There are no words to describe just how pathetic the Lakers’ season has become.
Oh wait, there’s “disgusting“, “underperforming“, “demoralizing“, “apathy-ridden” and “lifeless”.
Those seem to do the trick.
After Bryant's somewhat slow start to the season (by his high standards), he’s finally regained a little bit more of his usual scoring efficiency, though he’s still on pace for his lowest field goal percentage in six years.
That’s just Kobe. Nine times out of 10, when ongoing issues afflict his performance, he addresses them before the playoffs start.
That’s not the problem, at least not anymore.
The problem is that the rest of the Lakers are essentially living out a fan’s dream. Not only do they get to attend Lakers games for free, while getting the best seats in the house, they get paid for it. And quite handsomely, mind you.
The roster will cost the Lakers front office $95.3 million this season, the highest in the NBA. So far it's a safe bet that it doesn’t feel like it's getting the most for its money.
The MVP-caliber season Pau Gasol was having is dead and gone. In the last six games, Gasol has scored 20 or more points while shooting 50 percent or better from the floor only once.
That singular time came against the 76ers, who are by far the worst team the Lakers have faced in the span, both record-wise and in terms of their frontcourt defense. Even more telling, Gasol hasn’t scored 20 points while grabbing 10 or more rebounds since Dec. 8, against the lowly, defenseless Clippers.
The return of Andrew Bynum was supposed to alleviate Gasol’s burden of trying to defend the paint alone, and being forced to spend almost the entire game on the floor for that purpose.
Surely enough, Bynum’s presence has equated to fewer minutes for Gasol, but he still hasn’t returned to the reliable 1A option that has fueled the Lakers’ latest dynasty bid.
As time goes on, Ron Artest looks less like the warrior and emotional leader that nearly helped push the Houston Rockets over the Lakers in ‘09, and more like a typical reformed movie bad-boy who discovers peace but finds that his skills and killer instinct are quickly diminishing.
Bynum is re-establishing himself as a top-tier center as quickly as possible, but the scariest thing in all of this is that Bynum isn’t helping.
The irony is that these problems are probably fixable. Gasol might just be experiencing a slump.
Artest’s on-court production in L.A. has been as inconsistent as his behavior everywhere else he’s played, although that didn’t stop him from saving the Lakers in the 2010 Finals.
Since 2007, Bryant has managed to take his level of play up a notch from the regular season in the playoffs every year without fail.
The Lakers are not yet done, at least not in the long term.
The question is whether Bryant, the best player on L.A.’s roster and by far the most tenured, can steer the ship away from the steep waterfall it finds itself sailing towards.
On one hand, this Laker team has already drawn comparisons with the 2010 Celtics.
In case you forgot, those Celtics played possum during the regular season before returning with an outright vengeance in the playoffs, upsetting the LeBron James-led Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic on their way to the NBA Finals, and only succumbing to the defending champion Lakers in the waning seconds of Game 7.
There’s no doubt that these Lakers have the talent to rise from the West, even without home court advantage, but there are a few key differences between these Lakers and the Celtics.
1) The 2009-10 Celtics came out of the gate dominant, starting 23-5 before experiencing a steep, injury-ridden drop-off that forced them to rest their key players for much of the season.
After their 8-0 start, the Lakers haven’t been nearly as dominant, totaling a 15-11 record since.
Granted, they were missing Bynum and Theo Ratliff most of that stretch, but Lamar Odom should have provided more help in guarding the Lakers paint than he‘s been doing.
Though Odom may be the most talented sixth man in the league, he’s no Glen Davis on the defensive end of the floor. He doesn’t have Davis’s size, defensive hustle or tenacity, but he’s a far better rebounder and has a much wider offensive repertoire.
At the end of the day, all of this is just gravy. No team with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol on its roster should be playing .500 ball for such a long stretch.
2) When the Celtics are healthy, they win. Period. Sure, they’ve experienced setbacks here and there even when healthy, but those setbacks typically don’t last. They don’t even need to be 100 percent. As long as the Celtics have a fair amount of health and familiarity in their starting lineup, they win.
Case in point: in 2008-09, the Celtics finished with 62 wins, despite missing Garnett in 22 of their final 26 games and 25 total games over the course of the season.
The reasons for the Lakers’ struggles are well documented.
Yes, Gasol was/is fatigued, and yes, Kobe’s taken a step back, but those are still two of the top eight players in basketball, and their supporting cast is nothing to take lightly.
If Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo alone were enough to secure 62 wins, albeit in the weaker conference, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom should have been enough to at least hold the fort after such a stellar start. They weren’t.
3) The Celtics had enough faith in themselves to sacrifice the present for the long-term.
The Lakers look anything but confident these days, and I’m not sure Phil Jackson has it in him to further sacrifice his team’s standing both in the conference seeding and in the public eye.
So, what can Kobe Bryant do about any of this?
He’s already blasted his team in the media, played angry (ball-hogging) basketball and grilled his teammates in practice, and none of those old tricks seem to be working.
It doesn’t seem like any of Bryant’s tactics can save the Lakers and, well, they can’t.
At least not in the short term.
Perhaps the best move Kobe can make is to go to Phil and tell him to start resting the guys. Like I said, I don’t think Jackson has it in him to stomach much more of the Lakers’ follies, but perhaps if given the inspiration, he could turn a blind eye to their current situation to give them a better shot at playing in June.
Let’s face it, the No. 1 seed is gone. The Lakers are an appalling 6.5 games out of first place, and at this rate, that deficit may as well be 16.5.
Something needs to be done to light a fire under the Lakers, and if a 16-point thrashing by the Miami Heat on national television doesn’t get the job done, not too much else will.
Perhaps the next time we can expect to see a motivated Laker team is when its season, and as a result, its championship title, is on the line.
Hopefully when that time comes, they'llbe ready.
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