The Los Angeles Lakers have been struggling all year by Lakers standards. Deep down inside, we knew they were doomed after Hall-of-Famer and five-time Laker Champion Earvin "Magic" Johnson stated the team's chances of winning the 2011 semifinal Series against the Dallas Mavericks were "slim to none."
Those words stung, but Magic has been there and done that. He knew what he was talking about. He's been in the legendary battles with Kareem, Worthy and Cooper, and wrote the script for us with his proclamation about Kobe and company.
The Lakers imploded against the Mavs and nearly did so in the series before when they faced the young, upstart New Orleans Hornets. They were simply out-hustled by Dallas. No one stepped up to guard Dirk Nowitzki, or perhaps no one on the Laker roster could guard the German Sharpshooter. Certainly not Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom.
In fact, they had Andrew Bynum on Dirk at one point. Ron Artest also tried, but at 6'7", he was too short, and Dirk simply shot over him. The Mavs bench versus the Laker bench? More on that in a jiffy.
The "trust factor" within the Laker locker room was basically a stick of dynamite that was eventually lit. It exploded out of the mouth of Bynum, and Laker Land was officially in a tizzy. Suddenly, all was not right in the Southland.
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Everyone criticized Bynum for speaking up, but at least he spoke up. And he spoke the truth. Magic didn't want to hear it. Kobe, Derrick Fisher, Gasol and Coach Phil Jackson all downplayed it, but what else could they do publicly?
Down the stretch of most tight games, and there are plenty of them when you're the two-time defending champs, it didn't appear Kobe trusted anyone besides himself to take the big shot. And quite frankly this year, Kobe was hit or miss with game winning shots.
Fisher wasn't taking the last shot, as he did when he broke the hearts of San Antonio Spurs fans a few years ago. It was all Kobe. It killed me to watch everyone stand around at the end of games and watch Kobe launch three after three. No one other than Kobe appeared to want to take the last shot. They all stood around and watched him. Heck, they might as well been sitting in my den with me watching Kobe on TV.
In the end, the Lakers were arguing, pointing fingers and frustrated at each other as Dirk, little J.J. Berea, Jason Terry and Old Man Jason Kidd ran circles around my beloved Purple and Gold. The Lakers certainly didn't trust each other defensively, and that's why they exhibited so much frustration as Berea slipped into the lane scoring on another runner. Lack of chemistry? You better believe it.
These Lakers, particularly the bench, didn't know each other. Had never played with each other on the same team. Steve Blake and Matt Barnes were key newcomers who didn't quite live up to their hype. They seemed out of sync with Kobe and company.
Shannon Brown won a championship with the Lakers last year, but this was only his second year in Los Angeles. He was still a relative newcomer in Laker Land. The other guys on the bench rarely played and that meant none of them were ready for prime time. You couldn't rely on them because they had scant game experience.
Let's be honest here. The Lakers Bench was horrible and their offseason signings backfired, under-performed or whatever you want to call it. Lakers General Mitch Kupchak gave Blake a $15 million contract, and we can all see how that worked out. Blake couldn't hit a three to save his life, which is surprising because we all know he can do it.
It was a bad pickup and for the most part the Lakers got burned. Chris Paul and Berea literally ran around Blake. He was outmatched. Out of his league, although he hustled and played hard, the Lakers needed a backup point guard who could score and play defense consistently, and Blake wasn't that.
The Matt Barnes signing was even stranger. Came out of nowhere. He also looked like a fish out of water at times. He got hurt, and that made matters worse. I still get these images of Barnes taking a three and I'm wondering: did they bring you here to shoot threes or play defense? He has never been known as a scorer, but all of a sudden he's launching from beyond the arc. His knee injury really slowed him and he was a non-factor on that side of the ball when he returned after surgery. Another pick-up that didn't work out for Kupchak.
It's too bad for Kupchak because Blake and Barnes were his key offseason acquisitions. Personally, I think Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic were better bench players for the Lakers and had already won two championships with them.
Not re-signing Farmar and trading Vujacic really hurt the Lakers bench and it showed all season. Horrible front office decisions. Neither side won. Both players were on the New Jersey Nets losing team, and the Laker bench suffered. The Laker starters didn't know or trust their new bench, and the bench felt the same way about the starters.
The season has been loaded with distractions. Most notably: The "Khloe and Lamar Show" on the E Network. Obviously Lamar wasn't focused on a three-peat because he had way too much on his plate. Cameras followed his every move on and off the court. Juggling a reality TV series and a quest for three straight NBA Championships is a tall order. Few can meet the challenge.
