklyn Nets-related ones.
When Howard's future with the Lakers wasn't being debated, his relationship with Kobe was. From an air-it-out meeting, to Bryant questioning Howard's toughness, to Dwight responding in kind, theirs was a fractured pairing.
Fabricated or not, the hatchet has since been buried and lost traction. For awhile, it was a prevailing motif that stood to rip the Lakers apart.
Though not as relevant to Los Angeles' standing, an accident involving Jordan Hill's Bentley and an alcohol-impaired driver was just as ugly. For the most part, you don't want a player who is sidelined for the rest of the season to make headlines for any other reason other than a surprise comeback, charitable donation or to announce he's found the cure for body odor.
The Lakers and their fans would like to believe the team is now above such unpleasantries, that they're a harmonic, drama-free aggregate.
But everyone knows better. Los Angeles has a long way to go; there is not yet enough distance between the good and the bad and ugly.
Mike Trudell @LakersReporter
D'Antoni is pleased w/t effort to find a way to win, but said LAL have a long way to go. "We're not out of the woods at all."4/6/2013, 5:05:16 AM
Will the Lakers find a way to create that distance? Will the good eventually come to overshadow everything else?
There is not enough time to fully answer these questions. The Lakers won't be able to erase the elongated list of complete and utter wrongs.
They can still begin to move forward, to put part (or most) of this turbulent campaign behind them and allow the good to take over.
And making the playoffs would be a good place to start.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted
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