Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman and Robert Sacre staring at the floor in various states of agony. Kobe Bryant peering off into space as he wears street clothes instead of the uniform he's put on night after night throughout his career.
That picture about sums it up for the Los Angeles Lakers at this stage of the 2013-14 season, but how did we get here? What could possibly have plunged the Lakers into such a miserable place?
Hit the restrooms and then buckle up, because it's going to be a long and turbulent story.
Dating back to the end of Jerry Buss' lengthy battle with cancer, a fight that ended the legend's life on Feb. 18, 2013, the Lakers have been forced into an unrelenting downward spiral. Injuries, ineffectiveness on and off the court, poor roster decisions and plenty of other woes have plagued the team.
The story may or may not have a happy ending in the future, but the past and present aren't particularly pleasant.
February-March, 2013 (13-7 after Buss' Passing): Climbing Back to Relevance
After Buss passed away, his family released a statement, one that included the following quote, via NBA.com:
It was our father’s often stated desire and expectation that the Lakers remain in the Buss family. The Lakers have been our lives as well and we will honor his wish and do everything in our power to continue his unparalleled legacy.
At first, the team did everything in its power to honor Buss' memory by climbing back into the thick of the Western Conference standings. Its efforts had been futile through the end of his battle with cancer, but tough play led to a vastly improved record.
Dwight Howard turned back into a rebounding stud, and everything began to click for the purple-and-gold-clad warriors. Mike D'Antoni made his debut on the sidelines on Nov. 20, following his recovery from knee surgery, and he had nothing but compliments after the 95-90 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
As he told the Associated Press, courtesy of ESPN, "We can win every game we play...I feel like we're the best team in the league. We've got the most talent, so they can do what they want. We've just got to keep perfecting things."
At times, it appeared as though he was right.
By the end of March, L.A. had climbed all the way up to a 38-36 record, and almost everyone was healthy enough to play. Though he was battling through a foot issue, Kobe Bryant passed Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list against the Sacramento Kings on Mar. 30, and it was just another positive moment during a stretch that was filled with far more reasons to smile than the early portion of the season.
Then things took a turn for the worse.
April, 2013 (7-5): Injuries, Then Ineffectiveness
Steve Nash had exited that game against the Kings with a hamstring injury suffered in the first quarter, and he was listed as day to day. Little did the team know then, but he wouldn't play another game during the regular season, and he'd be lost once more after two games of the postseason.
That was the first of many blows, and as the team kept winning games, Kobe's minutes kept climbing.
He played 48 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 10, and it was the first time in his career that he'd reached such a high total without the game going into overtime.
Was it coincidence that the next contest was the fateful outing against the Golden State Warriors? Was it coincidence that the Mamba had played all 45 possible minutes before going down in a heap with an injury that would soon be revealed as a torn Achilles?
The Mamba won't say so, as he told the Associated Press via ESPN after the game, "Who knows? It (the heavy workload) was all necessary. It's just a freak situation, I guess."
Freak situation or the product of being overworked, No. 24 was still knocked out for the season. And that's when the wheels truly came off.
Thanks to Pau Gasol morphing into a nightly triple-double threat, the Lakers closed the 2012-13 campaign with two more victories, clinching a playoff berth on the final night of the regular season. Then they were manhandled by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, watching as Nash went down again and they were hopelessly outmatched in the talent department. San Antonio won each of the four games by double digits, and none of them were the least bit competitive.
Howard was ejected in the third quarter of Game 4, following his second technical foul of the night, and the series—one that Gregg Popovich couldn't call a fair fight—ended in rather definitive fashion. The Lakers didn't know it yet, but it was the last time D12 would suit up in a purple-and-gold uniform.
May-Late October, 2013: A Disappointing Offseason
It was a spring, summer and early fall filled with a quest to re-sign Dwight Howard and a constant stream of updates pertaining to the state of Kobe's Achilles.
None of it was positive.
The Lakers desperately needed to retain the services of Howard. Even though he was rather disappointing during his first season calling the Staples Center home, he was their only hope at remaining highly competitive and relevant during the 2013-14 season. Without him, the team would be left without any cap space and no way to sign a replacement.
