I knew this season was lost when Kobe Bryant went down with a broken knee last December. Just as a practical matter, there was no way the Lakers were going to get out of the intensely competitive Western Conference without him. They wouldn’t have enough firepower.
I cannot remember a season in which the Lakers sustained so many injuries. Kobe going down was the tipping point. What you have seen since is the magnitude of his absence. It’s everywhere. He's no longer giving direction on the court, setting the tone with the media or playing alongside the younger players and helping them develop.
Now it’s time to pick through the wreckage with an eye toward 2014-15 and beyond.
What does that mean?
First, no tanking allowed. I know there is a significant part of the fanbase and media that want the team to tank. And let’s admit, it’s a fun talking point and a good way to vent frustration.
But if you really think it through, what does that look like? Some assistant coach going up to say, rookie Ryan Kelly and telling him, “Hey kid, dribble more, take less shots and the ones you do take, miss.”
When you see it in black and white like that, you realize how absurd it is. Especially because most of these guys are playing for their future NBA lives and contracts. No proud, competitive athlete is ever going to tank. But that point is academic, because with the Lakers so severely short-handed, the result will be the same: a high lottery pick.
Which one doesn’t matter. Let GM Mitch Kupchak worry about the pick and the draft.
Second, the only bright spot all season long has been the bench. Well, what started out as the bench. Remember when the season started and the Lakers' bench was lighting it up? Nick Young coming in and swagging up the joint? Wesley Johnson et al. getting their chances to play?
The infusion of youth and positivity lit up the court and was in stark contrast to the previous year (with all the behind-the-scenes turmoil and angst brought on by Dwight Howard’s one season with the team).
But this team seems to genuinely like each other. And all of them seem to be acutely aware of the huge opportunity they have. They are proud to wear a Lakers jersey. They understand something Howard never did: It’s a privilege to be able to wear that Lakers logo across your chest. Fans know it, and that is one reason why these young guys have gotten so much support.
The other reason is this: By the beginning of 2014, the bench had essentially become the starters.
Due to all the injuries, the bench had to absorb a majority of starting minutes. And that’s a huge deal. Even though these guys are young and in tip-top shape, going from 10-16 minutes a night, perhaps split over two halves, to 35-40 minutes is a quantum leap.
And it’s not just physical—it’s mental. Your mindset goes from coming off the bench with great energy and hustle and really going for it for the few minutes you are in the game to having to do all the things starters do—things like being aware of the clock, rotations and the foul situation.
But these young players gamely accepted the challenge. I’ve never seen them quit. Not one time. Sure, they have been overmatched a lot. Sometimes you just don’t have enough manpower.
If there is any silver lining to this disappointing season, it is this: The Lakers have their bench for next year. A bench that will have endured the kind of trial by fire that will only make them better players. Even if they don’t all end up with the Lakers, the opportunity they have had is unprecedented.
Nick Young got his shot in the spotlight and seized it. Many nights his scoring lit up the house and was the reason the Lakers were competitive. He also learned firsthand what it meant to be scouted like a starter. You can’t simulate that in practice. Xavier Henry got to show off his moves. Ryan Kelly got to show everyone that he can play. Kendall Marshall got called up from the D-League and got minutes as a starting NBA point guard.
You can’t help but be proud of their effort and desire. Every single one of them has maximized his opportunity. In a league of stars, this injury-ravaged season and the opportunity to play might be the keys to their NBA future.
I’ll say it again: Going from bench minutes to starter's minutes is really hard and exhausting. That is what has been behind a lot of the losses this year in which the Lakers have been competitive in first halves only to collapse in the second. (The recent loss to Memphis not withstanding.) A team that is largely playing bench guys and D-League call-ups just gets fatigued.
Which brings us to coaching.
Full disclosure: I was never on board with the Mike D’Antoni hire. I completely understand how difficult his job must be after two seasons so filled with injury that it seems like a hex must have descended upon the Staples Center. I get that. But his inability or, maybe more precisely, his lateness to adapt and his questionable decision-making are going to be his downfall. He spent all last year trying to run his system, failing to see that the players he inherited were ill-suited for it.
Then, this season, when the front office did get him the fleet of young foot players he seems to prefer, he again didn’t adapt when the injuries started piling up.
I finally snapped when Chris Kaman endured a string of DNP-CDs in January. It never made a lick of sense. How does D’Antoni justify the fact that his young charges, although playing their hearts out, were consistently gassed at the end of games, and yet Kaman, fully rested, remained nailed to the bench?
At a certain point, it was incumbent upon D’Antoni to realize that “systems” and “matchups” were a luxury he could no longer afford. You need all hands on deck. Any minutes Kaman could have played were minutes other exhausted Lakers could rest.
After two years of watching D’Antoni in Los Angeles, it seems to me, he either can’t or doesn’t know how to change direction or reset the agenda. That’s not the same as tinkering with the lineup, which I cut him slack for because of the injuries. What it means is having the emotional pulse of the team and adapting to suit the evolving circumstances.
What it also means is having an articulated vision for the team—a vision that takes into account the realities of the roster and uses that as a framework to adjust course as circumstances warrant. Every time I hear him respond to reporters’ questions about the mounting losses and what to do about it, his answer is some variant of “we have to play better”.
No, you have to play smarter. And that includes coaching smarter.
That brings us to the Lakers' management. For the players, the rest of the season is an audition tape for next year. The “will Kobe come back or won’t he?” argument is a distraction. Here’s the answer: He will if he can; he won’t if he can’t. Simple as that.
For the front office, next season starts now. Not only with the usual scouting of draft prospects and looking at potential free agents. We know they’ll do that.
But the much bigger question is: What is the future direction of this team, and who should coach it? The impact of that decision is enormous. The draft and free agency loom large. Who will coach this team next year is therefore critically important to decide.
Everyone understands the reality of the injury situation. The losses are piling up. It speaks well to the goodwill the Lakers organization has accrued with the fans that they still care. But fans won’t be patient forever. They are accustomed to the Lakers winning.
The front office must be certain it has the right coach in place to make that happen. And it has to decide that very soon.
It impacts everything.