Amid all the talk of a losing season and the dispiritedness that goes with it, one thing is clear for the Los Angeles Lakers—they have to reclaim their pride and remember who they play for.
Forget, for a moment, the silver lining of a possible lottery draft pick. Forget the perfectly reasonable excuse of injuries, or the notion of the next "Big Rebuild."
This is still the place where all the banners fly. Whether the moments themselves occurred at the Minneapolis Auditorium, the Los Angeles Forum or Staples Center, the collective spirit is what came together to form one of the most legendary and enduring dynasties in all of sports.
It’s where George Mikan pioneered the big-man concept, where Jerry West became the Logo, where the iconic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tossed in sweeping skyhooks that nobody had an answer for.
This is where Magic happened, where Shaq rose up like Goliath at the rim, where Kobe Bryant has spent his entire brilliant career.
And now, it’s in danger of becoming a joke, a place where teammates start to show their fissures, pointing fingers and protecting their stats. It’s becoming a place where things can get dark in a hurry.
“Some nights are better than others but, bottom line, when you lose against the worst teams in the league, you got to ask yourself why and, kind of, what does that make you?”
Gasol also complained specifically about a lack of effort on defense.
"We need Pau to step up and say stuff like that. We need people to fight. We need people who have passion. You don't just want to walk in with the team and lose every game."
And then, there’s the infighting between a coach and his players. Per Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, Chris Kaman has voiced reservation about his role, saying “It's absolutely not what I was looking for.”
According to Kevin Ding from Bleacher Report, Gasol recently expressed differences with Mike D’Antoni’s four-out, one-in system, saying “I’ve always been more of a fan of two bigs that can dominate the paint, can pound teams and take advantage of their size if you do have it.”
In the same article, Bryant himself described the type of offense that D’Antoni pioneered as “small ball, which personally, I don’t really care much for.”
There was also the night when Young was sent to the floor under the basket by the Phoenix Suns' Alex Len and came up shoving and swinging, later stating dissatisfaction that his team didn’t come to his aid.
The newest Laker, Kendall Marshall, was standing out past the arc, just watching the whole thing. Per ESPN Los Angeles, Marshall later described the retaliation that got Young tossed: "I don't know if that was the smartest play at the time."
It all blew over pretty fast, but it’s the type of issue you don't often hear with a team like the Lakers—the charge that teammates don’t have each other’s backs.
The Lakers are 44 games into the season at the moment, with a record of 16-28. If ever there was a tipping point, this could be it. It’s not necessarily about making the playoffs—that seems increasingly improbable at this point. It is, however, about finding their lifeblood.
This team clearly needs a fresh shot in the arm. It may well come from within its own ranks, but it probably won’t come from Gasol or Young or even from Marshall, who’s averaging 9.6 assists per game through 16 games this season, more than anybody in the NBA except for Chris Paul.
The boost may need to come from two guys who have each played just six games so far this season—Steve Nash and Bryant.
It’s not realistic to expect that Nash will ever be the same player again. He’s simply too old, and his chronic back issues are too severe. He may be able to rekindle something in the team, however—a rededicated spirit, a different voice on the floor or the motivation that can come from watching the oldest active player in the NBA fight past incapacitating pain, just for the opportunity to suit up when the season has become so unremittingly bleak.
Bryant is probably further away from a return to action but that return will surely come, and when it does, there could be an awakening from within the Lakers sub-earth, of seismic proportions. There is not another player in the NBA with a more insatiable appetite for winning than Bryant. He has been sitting on the sidelines, seething and glowering, night after night, dressed from head-to-toe in black like some modern-day gunslinger who’s about to wreak vengeance.
Nash and Bryant may be old and injured, but they are a living connection to basketball greatness. For Bryant specifically, the lifeline is resolutely Purple and Gold, extending back through five championships, two Phil Jackson stands and the Shaquille O’Neal era.
The Lakers have had their moments this season, although most of them seemed to be earlier this season. It’s now starting to get embarrassing, and bad things happen to teams when embarrassment sets it.
Forget about the idea of tanking, forget about exactly how many dollars will be available to sign a free agent or whether a trade of some sort could reduce ownership’s overhead.
Forget all that. This is about what binds a team to its fans. It’s about the Lakers’ community and that thing that makes us watch and cheer in an arena or a bar or in a room when there’s nobody else there except for a glowing box and the wash of sound. It’s about what brings us all together, and yes, it’s about winning.
This may be Gasol’s last season with the Lakers, and it may be Nash’s last season ever. Young has a player’s option and could follow the money elsewhere. The list of free agents is longer than the list of those with a guaranteed contract for next season, and then there’s Bryant—looking at the end game of a career that has somehow passed by too fast.
It’s not too late to redeem a season in the purest of ways. It’s not too late for the Lakers to take a stand, to come together and swing for the fences, even if it means going down swinging. Players often talk the talk when they first arrive—about the chance to go where the greats have gone before. Now, it's time to deliver. They may never get the chance again.
The Lakers must take pride in who they play for—the fans, the franchise and, yes, each other.