DALLAS — Here they were Tuesday night, settling for facing each other’s transient faces after both got jilted by Dwight Howard four months ago.
Just two years ago, all eyes had been on them in an unforgettable second-round playoff series: The two-time defending NBA champion Lakers, picked to beat Dallas by all 14 ESPN expert panelists, were swept in four games by a cohesive Mavericks team that would roll on through LeBron James and win the 2011 NBA championship.
Just two years ago…
Yet from that Lakers roster, only Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Blake remain now—with Bryant still in the shadows because of his Achilles tear. Besides franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki, there’s Shawn Marion and no one else left in Dallas.
This is what can happen when you’ve got to clear salary-cap space to throw money at free-agent stars.
And with Howard choosing neither Los Angeles nor Dallas, they’re left with a lot of filler on these rosters as they await their next big pot to go all in.
For their part, all five of the aforementioned players—Bryant, Gasol, Blake, Nowitzki and Marion—have contracts that expire at the end of this season. And you could also make a case that all five of them are currently overpaid, which is another byproduct of going all in to pursue a title two years ago.
On this night, the Mavericks destroyed the visiting Lakers, getting a lot from two of the guys they settled for post-Dwight: Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon. The Lakers never led and trailed by 30, and the cartoon video song on Mark Cuban’s arena monitor rubbed it in during a timeout, saying of the Lakers: “They’ve run out of time; they’re all past their prime.”
Howard was blatantly missed from a Lakers defense that showed no capacity or hunger whatsoever to make the extra rotation to the open shooter or, even worse, the oncoming driver through the paint. In the first half, Dallas had 21 assists against two turnovers.
Gasol understood it, saying postgame that the Lakers need to make the last shot a contested jumper, “not a layup, not a dunk.” But at the same time, he couldn’t understand it, wondering about too much individual action on offense also.
The closest Gasol came to an explanation was again hinting that Mike D’Antoni’s inability to commit to clear lineups is interrupting all that feel-good chemistry that was building through preseason.
“The rotations change quite a bit,” Gasol said.
D’Antoni remains indecisive, saying after dropping to 2-3: “We’re still searching, obviously.”
Whether this is the latest indictment of D’Antoni, it is a predictable problem when you swing and miss on a superstar. You wind up with what the Lakers have: a lot of guys who have been mediocre or unproven in their careers, leading to a coach not knowing which are the best feet to put forward.
If you have Howard, you don’t have to search. You know you’ll have certain great things happening pretty much every night, and you just fill in around those. Because D’Antoni doesn’t have Bryant either, the Lakers are walking blind as to where the production can come from, especially on the road.
This rout in Dallas drove that point home. There were no available excuses as in Game 2 in Oakland, where the Lakers could walk away and shrug at facing the second night of a back-to-back set and fighting Golden State’s fresh legs and opening-night emotion.
This was the Lakers just being really, really bad—at a really, really bad time, too. They move on to a TNT showcase game against Howard in Houston on Thursday night.
Asked about facing Howard, Nash said: “We’ve got to concentrate on ourselves.”
“Ourselves”? Who are they, exactly? Even Nash refers to the Lakers in the context of what superstars they aren’t anymore.
“No Kobe or Dwight—a big difference from last year,” Nash said. “It’s not something that happens overnight.”
And what did happen was a typical Tuesday night on the road in the life of an NBA franchise without sufficient star power.
“It’s going to take a higher effort than at home,” Gasol said. “Can’t make a habit of it—getting our asses kicked on the road.”