After a 109-99 loss to the Houston Rockets Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Lakers have four losses in a row for the first time since April 2007. Kobe Bryant has averaged 32 points per game during the streak, but it has not been enough. Phil Jackson has never coached a team to a title after losing four straight.
Of course, it is way too early in the season to make that kind of condemnation. A disgruntled Bryant told reporters after Wednesday night's game that the Lakers are "fine," and in a sense, he is right: Los Angeles has plenty of time to find its rhythm before the big playoff push. Critics have quickly forgotten the team's 8-0 and 13-2 start, which likely tell us more about the strengths of that team than this streak does about their vulnerabilities.
Still, Bryant is going a bit far to insist that he is entirely unburdened. There are reasons for concern in the Lakers' camp. In fact, there are at least five of them. Read on for more on each.
Bryant has had no trouble getting his points during this stretch, but he is hardly playing well at the offensive end. Despite his 32 points per game during the four-game skid, he has shot just 41.7 percent from the floor. He has passed less effectively, turned the ball over more, grabbed fewer rebounds and committed more fouls than is his wont during the last four games.
If the season ended today, the 32-year-old Bryant would have his lowest season field-goal percentage since 1997-98. His three-point percentage would be the lowest since 2001-02. His scoring average would be the lowest since 2003-04.
Bryant is not over the hill just yet, but he has definitely struggled so far this season, and there are reasons enough to believe that he will never quite be the same man he was a few years ago. If that's the case, the Lakers suddenly look a lot more beatable.
Pau Gasol left Wednesday's game in the final minute of the third quarter and never returned. His sore left hamstring continues to limit him somewhat, and the Lakers' somewhat lacking depth (while they await the return of Andrew Bynum) in the front court has compromised their efforts to rest Gasol a bit.
As long as the losing streak, or even a general sense of struggle, endures in L.A., there will be too much pressure on the team to permit them to rest Gasol extensively. He will have to recover while playing regularly in order to keep the Lakers at the top of the Western Conference ladder, and that is a tall order.
Until Gasol is once again at full strength, the Lakers are not the West's best.
Don't look now, but the Lakers have their first really serious competition in the West since the end of the Spurs' mini-dynasty in 2007. Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder are younger, faster and more energetic than the Lakers, and though those attributes are not the ones Jackson-led teams prize to begin with, the Thunder are dangerous to the Lakers.
Durant is not alone. Russell Westbrook may be better than any partner in crime Bryant has—even Gasol. Oklahoma City continues to find players who fit their system to a tee, and it makes them a cohesive and fast-paced unit on the floor at all times.
If any team in the past three seasons has been well-equipped to dethrone Kobe and company, it is the Thunder.
Jackson's teams have always prided themselves on their chemistry both on and off the court. This season, something seems to be missing for the Lakers in that regard.
Jackson openly criticized Andrew Bynum's choices in repairing and rehabbing his shredded right knee, which will not allow him to return until sometime mid-month. Derek Fisher has looked every one of his 36 years this season, as his release is a bit slower, and he is both scoring and assisting fewer baskets than is his norm. Ron Artest has all but disappeared this season after playing a key role in the team's dominant run last year.
In every facet, the team seems just a bit discordant. It is far from too late to right that ship, but the realities of age and the principle of familiarity breeding contempt may be catching up to the Lakers a little bit.
One of the magical things Jackson does as a coach is to utterly distract his team from the inherent difficulties of repeating as NBA champions. For an average team, it is a burden to defend a title. The Lakers, though, as Jackson's Bulls once did, have traditionally gained momentum from every title they have won.
The magic may be gone, though. This year's team seems somewhat more aware of the spotlight and the target on their backs. Bryant has been quicker to snap at the media than in years past; Jackson has shown rare chinks in his Zen armor.
Basketball is a thinking man's game, or so my junior high coach always said, but the Lakers seem to be thinking a bit too much for their own good. Once you think about something like that, it's hard to un-think it.