LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers took their team photo Thursday, potentially a formal moment of ownership in this historically bad season for Jim Buss, executive vice president of basketball operations.
Last season, the Lakers took the team photo with one empty seat, just a basketball placed on a chair, in memory of late Lakers owner Jerry Buss. The previous season in 2012, the first since Phil Jackson's exit as coach, Jerry Buss didn't feel well enough to attend—so son Jim represented ownership alone in that photo.
Jerry and Jim both were in the team photo the previous five years, a testament to how involved Jim was with his father in building those teams, three of which reached the NBA Finals.
This team photo, however, won't be looked back upon nearly as fondly by Buss. After their latest loss, to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night, the Lakers are 22-45. He opted not to be in the photo, and his five siblings weren't in it either, leaving no ownership representation this year. It's probably just as well that it be a cleaner photo of only players and coaches, but no ownership after all the past photos is somewhat symbolic this time.
To avoid finishing with the worst record since the club moved to Los Angeles, the Lakers would need to go 9-6 the rest of the way. Even with three lighter opponents coming up next—Washington, Orlando and New York, all at Staples Center—it's almost unfathomable the Lakers could do that well.
The 1974-75 Lakers, led by Gail Goodrich—with Pat Riley and Stu Lantz as supporting players—went 30-52 for the current worst. (That didn't happen on Jerry Buss' watch; he bought the Lakers in 1979.) The 2004-05 Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant—with Caron Butler and Lamar Odom having come over in the Shaquille O'Neal trade—went 34-48.
But with Bryant injured almost all season, this is shaping up to be worse than either of those. Jim Buss and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak will get their chance to find a difference-maker with a high draft pick in June, but it looks like the guys commemorated in this photo will be remembered with a unique indignity.
As Staples Center public-address announcer Lawrence Tanter reminds fans before every home game this season, this is the Lakers' "54th year in Southern California."
Even if Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman weren't nicked up, this is the time of year when it makes sense to give a young player such as Robert Sacre plentiful playing time to speed his development.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni couldn't have been clearer Wednesday night about why he wants to play Sacre over Hill and Kaman, anyway.
"He works harder than anyone on the team," D'Antoni said of the second-year center. "Without a doubt. It's not even close. In the weight room, on the floor, before practice, he's trying to make himself into a player."
Bryant and Steve Nash are on this team, both legendary in their drive to improve, but both now require plenty of rest as their careers wind down. The Lakers need their young players to work at that high level, and Sacre has done just that—which he said is simply a carryover from his humbling first two years at Gonzaga not even playing.
Sacre, 24, wound up the last player picked in the 2012 NBA draft. The Lakers saw enough in him that he is under contract for next season and one of the few Lakers fairly certain to be back.
Sacre wasn't expected to earn rotation minutes this season, especially with D'Antoni preferring to play small, but dramatic improvement over the offseason changed those plans. Sacre has also drawn rave reviews from D'Antoni for being "probably [the] best defensive player on the team."
Sacre's offense remains inconsistent despite a decent face-up shot. D'Antoni said Sacre also still needs to improve his conditioning to play bigger minutes.
Sacre had a career-high 11 rebounds Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs. About being touted as working harder than any teammate, Sacre said: "You know, sometimes I feel like I really do—nothing against these guys. I know I need to get better, so I don't want to take time off. This is what my profession is, and I take pride in it."
Did You Know?
D'Antoni actually has a couple connections with the Spurs.
He played two games for the Spurs in 1977 before heading overseas—and then he worked one season for them as a scout. That scouting year was in the 1999-00 season, when the Lakers were en route to the NBA title in Jackson's first season in L.A.
It took quite some time, but in recent years Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has been running an offense with many of D'Antoni's now-popular spread-floor concepts. D'Antoni marveled at how Popovich has the Spurs taught not to hold the ball more than a couple seconds.
"They do it the best," D'Antoni said.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.
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