One struggles to pinpoint how fans of the Los Angeles Lakers will remember the 2013-14 season.
That makes sense given that the expectations entering the season were fairly low. The Lakers were supposed to finish the season somewhere near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, per ESPN.com’s Summer Forecast, and Los Angeles is on pace to do just that.
This year might go down in the record books as one of the franchise’s worst ever, which is newsworthy for the most glamorous franchise in basketball. With that said, before concluding how fans will recall this season, it’s best to understand how the team got here and where it’s headed next.
Dwight Howard Sabotages Lakers
Dwight Howard’s decision to leave Los Angeles via free agency during the 2013 offseason set the franchise back.
The Purple and Gold acquired Howard via trade in the previous summer and figured he would become the face of the franchise once Kobe Bryant retired. However, Howard struggled to coexist with Bryant on the court.
Antawn Jamison shared as much with Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com:
Whatever you say happened between the coaching staff, Kobe and Dwight – it was a combination of everything. Not understanding roles. Not being up front with roles. Our two superstars didn’t get along. Inside the organization as far as which coach to bring in. With that talent, that’s tough to deal with. But of course, championships and successful seasons don’t run because of what’s on the roster. You have to deal with injuries, you have to deal with certain situations that we just didn’t handle the situations at all.
The friction resulted in Howard joining the Houston Rockets.
It’s worth noting that many had projected Howard and Bryant would compete for a title in 2012-13 along with Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. The Lakers instead fell woefully short of expectations because of injuries (Bryant was lost to an Achilles tear late in the year) and lack of chemistry.
These factors played a part in Howard’s exodus, and the moment he left, so did L.A.’s title aspirations. The team simply no longer had the personnel, and another issue was clearly going to hamper the organization.
Injuries Derail Season
The 2013-14 season was practically over before it ever started, given the Lakers’ health issues.
Bryant was projected to miss the early portion of the season to rehab his ruptured Achilles, and that alone was problematic for the Lake Show. Without their best player, the Lakers struggled to open up the season, and things eventually got worse.
Nash’s body betrayed him, which has resulted in him appearing in 10 games. There is an actual chance that fans have seen the last of the two-time league MVP.
Grantland's Bill Simmons offered this take on Nash after a conversation with him: "A once-great athlete, trying to hang on, searching for a rare talent that may or may not have vanished from his body. He doesn’t know if it’s gone. Neither do you. Neither do I."
As it pertains to Bryant, he eventually rejoined his teammates, but the five-time NBA champion hurt his knee after six games and could potentially miss the remainder of the campaign.
Role players such as Chris Kaman and Jordan Farmar missed time as well. Just those two alone have sat out 55 contests combined.
With starters and reserves unable to play through the early portion of the schedule, losses mounted, and Pau Gasol seemingly suffered the biggest injury of all: He lost his heart.
Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding provided the details in late December:
The clear connotation now is that Gasol is taking the easy way out, just as he has in barely moving on defense and settling for all those jump shots instead of rolling off picks on offense. Gasol’s limitations have been increasingly visible this season, and now it’s easier to hide them than risk further embarrassment at less-than-full strength—especially when he’s looking forward to one last fat contract in free agency this summer.
Between the missed games from superstars and Gasol’s occasional investment, the Lakers have simply been terrible.
Fans Get Amnesia
Lakers fans will ultimately forget this season and sweep it under the rug.
Bryant’s absence makes it easy to flippantly erase 2013-14 from our collective minds because that’s what happens when a team’s top player ends up missing essentially the entirety of the year.
With a healthy Bryant, Los Angeles could have been in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference had everything broken right. Hall of Fame-caliber players have a tendency to carry their teams and take them to places in the face of adversity.
We saw this firsthand in 2012-13. Gasol and Nash missed a combined 65 games last season, and yet Bryant vowed to get the team to the postseason in an interview with Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated.
The four-time All-Star Game MVP delivered on his promise despite rupturing his Achilles late in the season.
Lakers supporters remember 2012-13 because Bryant enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career despite the fact that the team was a disappointment. This time around, without the 2-guard on board, fans will mostly treat this season with a collective yawn.
There is a precedent.
In the first season after the Lakers traded away Shaquille O’Neal, the Lake Show missed the playoffs. Bryant missed a mere 16 games in 2004-05, but the team also dealt with the departure of then-head coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
That season is often forgotten and consequently tends to go unmentioned. The Lakers won 34 games that year and bounced back in ensuing seasons to make the playoffs.
2013-14 won’t be any different unless the Lakers lose more than just games.
Kobe Will Have Final Say
Bryant’s ability to bounce back next season will play a huge role in how the 2013-14 season is viewed.
If Bryant completely fails to recover from his injuries and retires (he turns 36 in August), fans will more than likely view this campaign as the hammer that broke him to pieces. On the flip side, a healthy Bryant gives the Lakers cachet and entertainment value.
The two-time NBA Finals MVP has become the guardian of the Lakers mystique, and provided he plays, the franchise remains relevant.
It’s tough to say with any degree of certainty whether Bryant will be back to his old self next season, but doubting the future Hall of Famer is a task mostly reserved for fools.
Consequently, one should probably just assume he will be ready to go at least by the start of next season. If such is the case, 2013-14 will barely register in the minds of the most loyal Lakers fans.
It's worth pointing out that L.A. could land the No. 1 pick in the draft and sign a big free agent this summer. If such is the case, 2013-14 could become the transition season that ushered in a new era. The previous scenario would precipitate the franchise's climb to elite ranks once again, but make no mistake, it would still all revolve around Bryant.
He is the one that ties it all together and makes 2013-14 a distant memory.