LOS ANGELES — The final score at Staples Center on Tuesday night showed a Lakers victory, 116-95.
Other numbers revealed a devastating Lakers loss.
The Lakers’ 320-game home sellout streak ended when Staples wound up 571 spectators shy of the 18,997 capacity for the game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
A Lakers game not selling out?! It hadn’t happened for seven years (Dec. 6, 2006 against the Oklahoma City/New Orleans Hornets). That was so long ago that the NBA was using what wound up as a temporary new microfiber composite basketball—and Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Luke Walton and Lamar Odom joined Kobe Bryant in the Lakers’ starting lineup.
Nothing so far in this Kobe-less Lakers season—led by an out-of-shape Pau Gasol and a semi-limping Steve Nash—has been as interesting as the Lakers not being able to sell their tickets.
It speaks to how dependent the team has become on the star power of Bryant, recovering from his Achilles tear at age 35, and how dangerously close the Lakers are to losing the attention of a local fanbase that loves winners but always has the entertainment industry to turn to anyway.
Coincidentally, Forbes published a story about how the Lakers three years ago had an average ticket price on the secondary market $150 higher than the Clippers—but that margin has been cut to $70 now. The Lakers have dropped behind both the Heat and Knicks in average ticket price on the secondary market.
According to TiqIQ.com, you can get a seat for the next Lakers home game Friday night against Memphis for just $20. With another nondescript opponent, Detroit, coming in Sunday night, you can attend that game for $17.
The Lakers’ performance Tuesday night was an example of how fans can get some bang for small bucks. Even though the starting lineup of Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill and Gasol would look even worse on the marquee than that 2006 group with Bryant, the Lakers rode Hill’s relentlessness and defensive effort to an easy victory. Athletic wing Xavier Henry provided a pyrotechnic dunk—rising so high his waist neared New Orleans 7-footer Jeff Withey’s collarbone—with the Lakers up by 22 points late in the third quarter, a moment no one in the arena will soon forget.
But Hill and Henry are not mountains on any landscape. They are just faces in a big crowd of Lakers who play: In the first nine games, 10 different guys have been in the starting lineup, none named Bryant. Six different starting lineups. No position has had the same starter every game.
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has turned to Hill, whom Gasol has been asking D’Antoni to grant more opportunity, to establish a level of energy and effort that makes the Lakers go for it.
And if Dwight Howard had played through his physical imperfections last season with as much zest as Hill played through the bone bruise in his right knee Tuesday night, it’s safe to say the 2012-13 Lakers would’ve enjoyed enough success to keep selling Staples out now.
The 2012-13 Lakers didn’t win a single game in the playoffs, and then Howard further stuck it to them by signing with Houston despite the Lakers’ pathetic “Stay” campaign. Despite a big opening victory over the Clippers and another in Houston on Thursday, D’Antoni has failed to give the 2013-14 Lakers a particular identity with Bryant perhaps still be a month away from his season debut.
The hope remains that D’Antoni can tap into consistent energy from these guys in a highly watchable, fast-passing, open-shooting system that was one of the business reasons Jerry and Jim Buss were drawn to the idea D’Antoni replacing Mike Brown as coach.
But much like these Lakers trying to be relevant without championship aspirations, sometimes D’Antoni doesn’t know if he’s coming or going.
Just Tuesday night, D’Antoni twice had to stop himself mid-sentence as he tried to be both honest and delicate about the Lakers’ fragile state and low expectations.
Before the game, D’Antoni was talking about Nash, 39, being sidelined again with a nerve root problem: “He’s had a rem—” and then he quickly amended it to say: “He’s in the middle of a remarkable career.”
After the game, D’Antoni began: “If we want to win and try to be a serious...,” then stopped himself and changed it to: “...get into the playoffs, then this is what have have to do.”
Those 2006-07 Lakers, who did sell out most of their games with Bryant averaging 31.6 points per game for the season? They made the playoffs with a 42-40 record and won one playoff game. It was all so fulfilling that an irate Bryant demanded a trade that summer.
The guy does have a way of keeping it interesting.
And when he begins his against-the-odds comeback—an unpredictable saga that might well parallel Hemingway having to write 47 alternate endings to A Farewell to Arms—the Lakers will become must-see stuff all over again to see how Bryant does.