ORLANDO, Fla. — It sunk in for Pau Gasol on Friday night.
Even if he steps it up, and he has indeed looked more like his old championship self lately, the Los Angeles Lakers don’t have enough to do anything.
“When you lose against the worst teams in the league, you have to ask yourself why—and what does that make you?” Gasol said glumly after the loss to the Orlando Magic.
The Magic were 11-32. The Magic were 1-14 without injured center Nik Vucevic. The Magic were 1-12 in the past 13 games.
This game between the two teams Dwight Howard left behind was decided by who the Magic got in the four-team trade of Howard to the Lakers: Even with rising star Vucevic concussed, there was Arron Afflalo dominating the decisive third quarter with 12 points, three assists and one turnover.
Afflalo has had a fantastic season as Orlando’s main man, and Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said before the game it’s time for the next growth stage for Afflalo since opponents are locking in on him and double-teaming him. He was up to the challenge against the Lakers, although Gasol wasn’t about to give anyone too much credit for shredding his team’s defense.
“Now every team in the league knows the Lakers are not very good defensively,” Gasol said. “To say the least.”
None of the players the Lakers got in the monster trade is on the team anymore: Howard spurned the Lakers to jump to the Houston Rockets in free agency. Earl Clark left for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Chris Duhon was so undesirable the Lakers cut him and are eating part of his salary.
The Lakers, to be fair, didn’t give up much (Andrew Bynum, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga) to get one awkward season and that unfulfilled hope in Howard, but the Magic will have the Lakers’ 2017 first-round draft choice, too.
And Howard’s absence is the fundamental reason we entered this season wondering how the Lakers were ever going to stop anyone. Their defenselessness is no sudden development.
Gasol isn’t a legit paint protector, and even when he does stop penetration, it has become commonplace for him to make his little hand gestures after opponent baskets to show when a teammate hasn’t shifted over to rotate and help him. Gasol has complained about lack of communication on defense time after time.
The Lakers also haven’t established any effort-based defensive identity. Coach Mike D’Antoni acknowledged before the game Friday night that the basic element he needs is “consistent energy” within the defensive scheme.
And it’s fair to question, no matter how much misinterpretation there might be over the pace-adjusted defensive rankings of D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns teams, why D’Antoni can’t elicit that defensive energy.
“Somehow we’ve got to find a way to stop people,” he said after this loss, the Lakers’ 15th in 18 games.
You might think without Kobe Bryant, injured for all 18 of those games, the Lakers would seize an opportunity to emphasize defense. Hasn’t happened. The Lakers’ format of scoring to feel good and seeing if defensive attentiveness happens to catapult from that energy has not paid off.
Wesley Johnson was purported to be the Lakers’ defensive stopper, but he has lost D’Antoni’s trust—with good reason. Just as was the knock on Johnson coming in, he has been lacking in drive to excel and is far softer than Gasol ever was.
But with all the lineup shuffling D’Antoni has done, he also keeps leaning back toward offense over defense in allocating minutes—with Ryan Kelly playing over Jordan Hill or Robert Sacre, Nick Young or Jodie Meeks over Johnson.
And Gasol’s point in his postgame comments about the Lakers’ defensive reputation is that opponents now come into games confident and comfortable that they’ll get to the spots on the floor they want against the Lakers.
The Magic are a feeble half-court offensive team. But they got plenty in transition against the Lakers, benefited from Afflalo getting all his favorite shots and turned a focus on Kelly’s weak defense into Tobias Harris becoming the 20th player to get his season high against the Lakers.
D’Antoni is most definitely not Gasol’s favorite guy; Gasol is in the last year of his contract anyway, with the Lakers basically having no intention of re-signing him. It’s natural for his loyalty to be lagging as the losses pile up.
He does take a lot of pride in his personal stats, and he has been putting up sweet ones for almost a month now. But Gasol’s baseline feeling is winning: His teams have qualified for the playoffs nine out of the past 10 years.
The lone exception was 2006-07, when things got so bad in Memphis that Gasol was traded the next season.
The way Gasol spoke Friday night, muttering about accepting the reality of what this team is, he sounded frustrated enough to wonder about the upside of the Lakers finally trading him away.