Everybody says there is no such thing as a moral victory.
Maybe they're right. Maybe consider the Los Angeles Lakers' 101-95 loss to the Miami Heat as an encouraging loss. On paper, the Lakers had no chance against the Miami Heat and were likely on track for their third straight blowout loss.
But something happened on the way to Staples. And it is far and away the most encouraging sign I've seen all year for this shorthanded Lakers team.
What happened? The Los Angeles Lakers came to play.
I used to always preach to the championship-run Lakers to beware the downtrodden opponent. For those teams, facing the championship Lakers was equivalent to their own Game 7 NBA Final. The thinking being, our record may not reflect it, but we are NBA players too and we have pride and will not lay down.
And so it was Christmas Day with the Lakers—but the roles were reversed.
Miami is the two-time champ now. The Lakers are the team struggling to stay afloat amidst another season where the injury bug has hit hard. However, the energy, hustle and clear affection this squad plays with are a marked contrast to last year's dysfunctional team.
Everybody is contributing. Jodie Meeks' game has taken a clear step forward, Jordan Hill continues to bring it, and now Ryan Kelly is getting minutes? Awesome!
But I think for the foreseeable future (translation: until Kobe Bryant comes back) there are three Lakers in particular who will be key to this team's opportunity to rise above .500 and contend for a playoff spot.
Who are they? Glad you asked.
At the beginning of the year, I thought that Farmar should be the starting point guard for the Lakers.
Obviously, that is crazy talk.
The chances of any Mike D'Antoni-coached team that has Steve Nash on the roster going with anyone else is ridiculous. It will never happen. But the combination of Nash's injuries and Steve Blake being out with an elbow injury meant Farmar got an opportunity.
Jordan Farmar is much, much better than anyone gives him credit for.
I've been a Farmar homer since his UCLA days. Even with a ton of rust after his almost month-long layoff recovering from a hamstring injury, you could see how much more efficiently the team played with a true point guard. Especially for the younger players, who didn't seem to try to overcompensate like they did while he was out.
Do not forget that Farmar has two rings. He may be young, but Farmar knows what if feels like to play in high-stakes games and is young enough to be able to relate to the newcomers.
There was a Backstage Lakers episode that aired early in the season that featured Farmar. My takeaway from it was he, after playing abroad, has clearly decided that being a Laker is what he wants to be for the rest of his career.
Maybe he was too young to understand the magnitude of the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championships at the time. But he has matured and sees now that his second chance to play for the Lakers is a once-in-a-lifetime gift.
Watch out: Jordan is going to ball.
That brings us to our second Laker with the chance of a lifetime.
I didn't know a thing about Henry until the Lakers' preseason, where after every game, I found myself saying: Who is that guy?
Talk about hustle and effort. I believe those are the qualities that got him a roster spot. To go from the NBA scrap heap, to being able to look in the mirror and see himself in his jersey with LAKERS emblazoned on it, must be surreal.
I think Henry has huge potential. While I was surprised by how highly he was evaluated coming out of high school, I believe Henry can be an amazing contributor on this team. That he managed to not completely wilt when pressed into emergency point guard duty speaks volumes.
Xavier has all the tools but what he needs is a mentor.
I nominate Kobe Bryant.
"But wait," you say! If Henry is to serve as the backup point guard until Blake or Nash can get back on the court, doesn't it make more sense to have one of them mentor him?
My response? No.
Kobe is a guard. So is Xavier. Bryant is also in a much better position to teach Henry than either Blake or Nash. Bryant is so basketball smart and fundamentally sound that he can tutor Henry in both positions, having done it himself as recently as last year.
If Henry is smart (which I think he is), he should plead to sit next to Kobe on plane rides and break down game film. He should beg/bribe Kobe in any way he can while the Lakers are at home to help him watch not only opponents' film, but also Henry's own performances and give him feedback.
That sounds a lot like a coach, and Kobe has said in the past he doesn't want to go into coaching after his playing career is over. I don't doubt that.
But I know this: Kobe at this stage is a teacher.
He is constitutionally unable to not impart his basketball wisdom. That used to come off as berating his teammates for mistakes. I think that has softened somewhat. I am sure Kobe will be out of his mind with boredom as he rehabs after his knee injury. But that doesn't mean he has stopped thinking about basketball.
Xavier has a chance to have a season-long master-class in elite basketball. If I were Henry, I'd do whatever it takes to get Bryant to impart that wisdom.
Oh Swaggy P! I wanted to not like you, not only because I'm the most fervent UCLA alum ever and consider it part of my DNA to hate on the Trojans, but who gives themselves their own nickname?
Oh wait, Kobe Bryant.
Don't argue with me about the Black Mamba nickname. It's fantastic and everybody knows it. Why wouldn't Young proclaim himself Swaggy P?
Nick Young is just that: Young and full of swagger.
But you know what? I like it. His thinking appears to be: So what if the last three shots were bricks? The next one is going in. Remind you of anyone?
I love him on this team. Not only for his (sometimes over-) confidence, but for his pure joy. The Lakers need his positivity. In many ways, I think he is the ballast for this team in much the same way Metta World Peace was last year.
Sometimes, unwittingly or not, I think his demeanor reminds the team: "People, we are getting paid to play basketball! How can there be any downside?"
So why not have Kobe mentor them both?
Well, Kobe is obviously trying. Young told Michael Lee of the Washington Post that Bryant has been helping him this season, including watching film with him. But everybody learns differently, and I think Young is best schooled on the court.
He had a bad first half against Miami. But he changed his shoes (no, really!), and came out swinging (swagging?) in the second half, going toe-to-toe with LeBron James. Think about that. Nick Young just went against the best player (non-injured class) in the NBA and got off some shots! That's swaggalicious!
So, in this encouraging loss against the Heat, I think the Lakers found out something about themselves. Sure, they're shorthanded and without their superstar. But the Lakers haven't quit and are playing hard.
As much as I know Kobe is sick that he can't be out on the court right now, he has to be optimistic about the future. These three—Farmar, Henry and Young—are getting invaluable playing time opportunities. That is the kind of building block for the future this team needs.
One thing I always say is that it's not the Los Angeles Kobes. It's the Los Angeles Lakers.
Don't quit on this Lakers team yet, because they haven't.