Despite the need, the pursuit didn't go well. In fact, it led Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver to lead his recap of the Lakers' offseason with the following statement: "The very best thing that you can say about the Lakers’ summer is this: Once general manager Mitch Kupchak knew he was beaten, he simply admitted defeat."
He gave the team a D- for its offseason efforts, and it's hard to imagine any unbiased observer handing Kupchak and Co. much higher marks. CBS Sports' Royce Young was similarly disappointed:
Their needs entering the offseason were many, from bench depth to a new small forward, to a better philosophy, to better health, to youth and athleticism.
But really, they just needed Dwight Howard back.
Everything started there, everything centered around that. Get Howard back, lock him up for the long term and begin the transition of passing the torch from Kobe to Howard. Any offseason transaction the Lakers were to make was going to come after the chase for Howard. Everything was shaped there, and when he chose the Rockets, it wasn't on to Plan B. It was more like on to Plan F.
Between the billboard begging Howard to return, the lack of convincing arguments made and the infighting of the Buss family, the offseason was just a disaster.
Newsflash. He didn't stay.
Instead, the Lakers were left signing luminaries like Chris Kaman, Xavier Henry, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Shawne Williams as Jim and Jeanie Buss were at each other's throats.
There was ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reporting on Jeanie's claim that her father could have convinced D12 to stay, which really served as a veiled insult aimed directly at her brother. There was the aftermath of Kevin Ding's report for the Orange County Register, one that revealed the siblings were no longer speaking.
Even rappers started to weigh in on the topic:
The relationship between Jim and Jeanie was turning into an unmitigated disaster, and that's particularly problematic for a franchise that relies on appeal to sign marquee free agents. The appeal of a well-run organization, the appeal of doing what it takes to win, the appeal of Lakers history.
You can pick a lot of words to describe the 2013 offseason for L.A., and all of them will be synonyms of "disastrous."
Late October-November, 2013 (9-8): Waiting for Kobe
The 2013-14 season eventually began, making the brutal offseason nothing more than a memory...except that the roster that was built actually had to step onto the court.
It did so without many expectations. ESPN's Summer Forecast had it at No. 12 in the Western Conference with a 36-46 record, prompting this tweet from Kobe himself:
But ESPN wasn't alone. It was widely predicted that the Lakers would be on the outside of the playoff picture; there just wasn't enough talent to think otherwise and maintain some semblance of objectivity.
Almost as if to prove the naysayers wrong for the team leader, the Lakers were a tough team throughout the first month of the season, simply because all of the role players played with undeniable heart. Mike D'Antoni was squeezing everything possible out of the roster, and it was clear that everyone was playing with a chip on his shoulder.
L.A. was typically outclassed in the talent department, but it really didn't matter much. Nick Young emerged as one of the better sixth men in the NBA, Steve Blake played fantastic basketball when he was forced into action and the rest of the team all exceeded the expectations.
However, Steve Nash was knocked out eight games into the season after playing in only six of the opening contests. He left with a back injury and told the Associated Press the following after the loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, via ESPN:
You could call it back, nerves, pain in the hamstring. It all gets a little convoluted, but it's all basically the same since last year...I'm just trying to figure it out, trying to play through it and at the same time be smart. It's tough. I really want to play. To be so limited is frustrating.
Nash hasn't played since then, and it's hard not to have a sneaking suspicion that his career could be over. This injury just won't heal, and the nerves in his back are likely going to be beset by more woes if he forces them to endure rigorous NBA activity again.
Ruled out through at least the middle of January, Nash isn't forcing experts to hold positive opinions.
"While it's in my nature to be positive, there's not really much I've found in researching this case to truly be optimistic," wrote Will Carroll, B/R's Injury Expert, during his breakdown of what the former MVP faces during his return to action. "Nash is not going to be the Nash of old, and the drop-off may be even more dramatic. In fact, the most likely outcome is that he'll fail."
But hey, at least the Lakers were winning while Nash was rehabbing and Kobe had yet to return from his Achilles injury.
