Even Al Jefferson Exposes Suddenly Starless Los Angeles Lakers

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterFebruary 1, 2014

January 31, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson (25) moves to the basket against the defense of Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol (16) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If the Los Angeles Lakers haven't hit rock bottom yet, they sure are getting close.

Six losses in a row and 18 in their past 21 outings would be sorry-enough indicators on their own. Throw in a 110-100 home loss to the Charlotte Bobcats that wasn't even as close as the final score would suggest, and the depths of L.A.'s season of despair only seem to deepen.

Those "brave" fans who showed up at Staples Center on Friday night were witness to one of the NBA's oldest and most successful franchises getting manhandled on its own floor by the league's youngest and least decorated outfit. So, too, was Kobe Bryant, who was chosen by the fans to start for the Western Conference at the 2014 All-Star Game in New Orleans. Bryant wasn't able to come to the Lakers' aide on this night, nor will he be fit to play during the midseason showcase, due to a left knee injury.

If there was any All-Star to be found in the building on this night, it was Al Jefferson. The Bobcats big man, who was "snubbed" out of a spot on the Eastern Conference squad, tied his career high with 40 points and, with his game-high 18 rebounds, sealed his third straight 30-10 performance.

All of which made Pau Gasol's solid night (24 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two blocks) look feeble by comparison.

It's not often that a player of Big Al's caliber (i.e., a player with borderline All-Star talent, but never quite elite) storms onto the Lakers' turf looking like a world-beater—or, rather, it wasn't often that such had happened in L.A.

Up until 2013-14, the Lakers always seemed to sport enough star power on their roster to outshine lesser lights. Even last season, when they underwhelmed to the tune of 45 wins and a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, L.A. still managed to "own the room" with no fewer than four familiar faces.

Of course, one of them (Dwight Howard) is gone, having up and left to join the Houston Rockets via free agency this past summer. Two others (Kobe and Steve Nash) have played six games apiece this season amidst slow recoveries from debilitating injuries. The fourth (Gasol) was just abused by Big Al and could soon be forced to join Bryant and Nash on the sidelines with a groin injury and a sore foot, via Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding:

Even before the latest failures, the Lakers could almost always count on a superstar or two to save the day. Bryant and Gasol had their run of three straight trips to the NBA Finals, followed promptly by Andrew Bynum's All-Star breakout. Kobe carried the Lakers through the post-Shaquille O'Neal doldrums, with Lamar Odom by his side. And before the Kobe-Shaq partnership imploded, L.A. boasted one of the most dominant one-two punches the NBA had ever seen.

You'd have to dig all the way back to 1996, the year before Jerry West brought Bryant and O'Neal together, to find an All-Star Game without a Laker in it. Two weeks from now, you'll need to look no further than 2014 to stumble upon the answer to that bit of trivia.

At this point, the Lakers are all but guaranteed their first trip to the draft lottery since 2005. The team wound up with the 10th pick, which it used on a raw 17-year-old out of New Jersey who's now due to join the Indiana Pacers.

But that team wasn't nearly as sorry as the one L.A. has fielded this time around. Those Lakers were three games above .500 in mid-March, when injuries, inconsistency and the strain of a midseason coaching change precipitated a 2-19 finish.

Today's Lakers are already slip-sliding away and have been since December. According to ESPN Stats & Info, this month was the franchise's worst in nearly 40 years:

And the misery seems unlikely to abate any time soon. Bryant won't be re-evaluated by the Lakers' medical staff until around the All-Star break, which would peg his second comeback for no sooner than early March. Gasol's problems with seemingly his entire lower torso threaten to leave the Lakers without any star power whatsoever.

In the meantime, February figures to begin just as January ended, "thanks" to a three-game road trip that will once again test the Lakers' 8-17 record outside of L.A.

Unless, of course, the Lakers land back in Lady Luck's good graces—which they might. Nash and Steve Blake could be back in time for the team's trip to the Great White North to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, with Jordan Farmar not far behind, per ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne.

Gasol, for one, is hopeful that the replenishing of L.A.'s backcourt will breathe some life into this most depressing of campaigns, via Lakers Nation:

But having a healthy complement of point guards isn't going to do much to keep the Lakers from getting rolled by the next Al Jefferson. Nor can Nash, Blake and Farmar be expected to spark the Purple and Gold all the way back to respectability.

That's a job best left to a star who can still play like one. Gasol could be that guy, provided he doesn't wind up in street clothes again. Bryant might be, too, if his body doesn't continue to betray him. The Lakers are going to need a lot more than a few hobbled floor generals to begin the long climb from rock bottom.

A concern that was once foreign to this franchise, but is now all too real.


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