LOS ANGELES — Not just another loss.
Not just what Jodie Meeks called “getting embarrassed” and Pau Gasol called “difficult to suffer.”
The Lakers have been trending in this direction for some time, and as much as the easy way out is to blame the coach that isn’t Phil Jackson, there was no reasonable way to expect Mike D’Antoni to stop the slide.
The Lakers don’t have any great players, and they don’t have enough good ones either.
That’s the primary reason they’ve lost 10 of 11 games for the first time since 2005, which was Kobe Bryant’s first Shaquille O’Neal-less team and actually much better than you might recall, considering it’s the only Lakers team to miss the playoffs in the past 19 years.
The 2004-05 Lakers were 32-29 before skidding down the stretch with injuries also playing a big part: Lamar Odom missed the final 17 games with a torn shoulder labrum, and the role players, forced to overextend themselves in January and February during the month Bryant missed with a severe ankle sprain, fell to pieces late in the season.
For all the jokes now about Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, who joined the team after that lottery season, Parker and Brown certainly never lost 10 of 11 as Lakers. (They also had Bryant in his prime playing 157 of 164 games and Jackson coaching them to playoff berths both years.)
The 2004-05 Lakers' point guard was Chucky Atkins, and their center was Chris Mihm. Not quite as comical to recall, but not nearly good enough. It’s entirely possible that we’ll look back at these days and struggle to remember the starting point guard’s name at all (Kendall Marshall) or ever see the starting center (Robert Sacre) become even as mediocre as Mihm once was.
The Marshall-Sacre tandem is distinctly worse than the Atkins-Mihm tandem, which was worse than the infamous Smush-Kwame tandem. That’s how talent-poor the Lakers are now at the traditionally pivotal positions.
And same as those 2005 Lakers, who actually had Bryant and his famous will to win on the floor while losing 10 of 11, these current Lakers are now missing something beyond even the talent.
“The level of confidence,” Gasol said, “is very low.”
That you can try to pin on D’Antoni, but it’s more a product of human nature than any poor managerial decisions.
The thing the team had when going 10-9 to start the season without Bryant was depth.
Blake Griffin could be heard after this game still citing the number of bench points (76) the Lakers scored in stunning the Clippers on opening night.
With that depth came great chemistry that D’Antoni helped cultivate in training camp with his style of quick-passing, anyone-shoot offense. Yet there was no way for the chemistry to continue without any of the guys—Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar, all injured—who guided the team on the court through those paces.
So the Lakers are lost now without the one way they knew to win: a group effort. And their belief that they can win against others’ expectations has gradually eroded.
They actually still put forth decent efforts on the last trip against a Dallas Mavericks team hungry to win from losing its previous four home games, and then the Houston Rockets, seeking revenge for Blake’s buzzer-beater to win Dwight Howard’s first game against his former Lakers.
Against a Clippers team that used the memory of the opener as “a focal point,” according to Griffin, the Lakers fell off to their worst effort of the season. They didn’t just play sloppily; they looked like losers.
They didn’t look like they deserved to win; they didn’t even look like they felt they deserved to have anything good happen to them. Just ask Nick Young.
“Can’t let people just dunk on us, clown us, without giving a hard foul or showing some emotion,” Young said. “Someone dunks on us, we put our heads down.”
That level of loser, Young made clear, is different than just being undermanned.
“We got talent,” he said. “We ain’t supposed to lose by 40 to nobody.”
Asked what he wanted from the Lakers, who will take Saturday off before preparing Sunday and Monday for their only home game in this stretch with 10 road games, Young said: “Fight back.”
It’s merely the 13-23 Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday at Staples Center, but it’s hard to fight back with no confidence. Even if the Lakers bounce back, they then embark on a seven-game trip to Phoenix, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, Miami, Orlando and New York—all still without Bryant, Nash, Blake and Farmar.
We wrote here in this space, when Bryant was announced out again on Dec. 19, that for all the worry about him and his career, the real concern should be the Lakers as a team.
“Kobe Bryant Will Be Just Fine, but LA Lakers Left to Pick Up the Pieces,” was the headline on my column that day. Now we see the net damage: Guys have overextended themselves covering for Bryant and even more while Gasol was not feeling well, and it was wholly predictable that players not used to logging so much court time in their careers would get fatigued both physically and mentally anyway.
The fade led D’Antoni late Friday night to say his players are “running on fumes a little bit.”
After the Lakers shot 2-of-20 from the field in the third quarter, Bryant stuck a fresh stick of gum in his mouth but could hardly swallow watching the fourth, squirming in his seat on the bench and eventually looking up in the stands at times to avoid looking at the court.
It was that bad, with the 1994-95 Lakers’ all-time worst loss by 46 points in danger of being eclipsed by these Lakers. However, that Jan. 9, 1995 game in Portland was a blip, not a bottoming out, for a Lakers team that was 20-9 at the time, had to be tired from winning the night before and would go on to the usual Lakers playoff appearance.
Appearing in the playoffs this season from 14-23, Gasol conceded, would “be tough because of the position we put ourselves into right now.”
Blame Gasol, blame D’Antoni, blame Dwight…it doesn’t matter.
It’s not anyone’s fault, really.
It’s not enough talent, health or confidence.
It’s exactly what should be happening when you’re not any good.