Is there any hope? Short answer: not much. Not unless there are drastic changes. I have been trying to put my finger on what is wrong with the Lakers so that it can be addressed and help fix the team. That is, until it dawned on me: It’s not just one thing. It’s a perfect storm that has started to feed upon itself and shows no signs of abating.
In no particular order, here are some of this issues:
Run and Gun 2.0 was never a good idea for this team. That’s something that works best when you have a squad of mostly 20ish players with boundless energy who make up what they lack in basketball IQ and experience with superior athletic staying power.
It’s not the scheme you run when your 39-year-old point guard is coming off a leg fracture and your star player, Kobe Bryant, might as well be 39 with all the playoff mileage on his legs. It has been an abject failure and reflects extremely poorly on Mike D’Antoni as a head coach (more on that in a minute).
The book is out on how to beat the Lakers. First, get up on them, even if it’s only by seven or eight points. Watch them exhaust themselves trying to catch up. Watch them waste possessions or turn the ball over because no one plays defense or hustles on the boards, and some of the guys don’t even know where they’re supposed to be. Wait till the third or fourth quarter when the Lakers will pull close, and then start firing. Don’t believe me?
Here is what happened in the the last four games:
Against Miami: Tied in the fourth, 90-90, with 2:32 to go. Lakers never scored again. Final: 99-90. Miami wins.
Against Toronto: Lakers pull within five mid-third quarter, start the fourth down 13 and never recover. Final: 108-103. Toronto wins.
Against Chicago: Lakers tie it at 75 with 6:54 to go in the fourth. They run out of gas and end up losing 95-83 to Chicago.
Against Memphis: Lakers pull within five midway through the third quarter, Memphis smells blood and pours on the points for the easy W. Final: 106-93. Memphis wins.
This philosophy isn’t working. It’s clear the Lakers are exhausted late in games. What happens when you’re exhausted? You miss shots short, or take ill-advised perimeter shots with the hopes of conserving energy and then don’t hustle for offensive rebounds. You hand the other team easy fast-break points because you can’t match their speed back in transition.
If I were in charge, what I’d say to the newer members of the team is: Feel free to shoot if you’ve got an open look, but your absolute first priority is hustle defense. Playing time will be directly correlated to effort (see: Clark, Earl). Forget style points on defense—just clamp down hard.
I think the team isn’t really sure of its identity. The mixed messages don’t help.
Should they be racing up and down the court? Setting up in half-court sets? Playing defense? I bet if you asked each Laker player what the philosophy of the team is, you’d get different answers ranging from "run and gun" to "defense first" to "I have no idea." That’s a problem. And that’s 100 percent on the coaching staff. I don’t even have to be in the locker room pregame to know that. It is blatantly evident on the court.
Maybe it wasn’t all Melo.
Things didn’t start great here this season, but it’s only fair to give the staff some leeway—what, with the rash of early-season injuries. But now, most everyone is back. And the losses keep piling up, each worse and more demoralizing than the last. D’Antoni looks peeved at having to answer the never-ending questions from the media. (Sorry—I cut no slack for that. You accept the multimillion dollar payday? Dealing with media scrutiny is part of the job.)
D’Antoni keeps trying to shoehorn this team into his fast-tempo approach instead of coming up with something that maximizes the (not inconsiderable) skill of the players on his roster.
Which brings us to Dwight Howard. Let’s all just admit that this experiment hasn’t worked out as hoped. I know he is still not 100 percent back to form after back surgery. I also know he now has a re-aggravated shoulder issue.
But the real problem with Dwight isn’t physical.
His need to be loved and his aversion to criticism is a liability in this “what have you done for me lately?” town. Until you have experienced it firsthand, nothing can prepare you for the Los Angeles media scrutiny. Orlando isn’t even remotely close. It’s one thing over the summer when you’re rehabbing and walking around Beverly Hills, stopping into a bakery to pick up a cupcake and enjoying the lovefest. It’s completely different in the locker room after another terrible loss.
Once the season starts, there are expectations. When players don’t live up to those expectations, fans and the media want answers.
There are a few different ways to handle it. You can take the Steve Nash diplomatic, analytical route. You can take the Phil Jackson above-the-fray-but-not-above-poking-the-media-and-making-them-question-themselves approach. You can have the "I’m Kobe and you’re not" point of view. But if you’re not playing up to your ability and still want a pass from the skeptical L.A. media, things will not go well. Thin skin and rabbit ears are the kiss of death around here.
Which leads us, inevitably, to the front office. After the Memphis loss, D’Antoni gave the team the next day off. There was criticism for that. The idea being—shouldn’t this team be practicing, trying to figure out their problems?
I actually think letting everyone have a little space isn’t a bad idea. I also have a suspicion that D’Antoni knew that the "come to Jesus" meeting with the Lakers brass was right around the corner. Maybe he wanted to gather himself in preparation for that. There can be no way the front office tolerates this a minute longer without an outline of how D’Antoni plans to pull the team out of this nosedive. Not with the trade deadline looming on the horizon.
Things are a mess. Worst of all, the Lakers have lost arguably one of their greatest assets: their mojo.
Someone needs to re-channel that back to them. I think someone needs to say to this team, " Fellas? Things don’t look good now. Our playoff hopes are barely alive. Nothing we are doing seems to be working. But no one here has forgotten how to play basketball. Forget about the playoffs. Let’s treat every game going forward as if it were a battle to protect the blacktop in our neighborhood park. No way do those punks from the other side of town come in here and not expect a fight. We may go down, but we’re going down swinging."
The Lakers need to get out of their heads, protect their turf and show some pride. For every member of this team, it needs to get personal. Now.