Hopefully the Los Angeles Lakers still remember how to sound the alarm.
Panicking is often considered beneath the mighty Lakers, who have played decades of terror-free basketball and used near-flawless gambits to string 10 championship banners across the rafters since 1980.
But different, desperate times call for exceptional measures.
Visions of rekindling Showtime were destroyed last season, when Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant failed to actualize championship expectations. It was Howard's eventual departure and Kobe's injury that ultimately put the nail in the coffin, prompting Los Angeles to stagger into this season worse for wear, longing for summer 2014.
The 2013-14 campaign, by Lakers standards, was lost. Maybe they could muster a playoff berth if Kobe came back healthy, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol remained healthy and miscellaneous role players performed majestic miracles, but that was their ceiling.
There was, and remains, no 17th championship to be won this year. That was always the reality, even before Kobe signed his extension. Eyes were fixated on this summer, when Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James could become available and the Lakers would spring into action.
Almost halfway through the season, though, the Lakers, already subjected to diminished expectations, are failing. Miserably.
Injuries ravaged the roster, restricting their potential, and the result—a 14-22 record—puts them six games outside the playoff picture, inching closer to the panic button they've desperately tried to avoid.
What Is the "Panic Button?"
It's a fair question.
These aren't last season's Lakers, projected to dethrone the Miami Heat and every other powerhouse standing in their way. Howard and Metta World Peace are gone, Nash's career is in jeopardy, Kobe is on the cusp of injury-prone, and general manager Mitch Kupchak gave coach Mike D'Antoni surfeits of stopgaps to slow the bleeding, not stop it entirely.
But they weren't supposed to fail like this.
After 36 games, it's reasonable to believe the playoffs are out of reach in a Western Conference that exposes weaknesses and swallows depleted and humdrum rosters whole.
What's to panic about, then?
Los Angeles still has cap space this summer, despite generously paying Kobe through 2015-16. The case can be made that the Lakers are right on schedule, enduring present heartache for future success.
Except they aren't. Not entirely. They're not completely investing in their future, because they haven't dealt with the elephant in the locker room—the one that comes bearing tanking labels.
For all their struggles, the Lakers aren't tanking, claiming said route is a preposterous one to traverse.
"It's the worst thing any team could do for their sport," Kupchak said of tanking, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan.
Because what the Lakers are doing is so much better, right?
Kupchak talks as if the Lakers haven't considered (completely) throwing in the towel, when they have. Those Andrew Bynum-for-Gasol talks didn't materialize out of thin air. The Lakers considered waving the white flag, nearly opting for financial savings over immediate adequacy.
They nearly panicked.
When Should They "Panic?"
All right, that's not entirely fair. Too generous, actually. Let's say one Black Mamba injury ago.
Once Kobe went down for the second time, and the Lakers were left playing musical point guards, their season was over. Making the playoffs became unrealistic, even after Kobe's second return. The best thing for the Lakers to do was hold a fire sale in attempt to replenish their draft stock and approach levels of sorry worthy of Jabari (Parker), or another top prospect.
That's hasn't changed—especially now.
Losers of three straight, and nine of their last 10, the Lakers are trapped in no man's land, bad enough to miss the playoffs, good enough to avoid Parker and Andrew Wiggins in this summer's draft.
No team wants to be in their situation—the middle. It pays to be bad or great in the NBA. Rarely does anything productive come from pretending there's nothing wrong, from trying to make the most of a lost season.
Guess what the Lakers are playing for right now? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They have no identity. Nothing that defines them or gives them something to play for. They rank 22nd in offensive efficiency and 24th in defensive efficiency as they anxiously await Kobe's return, so he, along with Gasol, can play them deeper and deeper into the middle.
How to Panic
Shop everyone except for Kobe.
Move Gasol. Try to flip him for salary-cap relief and draft picks. Dangle cheap talent like Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson just to see what you can receive in return.
Get worse. Plain and simple. Give the team something to play for by hitting the panic button. Start accepting this season for what it is—a chance to expedite the rebuilding process.
Entering the offseason with some cap space and a potential top-five or -seven pick is far more promising than emerging with a late-lottery selection. Far safer, too.
If the Lakers strike out in free agency for lack of options or appeal (possible), what are they left to fall back on? Another season like this one, pining for the opportunity to acquire Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge or another top free agent next summer?
Panicking won't make the Lakers instant contenders, but it could make next season more worthwhile, as they prepare for 2015 while developing a potential franchise-altering talent who could swing free-agency pitches in years to come.
There are no guarantees, of course. There's no ironclad promise the Lakers land that coveted pick and save enough money upon panicking. But the mere possibility gives them something to play for.
More than they're playing for now.
Start trying to accelerate a complicated rebuild instead by panicking now, before the future becomes a dream deferred, creating hysteria that dwarfs any horrors the Lakers are currently facing.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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