When Is It Finally Time to Declare L.A. Lakers a Bust?

Ehran Khan@@ekhansworldContributor IIIJanuary 21, 2013

Kobe Bryant's window for a sixth NBA title is closing fast.
Kobe Bryant's window for a sixth NBA title is closing fast.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s time to break out the B-word: the 2012-13 Lakers have been a bust.

Too soon? Hardly.

We’re just about halfway through the season. The Los Angeles Lakers are currently 17-23. They’re sitting in 12th place in the Western Conference, ­three games out of the final Western playoff spot and 14-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Clippers.

Last season, the Lakers captured a fifth consecutive Pacific Division title and finished as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. They accomplished that with Kobe Bryant—who had the least efficient shooting season of his career—Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and virtually nothing else.

Then, over the summer, they swapped out Bynum (who is yet to play a single minute this season) for the best center in the NBA in Dwight Howard.

They also upgraded from the worst point guard situation in the league—Derek Fisher (currently out of work) and Ramon Sessions (currently a backup on one of the three worst teams in the league)—to Steve Freaking Nash, an offensive savant who guided a Phoenix Suns team devoid of talent to a top-10 offense that ranked ahead of the Lakers in 2012.

Talk about expectations. The hype machine needed extra juice to keep up with all the wild optimism spewing out of Los Angeles as the season approached.

I remember listening to 710 ESPN LA’s coverage of Lakers media day and hearing all the fans calling in, confidently predicting between 65 and 75 (75!) wins en route to a worry-free 17th championship.

ESPN LA radio personality and Lakers radio broadcaster Mychal Thompson said right before the season started that he expected Lakers to go at least 17-3 in their first 20 games.

Metta World Peace was thinking about breaking the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record for most wins in a season.

Just before the season began the Oklahoma City Thunder traded away James Harden and suddenly not just people in LA, but folks around the country had the Lakers pegged as favorites to win the West.

And all that came when Mike Brown (remember him?) was still the coach.

It’s abundantly clear that the Lakers have fallen way, way, WAY short of those lofty preseason expectations. That’s bust territory for sure.

They’ve already lost more than twice as many games as the '95-'96 Bulls.

They went 9-11 through their first 20 games, and have followed that up by going 8-12 over their last 20.

They haven’t even been more than one game above .500 at any point this season.

They are 3-8 when their four stars manage to get on the court together.

Their most successful coach this year has been the illustrious Bernie Bickerstaff.

At this point, the only thing that the Lakers can do to shake off the bust label is to make an unforeseen run toward an NBA Finals berth. After all, that’s the expectation Mike D’Antoni set for this team after taking over as head coach.

In his introductory press conference, D’Antoni said, “We have to win. We don’t win it or come close, it’s not good enough…Our expectations are to win a championship. We have the team and players to do that.”

Then, during his first radio interview on 710 ESPN LA, D’Antoni made it clear that "If we're not at least in the hunt, a serious hunt, then I've failed as a head coach. I'm comfortable with that."

Well, Mike, I hope you’re comfortable now. Because even getting into the hunt at this point borders on the impossible.

You know the saying defense wins championships? Well, it’s pretty darn accurate. Over the last 17 seasons, only four of the 34 teams to reach the NBA Finals finished outside the top-10 in the league in defensive efficiency, according to Basketball-Reference.

The four exceptions all had uber-elite offenses, as they all ranked in the top two (three of the four were No. 1) in offensive efficiency in their respective Finals year.

Basketball-Reference had the Lakers slotted at 20th in defensive efficiency and sixth in offensive efficiency heading into Sunday's action, meaning that their offense isn’t superior enough to cover for their porous defense—a defense that has fallen seven spots in efficiency rankings from a season ago despite adding a three-time defensive player of the year.

It would take a massive turnaround just for LA to make it to the playoffs. Even if they do sneak in as a bottom seed, they would likely have to go through each of the Thunder, Clippers and Spurs (who have a combined record of 96-29 so far, and whom the Lakers are 0-6 against this season) to crash the Finals party.

Just three months ago that previous paragraph would have been utterly unimaginable.

What better way to define a bust?


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