To say that nothing’s gone right for the Los Angeles Lakers this season is saying just a little—the Purple and Gold bid the year goodbye with a dud of a game against the worst team in the league.
What comes next? A new year filled with uncertainty and an ever-growing chorus of opinions, complaints and blame. This, set squarely in the white-hot spotlight of the Los Angeles mega media market.
For the Lakers, it’s just one more low point as the bottom continues to drop out. The summer began with Dwight Howard leaving after a disappointing season. Flash forward to six losses in a row, and as 2013 came to a close, boos were raining down from the rafters.
Management had a pretty simple plan going into this season—the hope that a healthy Bryant would retake his rightful place at the head of the table, that Pau Gasol would return to an All-Star level and that a bunch of minimum-salary test players might produce some sort of affordable core to build on going forward.
So far, the first two parts of the puzzle haven’t panned out. Bryant landed the two-year extension he wanted but fractured his left shin just six games after returning to the lineup. Gasol, meanwhile, has looked like a shell of his former self with just enough bright moments to entice one more decent contract as he approaches free agency—although it almost certainly won’t come from the Lakers.
The most recent of the frequent Gasol trade rumors has been the idea of a swap for former Lakers wonder-kid Andrew Bynum which would likely end with a salary dump by waiving him before January 7.
According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Gasol acknowledged being affected by the rumors:
Unfortunately, it's hard not to see them. I can't really control what goes on upstairs and what the team wants to do and what direction they want to head. When these rumors come out, you just don't know. I didn't get any calls that it was true or that it wasn't true. You're kind of in limbo thinking that you might get a call saying that it is and I'm gone. I don't know.
Bresnahan also relayed Mike D’Antoni’s succinct reaction to Tuesday night’s loss:
"We didn't do anything well. Yeah, we're down at the bottom."
Before we get to the young test cases, let’s bottom out just a little more. Veteran point guard Steve Blake was arguably having his best season in the league until he tore an elbow ligament. Steve Nash is sadly becoming something of a punchline as he tries to will his way back from old age and chronic back issues.
Jordan Farmar’s hamstring is obviously not right yet, and Xavier Henry is out with a bone bruise in his right knee.
The Lakers have just four players under contract next season. As mentioned, Bryant and Nash are on the shelf. The other two are Nick Young with a player’s option at $1,227,985 and backup center Robert Sacre with a salary of $915,243.
The rest of the roster is an open question mark. Certainly, the Lakers are looking for some answers—as in, a choice pick in next year's draft?
During the earliest part of the season, coach Mike D’Antoni was beginning to win some grudging respect. With Bryant still rehabbing from his Achilles injury, a roster formed primarily of misfits and draft busts was proving to be both energetic and entertaining. It wasn’t that the team seemed poised for a playoff run but rather that they showed promise.
The Lakers had a deep and potent bench, they were shooting from long range with ridiculous efficiency, and there was an infectious enthusiasm, especially from Young who was showing Staples patrons what swag was all about. The fun lasted about a month.
The short return of Bryant unfortunately coincided with a number of other injuries and, then of course, the Mamba himself was hurt again. Adding to the weirdness of the whole thing was his trumpeted new contract—virtually serving as an introduction to his newest injury.
Free agents like Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry and yes, even Shawne Williams, have shown that they still have a place in the league. They could easily be part of a nucleus for next season’s roster, especially considering their bargain-basement salary levels.
The problem for these guys, is that they’re auditioning not only for a return engagement but attention from other teams as well. These minimum-salary journeymen have to find the balance between playing well individually, succeeding within a team context and somehow showing a semblance of consistency within a shifting rotation that has, to date, featured 13 different starters.
Add to the dynamic a head coach who has basically given each and every one of them the green light to shoot at will.
No wonder the whole thing’s falling apart. You could call it a matter of tanking, but there doesn’t seem to be any real sense of purpose behind it. The Lakers, a franchise with a rich and proud history, is becoming a ragtag group of freelancers with no direction home.
Next up, the first game of 2014 against another of the league’s bottom-feeders. The Utah Jazz beat the Lakers last Friday and will attempt to do it again this Friday. Say goodbye to December with four wins and 11 losses. Say hello to…what?