The NBA schedule alone is too grueling and demanding. Throw the responsibilities of a reality TV series into the mix and something is gonna suffer. I like Lamar, but I think he was overwhelmed.
Ron Ron sort of became Ron Ron again when he clothes-lined Berea in Game 2. Kind of stupid. Kind of funny. Kind of predictable. Ron was on the "George Lopez Show" what seemed like once a month. He auctioned off his 2010 Lakers Championship Ring to draw attention to mental health. He started his own shoe line. He put out a rap song. Whew!!! I'm tired just writing about it. Seems like Ron Ron had time for everything except one thing: The Los Angeles Lakers.
Maybe that's a little harsh, but I think it's fair to say he wasn't focused entirely on winning another championship in L.A. His lack of commitment hurt the Lakers and may have cemented his exit from the purple and gold.
Don't get me wrong. It's hard winning back to back NBA championships. Nearly impossible winning three in a row. It's mentally and physically exhausting. Every game is a big game if you're a Laker every team wants to beat you. The bulls eye is placed squarely on your back. Rising to the challenge takes a group of steel willed athletes. The Lakers were a couple of players short of that.
I ain't mad at Kobe. He did his thing. Sure, he's had better seasons, but dropping 25 a night is enough for me. Yeah, he missed some game-winning shots this season, but at least he wasn't afraid to take them. But he's getting older and he needs help.
Gasol was supposed to be that help, but disappeared this season. I'll never forget the camera shot of Coach Jackson pounding on Gasol's chest and screaming at him during a timeout in Game 3 against Dallas. Don't think I've ever seen Jackson so pissed off. He's normally the picture of calm on the sideline as chaos unfolds Not this time. He was up in Gasol's grill. Very uncharacteristic of Jackson, and perhaps that was a telling sign.
Gasol lost his confidence somewhere between Spain and Southern California. He didn't seem like the same player from a year ago, He was lacking, tentative and in a funk. Bad time of year to be in a funk, dude. Gasol was the second option, but couldn't live up to the billing this year. After Kobe, the Lakers didn't have a go to guy and it was basically a wrap.
I still can't erase the images from Christmas Day. The Lakers in their home whites with brand spanking new electric green Nike basketball shoes. I'm a sucker for athletic gear, and I thought they looked great. Unfortunately, it had little bearing on the Miami heat slapping the Lakers around on national TV.
I spent the day embarrassed at my brother in law's house because they all know I bleed purple and gold. But that game showed me something was seriously wrong . If you can't compete with the best of the best on a national holiday stage, how do you expect to win another ring?
The Lakers were up and down all year. Never once resembling the dominant team from 2010. It seemed every game was a struggle. No transition. No classic Laker fast breaks. All tight games, with the Lakers barely winning most of them.
Fisher looked old, again. Getting burned on a nightly basis by younger explosive point guards. Artest taking ill-advised threes and missing most of them. Bynum fighting injuries once again. They couldn't find their groove. A couple of nice winning streaks here and there, and then they'd drop 6-of-7. Un-Laker-Like.
The pressure had been building all year. The team was playing for the best NBA coach of all time, short of perhaps Red Auerbach, who just happened to be retiring at the end of the year. Kobe wanted to send him out with one last championship. Half the players on the team had never won a championship with Jackson, or any other coach for that matter. The glare of the bright lights followed the team and Jackson's every move. Three straight championships? A legendary coach retiring with 11 rings? That's a lot of stress.
Jackson spent the season with an extremely short rotation. There were guys on the bench who never played, and quite frankly shouldn't have been on the team. Joe Smith? You kidding me? If you're gonna sign him, play him!
Theo Ratliff, Derrick Caracter, Devin Ebanks---no need to wash your uniform tonight. Luke Walton chillin' on the bench. With Blake, Barnes, Brown struggling at various points during the season, L.A. could've used some explosive firepower off the bench. They didn't have it. It hurt them.
Don't blame Bynum for speaking up. It's not the way I would've handled it, but he's a grown man and entitled to do what he wants. He shined a light on problems and issues within the locker room. Don't know how serious they are, but they're there. Unfortunately, Laker captains Kobe and Fisher couldn't get a handle on the internal strife surrounding the team. Bynum went public and now the world can see.
It's been a while since the Laker's have faced adversity. Kobe and Fisher will be entering their 15th year in the 2012 season. Odom and Artest will be entering their 12th season. The young guys on the team didn't play and have very little experience. Is it time to look at a high priced superstar free agent? If I know Dr. Jerry Buss, he's mulling a blockbuster as we speak.
More importantly, who takes the reins from Hall-of-Fame Coach Phil Jackson with a veteran championship team showing cracks in the armor?
Whoever takes the job? Be careful what you ask for.