PHOENIX—Jordan Farmar slipped out of the glum Los Angeles Lakers locker room Monday night ahead of everybody else and said to a couple of familiar reporters, "Merry Christmas, hopefully."
Farmar’s hopes might indeed be fulfilled, as he was medically cleared Tuesday morning to return from the small tear in his left hamstring. With a trip to absorb losses of 19 points to the Golden State Warriors and 27 points to the Phoenix Suns behind them, the Lakers move on to the opportunity, challenge and potential ridicule of playing the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat on Christmas Day.
The losses made Farmar even more eager to jump right in to rein in the wayward Lakers offense that has been missing point guards Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Farmar—and semi-point guard Kobe Bryant—because of injuries.
Farmar is, for the record, making a minimum NBA salary this season. To be clear, the Lakers are pinning their hopes for a happy holiday and revival after that on a minimum guy. That is how low the Lakers are these days.
And if you find that analysis misleading in any way, let’s clarify further:
The Lakers’ leading scorer for the season is Nick Young. He is also, for the record, making a minimum NBA salary this season.
So much for the legend of the Lakers as the consummate free-spending NBA metropolis. That built-in advantage was killed off by the recent collective bargaining agreement, as the Lakers’ lighter payrolls will show even more in coming years, and injuries to the Lakers’ aging headliners now are leaving them with a chance of success that is, well, minimal.
That’s why Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni was rather indignant Monday night when prompted after quite an unattractive loss in Phoenix, D’Antoni’s former playground, to an upstart Suns team that never trailed after the Lakers’ initial points. D’Antoni’s clipboard hit the floor in frustration at one point in the second half.
Told by Lakers broadcaster John Ireland that D’Antoni’s level of postgame discouragement didn’t seem to match that of many Lakers fans, D’Antoni replied, “We're fighting with a bunch of good guys that played well before and (will) again. If they are discouraged, then find another team to root for.”
With a schedule of five of the next six games at home, D’Antoni went on to add to his message for Lakers fans who, with Bryant out again, may or may not repeat the first non-sellout since 2006 at Staples Center from earlier this season.
“We got a nice homestand coming up,” D’Antoni said, “and if anybody hangs their head, then they don't need to be on our bandwagon.”
Far more honest with reporters than the average coach, D’Antoni tends to be a little emotional after games, at times making passive-aggressive comments about players.
And for all the jokes about how there should be no D in his name, D’Antoni definitely went on the defensive in Phoenix, in part because he likes this group of underdogs, and in part because they are such underdogs that it’s unfair to criticize them too harshly.
When Pau Gasol sat out that loss to the Warriors on Saturday night with a cold, it left Jordan Hill as the highest-paid player on the Lakers roster...at $3.6 million. The NBA average salary is $4.5 million.
Add up the annual salaries of all the guys on the team that night in Oakland, and it’s around $15 million. That’s half of what Bryant makes by himself.
Gasol had been the only player to start every game this season, and in part because of D’Antoni’s rampant shuffling and searching instead of committing to a rotation, the Lakers have now used 12 different starting lineups in their 28 games. The number will grow again when Farmar returns, because he will be the 13th different Laker to start a game this season. Thirteenth!
This is the degree to which this Christmas matchup is a group of elves—low-paid ones, at that—trying to take down Miami’s abominable snowmen.
“The energy has to be there if you’re going to play against the champions,” Gasol said.
For Wednesday, Gasol specifically asked for more “movement in the offense,” which having a point guard—even a minimum-salary journeyman just back from injury—certainly would help bring. (“Can’t be smooth. We’ve got 15 point guards out,” D’Antoni muttered postgame in Phoenix.)
But Gasol’s frustration over not feeling well (and getting nailed Monday night in the right eye, which at least will make him look tougher for the ABC Christmas viewing audience) was matched by how often his less experienced teammates weren’t doing the right things on the court in Phoenix.
“A lot of things to understand that we need to do better,” he said.
Yet as Gasol looked around that locker room at all the underdogs and fill-ins, he considered the Lakers’ 13-15 record and had to declare it “OK.”
Even if it was clouded by his emotions and affection for a superstar-less style of basketball—and served as a reminder to fans that this particular Lakers coach hasn’t earned the right to talk down to them—that was the gist of D’Antoni’s message to the Lakers’ bandwagon.
It’s not the long-awaited Kobe vs. LeBron in the NBA Finals, and now it’s not even Kobe vs. LeBron on Christmas. But there has been great chemistry, some inspiring victories and clear progress from Bryant. All told, it has been OK.
It’s just not what Lakers fans are used to seeing under their tree.