December, 2013 (4-11): Kobe Returns...and Goes Back Down
The Mamba debuted on Dec. 8 against the Toronto Raptors.
He played 28 minutes after a grueling rehab was completed, finishing the game with a lackluster line: nine points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals on 2-of-9 shooting from the field in a 12-point loss.
After the game, he told NBA.com's Dan Arritt, "I felt like I could run all day long, it's just a matter of getting those game legs back."
Unfortunately, Kobe never really got a chance to do that.
The Lakers were suddenly plagued by injuries to literally every point guard on the roster. With Nash already ruled out, Steve Blake was diagnosed with a torn UCL in his right elbow, and hamstring problems kept Jordan Farmar from logging any minutes. Before signing Kendall Marshall, the Lakers had to ask Kobe to face Russell Westbrook in a head-to-head matchup with only two games under his belt.
It didn't go well, and the Lake Show dropped the game by 25 points as the Mamba was held to four points in 23 minutes.
In his sixth appearance of the 2013-14 season, Kobe was driving against the Memphis Grizzlies when he went down with what appeared to be a hyperextended knee.
Kobe was diagnosed with a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee, knocking him out for another extended period of time. Afterward, Carroll once more analyzed the injury for us:
Bryant could return sometime in February, though again, there's a chance this slides back depending on his rehab and how the Lakers play in the interim.
Fractures tend to heal cleanly, so there should be no long-term issue. There's complications in that it could alter both his gait, which could affect his Achilles, or it could create new issues inside his degenerative knees. The Lakers medical staff will be working hard for the next few seasons to keep Bryant both healthy and functional. How well they do may well determine how far into the history books he writes his name.
No long-term issues is a good thing. Complications would obviously be bad.
So far, we know that Kobe struggled to return from the first injury, and the 35-year-old shooting guard now has to fight back from another major blow. We don't have any idea whether Kobe will be, well, Kobe. Even if he's a competitive firecracker with boatloads of basketball intelligence and veteran savvy, the physical advantages may no longer be there.
Again, we're in the dark here, and questions can't realistically be answered until the 2-guard is back in action. But given the way the Lakers are performing in the interim, Vino may be returning to a whole different supporting cast.
L.A. has dropped six games in a row after closing out the Grizzlies and winning without Kobe against the Minnesota Timberwolves. That streak has depressed the record to 13-19, which leaves the team at No. 13 in the West.
It seems that ESPN was actually a little optimistic. And with the Sacramento Kings gaining competence following the trade that sent Rudy Gay south of the border, there's a chance that the Lake Show could be ahead of only the Utah Jazz at some point in the near future.
Nobody knows what to expect from this team going forward and moving past this season.
There's total roster instability, starting with Pau Gasol's uncertain status as a member of the franchise he's helped win multiple championships.
Maybe he's going to be traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum so that the Lakers can waive the incoming big man and save $20 million in combined salary and luxury-tax implications, thereby ensuring they aren't subjected to the repeater's tax in 2014-15. Maybe he won't.
But while Pau is in a state of flux, so too are the Lakers as a whole.
Almost every contract comes off the books at the conclusion of a sure-to-be-disappointing season that ends right at the conclusion of the 82nd game. Only Kobe and his ginormous contract extension, Nash (who could be stretch-provisioned), Robert Sacre, Elias Harris (non-guaranteed contract) and Nick Young (player option) are on the books.
Who are the Lakers going to add, though?
They're banking on a marquee free agent deciding to join Kobe with the intention of making a run at a title, but Kobe's star has lost some of its luster. Big-name players might not want to be joined up with a version of the Mamba that still has the same brain but not the same body.
There's a chance that Kobe returns to his pre-injury form, and that would greatly aid the rebuilding process, but there's no guarantee. There's also no surety that the 2014 free-agent class is a strong one, as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony could all opt to stay with their current teams.
If that happens, 2014-15 is going to be as disappointing as 2013-14 has been. Sadly enough, the Lakers may not have reached the bottom of the downward spiral.
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