The perfect storm for another disastrous season is beginning to shape up. You can sense it, you can feel it in the winds of change.
You can smile at the run-and-gun wins and blink away the losses, but the clouds are still rolling in.
And if you somehow think Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni is not standing on a fragile spit of shifting sand, then you’re in a state of wishful denial.
The past few years have brought a constant specter of change—new coaches, new supporting players and temporary stars, including the one-year Dwight Howard experiment.
This current season brought the most transient of Purple and Gold rosters yet—an amalgamation of one-year minimum-salary players who were asked to first stand in for, and then meld with, a superstar on the mend in Kobe Bryant.
And then, stand in again. The face of the franchise had been back for just six games when news came down that a hyperextended knee was, in fact, a fracture at the top of his left shin, directly below his knee.
It would be tempting to say this is the capper on a slew of other unwelcome events, but if last season proved anything, it’s that things can indeed get worse.
Here then is a handy recap of this season's most recent woes:
First, all three Lakers point guards went down with injuries—Jordan Farmar with a hamstring, Steve Blake with a torn-up elbow and Steve Nash with a chronically disintegrating body. The latest on D’Antoni’s favorite ball-handler ever is that he can walk, but he can’t run.
With all three logical options exhausted, Bryant had been pressed into running the point. That is until the latest left-limb-fail.
The team has also had to deal with a recurring soap opera from last season—Pau Gasol’s conflict with a head coach who's never won a ring but somehow managed to get the job over Phil Jackson, a coach who won 11, plus two as a player. D’Antoni may have gotten the job, but it’s hard not to remember the Zen Master’s accomplishments and his relationships with players.
Last season, Gasol wasn’t thrilled about being moved from the low post out toward the wing in D’Antoni’s offensive system and was even less happy about being benched during some key periods, including an entire fourth quarter against the New Orleans Hornets.
The dark rumblings resurfaced a couple weeks ago when Gasol mentioned to Bill Plaschke at the Los Angeles Times that he doesn't think he's a fit in D’Antoni’s system:
"This year hasn't been ideal, certain things are not ideal for me, but that's not going to change any time soon."
D’Antoni responded in kind, this relayed through Mark Medina for the LA Daily News:
"It’s also a nice excuse not to play hard," D’Antoni said. "That’s a classic, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’ Well, you don’t have trouble getting up to the paystub line."
Trade rumors were soon blitzing across the smog belt, regardless of whether they made sense or not.
Lakerland is one of basketball’s more transient cultures, of course, and it wasn’t long before best bro Bryant was lobbing passes to Gasol’s sweet spots. A couple of throwback games later, D'Antoni was once again brimming with optimism.
In fact, the newfound love fest was accompanied by a sudden reversal of trade talk! Are you getting motion sickness from the spinning carousel yet? According to Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein of ESPN Los Angeles, Gasol was no longer on the block.
Sources told ESPN.com this week that the Lakers, before Gasol's resurgent play, engaged in exploratory talks with several teams but never got too far with any of the calls.
Naturally, as soon as Gasol got his joy back, another malcontent took his place. Chris Kaman arrived as a free agent this past summer, assuming he’d have a larger role in D’Antoni’s system. According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Kaman had this to say:
I'm just going to take the high road and do the right thing, but it's definitely not what I was told coming in here. Obviously, I would have never came here if they had said, "We're not going to play you at all." I thought I had a good opportunity coming here.
D'Antoni may not act like he’s on the hot seat. He has after all, managed to keep his head above water with a bunch of minimum-salary misfits who fit right into a freewheeling offensive system in which the ball is shared and shot equally and one that can actually be fun to watch. The Lakers are one of the best three-point teams in the NBA and also feature the league’s top-scoring bench unit.
Then again, much of the ball-sharing came courtesy of Steve Blake’s 7.7 assists per game. Blake’s torn UCL in his right elbow will keep him out for approximately five more weeks. Add that to Bryant’s six weeks and Nash’s four weeks (at least) and about the only good news is that Farmar may possibly be back by Christmas. And all of sudden it’s sounding like last season all over again—not to fear.
Within hours of the Bryant injury announcement, the team's official Twitter account was tossing D'Antoni yet another makeshift life preserver in the form of six-foot-six shooting guard Xavier Henry.
Per Eric Pincus of the LA Times, the 12th pick in the 2010 draft took the new assignment in stride:
"I'm not going to say it's difficult, but it's different."
