No matter how the Los Angeles Lakers finish this season, there is no doubt that this season will go down as one of the worst in the history of the franchise.
It isn't just the losing. Teams go through ups and downs and not every team stays dominant for the entirety of its existence. However, the events of the past two seasons have shown that the Lakers' demise is self-inflicted.
Compile their slew of unfortunate mistakes with an unfortunate series of injuries and you have the recipe for one of the most catastrophic falls from grace this side of the New York Knicks.
While even the most passionate fans weren't optimistic about the Lakers' playoff chances, the team looked like it had a fighting chance to start out the season before things came crumbling down.
It was clear that a couple of crucial mistakes the Lakers made completely crippled their season and ensured that they were headed toward the lottery.
Mike D'Antoni's Unwillingness to Compromise
After a 10-9 start, the Lakers looked like they had a chance to make a playoff run. They had a scrappy bunch of guards and one of the most energetic benches in the league.
However, like most teams that Mike D'Antoni has coached, the Lakers played little to no defense and focused way too much on small-ball offense. On a roster with competent interior players like Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol, D'Antoni elected to rely on his guard-heavy lineup. While players like Steve Blake, Xavier Henry and Nick Young played admirably, relying on his guards for heavy minutes and placing the offensive burden on their shoulders caused them to wear down.
When Kobe Bryant returned, it was to the tune of a myriad of injuries. Jordan Farmar, Henry, Young and Blake all missed time. Upon his return from a very serious Achilles tendon injury, Bryant was required to play just under 30 minutes per game as a point guard.
No matter how desperate the Lakers were, there is no way a player of Bryant's age should have been forced to carry such a burden immediately.
D'Antoni's supporters can say that he was able to generate a winning record in the first 19 games of the season with a roster that did not have a lot of talent. However, is it truly winning when the roster completely breaks down from overuse of certain parts after the first 20 games? If D'Antoni had modified his offense and focused on utilizing Kaman and Gasol more in the post, like he was forced to do with Dwight Howard and Gasol during the Lakers' late playoff surge last season, perhaps the Lakers would've been able to ease Bryant back in.
The evidence is in the pudding. The Lakers forced their way into the playoffs once Kobe Bryant become more of a facilitator and allowed Howard and Gasol to coexist in the paint and work off of one another. As Kevin Ding from Sulia reported, D'Antoni actually admitted that he was wrong in his initial assumption that the two big men could not coexist with one another.
While Kaman is by no means a dominant interior presence like Howard, he has a very polished back-to-the-basket game and he and Gasol could have formed a strong interior combination if given the chance. The limited minutes in which they played together during the preseason showed that they had already developed a strong rapport that could have flourished throughout the season.
Kobe Bryant Should Not Have Returned When He Did
Forced into starters' minutes at a little less than 30 per game, Bryant was able to play only six games before his body broke down. What did D'Antoni expect?
A player who had not played a game since before last season's playoffs, who had not had a chance to get into basketball shape, who had not attended training camp and who was returning from a serious Achilles tendon injury was forced to play starter's minutes after just a few practices. Consider also that Bryant was 34 years old at the time.
With the Lakers struggling as they were to stay above .500 and the slew of injuries that preceded Bryant's return, the Lakers should have held back on Bryant's return and got him completely healthy and in shape before even considering allowing him to return.
This is harder said than done given Bryant's legendary work ethic and drive. However, given how this season has played out, it appears that the most prudent decision would have been to hold back on Bryant's return. This would have reduced the chances of Bryant getting injured again and could have still appeased fans who wanted to see Bryant at least once during the season.
Mike D'Antoni Should Not Be the Lakers Head Coach
Frankly, the Lakers' biggest mistake was not firing Mike D'Antoni. D'Antoni is not a bad coach by any means. However, he is clearly not a good fit for this franchise. Maybe D'Antoni would have had more success trying to implement his flawed system if Steve Nash wasn't playing like he was on his last legs.
Given the makeup of the roster, D'Antoni's lack of defensive emphasis and his stubbornness to stick to his small-ball, up-tempo style has driven the franchise to its knees.
Look at the sheer amount of talent they had on their roster last season. However flawed that roster was, it sure looked better on paper than the 2009 Orlando Magic team that Howard carried to the finals. While this is mostly conjecture, it was clear that once D'Antoni compromised his original vision and allowed Howard and Gasol to coexist, the Lakers were successful. If Bryant didn't go down with an injury before the playoffs, perhaps the Lakers could have made some noise.
This goes to show that D'Antoni's pride would not allow him to lead this team back to prominence. The decisions he has made this season mirror the way he tried to force his up-tempo system on the team last season. He is literally repeating the same mistakes on a team with less talent.
He is also very inconsistent with his rotations and doesn't treat all of his players with the respect they deserve. As reported by Zack Harper from CBS Sports, Chris Kaman and D'Antoni had not corresponded for several weeks. In the midst of this lack of communication, Kaman was regulated to the bench despite being able to play and being arguably more talented than any other center on the roster besides Pau Gasol.
Will the Lakers fire Mike D'Antoni after this season?
A similar situation occurred last season when D'Antoni could not find minutes for Antawn Jamison, a player who actually fit D'Antoni's system because of his ability to stretch the floor and run in transition. The way D'Antoni disregards talented players on his roster for players that he deems more conducive to an offense that has not been relevant since his days with the Phoenix Suns shows that D'Antoni can only coach a team that is tailor-made for him. This roster is clearly not tailor-made for D'Antoni.
One only needs to look back to see how he mishandled Carmelo Anthony with the Knicks to see that any player, no matter how great or dominant, will be underutilized by D'Antoni unless they fit into his vision.
Statistics are accurate as of March 26, 2014 and are from NBA.com/Stats unless otherwise indicated.