Media coverage is sometimes described in terms of the 24-hour news cycle. The L.A. mega-market can’t be bothered with such quaint notions—it devours stories like Pac-Man blips on a screen. Hours after writing about Henry’s new assignment, Pincus with the LA Times informed Lakers fans of a new entry in the point guard corps.
The Lakers have agreed to terms with free-agent point guard Kendall Marshall, according to an NBA executive with knowledge of the situation. Marshall was originally drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the 13th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft.
Marshall has recently been burning up the D-League and seems like the kind of guy who could fit in a D’Antoni system—nice outside jump shot, better-than-average passing skills and some deceptive speed.
So it’s all good, right? It's no more of a disaster than last year. In fact, it’s pretty much Groundhog Day—Kobe’s back on the shelf with all the point guards except for a newly arrived D-Leaguer.
What makes for a perfect storm in the NBA? A collision of circumstances reaching critical mass.
In the fall of 2012, Lakers head coach Mike Brown lost four out of the first five games and was promptly fired. It wasn't only those games that sealed his fate—it was the confluence of a disappointing previous season, the arrival of new stars in Howard and Nash and the blossoming of expectations that ultimately were deemed to be beyond Brown’s reach.
Those same expectations weren’t met by Brown’s replacement—Mike D'Antoni. The extreme number of injuries were mitigating circumstances to an extent. It’s probably safe to assume the current Lakers coach can survive another disappointing season, as long as there’s a more forward-thinking plan in place for the future.
Now into a new holiday season, the Lakers are rolling with the punches, winning and losing in equal measure, sometimes pointing fingers and sometimes regaining a sense of giddy harmony. When it’s fun, it’s really fun. With Swaggy P as the team’s scoring leader, there is genuine entertainment value, and that’s a good thing.
So why be hating with all this perfect-storm talk? Because ultimately, the win-loss record will catch up. And then the highlights won't matter as much. It's an odd state of limbo, clear skies one day and thunderheads the next. The Lakers have been bounced out of the first round of the playoffs the last two seasons, and with their current record, they wouldn't even get that far.
The Purple and Gold beat the Minnesota Timberwolves by 13 points on Friday night and were in turn beaten by the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night by 19. And that's just how it is. Los Angeles is currently 13-14 in the Western Conference.
Given the roster, nobody expected the Lakers to make a serious run at a championship this season. There was, however, a reasonable hope for some consistency and direction. At the moment, the Lakers' active roster is made up of Gasol and a bunch of happy waiver-wire gunners who are whistling into a gathering storm.
Hopefully Gasol doesn't veer off the tracks, Kaman the Caveman stays relatively agreeable, nobody else gets injured and Farmar comes back and vies for time with that new D-League guy—as long as the trade rumors don't start building again.
The question isn't what happens now. That's way too fluid to really grapple with. The big money problem is next season when Bryant's new two-year extension kicks in, hopefully with some modicum of good health. It will be the beginning of the superstar's final hurrah as a player in the NBA.
Will management actually enter that final, epic last stretch with D’Antoni at the helm? What would be the point?
An eternal optimist might say the third year could be the charm for an increasingly beleaguered coach. A pragmatist might say that Bryant doesn’t have time on his side and that D’Antoni has yet to get a team to the NBA Finals—is there really any evidence to suggest that he will?
It’s hard to imagine Lakers executive VP Jim Buss won’t take stock of his assets at some point this season.
He’s got Bryant for two more years. He has an assistant coach in Kurt Rambis who is a disciple of Phil Jackson. He’s got a sister who runs business operations and is engaged to Phil Jackson. And he has Jackson himself, who has continued to express a willingness to have some official involvement in the team, even after being snubbed last season.
In an interview with ESPN 710 radio last summer, Jeanie Buss mused about Jackson’s possible future:
"I don’t know how things are going to turn out. I just don’t think he’s done contributing yet. I think he’s got a lot to give."
Sure, the idea of Jackson actually committing to the rigors of coaching again is uncertain.
There’s also the question of management’s willingness to absorb the last year of D'Antoni's deal and roll it into the type of mega-contract Jackson commands. Still, that money’s a drop in the bucket compared to the revenue that such a feel-good reunion could generate through the Lakers rich television deal with TWC. And, what price would you put on another championship banner?
The imperatives for next season include luring quality free agents, competing for a ring, keeping Bryant smiling, keeping the fans cheering and having the ever-present cameras record all the happiness.
One more perfect storm won’t necessarily deliver a blue-sky scenario on its own. But if D’Antoni is washed away, the team can start fresh. Or, it can bring back a guy who’s never really left.
Cue the incense and bongo drums.
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