What We Learned About Los Angeles Lakers During Their First Half of the Season

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIJanuary 17, 2014

What We Learned About Los Angeles Lakers During Their First Half of the Season

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    The 2013-14 season has not been kind to the Los Angeles Lakers, and the NBA community has learned plenty about the struggling franchise through the first half of the season as a result.

    Injuries, age, a lack of team chemistry and injuries have severely hindered what Lakerland has been able to accomplish this season, leading to immeasurable frustrations from the fanbase.

    The first half of 2013-14 has been a nightmare scenario, as the Lakers are on pace to miss the playoffs for just the fifth time in franchise history since the organization moved to L.A. from Minneapolis in 1960-61.

    Their 14-25 record is only trumped by the lowly Utah Jazz (13-27) in the Western Conference. Mike D’Antoni’s crew has lost six games in a row and nine of its past 10 contests overall.

    Almost nothing has gone right for the Lakers so far, and it’s clearly time for management to figure out the future.

    Note: All stats and records in this article are accurate as of Jan. 16, 2014.

5. This Is Not a Playoff Team

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    This goes without saying, but the 2013-14 Lakers are not a playoff team.

    A case could be made for them as a postseason candidate if they were somewhat healthy, but injuries have derailed plenty of teams around the NBA—not just the Lakers.

    Of course, even if Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar weren’t hurt, the Lakers’ shot at making the playoffs would be murky at best.

    The Western Conference is loaded with talent. The Lakers have been one of the league’s worst teams from a defensive standpoint (ranking 29th by allowing 105.9 points per game), and they compiled a 2-4 record when Bryant was back in the lineup. That certainly doesn't scream "playoff contender."

    Mike D’Antoni’s squad beat expectations early in the season, but it fell back to earth rather quickly. Now it occupies the Western Conference cellar.

    It’s going to take more than Bryant’s (second) return for this team to stay competitive in the West.

    At this stage, the best plan of action moving forward would be to tank for better draft lottery odds, because this team has no young players to build the future around—unless you count Kendall Marshall.

4. Team Chemistry Is Eroding

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    Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sport

    The Lakers raised eyebrows at the start of the season with tremendous bench play and the collective emergence of Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar as the engine of the second unit.

    Any semblance of team chemistry since then, however, has diminished.

    Head coach Mike D’Antoni and four-time All-Star big man Pau Gasol have continued to butt heads during the course of their working relationship.

    Gasol said in December, “When I’m not getting the ball where I want to, where I’m most effective, where I can bang guys and utilize my skill, that affects my aggressiveness and overall intensity,” according to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times.

    D’Antoni responded by saying, “If you don’t play hard, it’s hard to figure out because you don’t know what works and what doesn’t.”

    In other words, that situation has been a mess.

    Chris Kaman is also unhappy in Los Angeles, describing his situation earlier this month as, “Same (expletive), new city,” per Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News.

    Most recently, Nick Young called out his Laker teammates after getting ejected from the game against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday.

    After a hard flagrant-2 foul from rookie Alex Len, Young leaped off the court and started swinging at anything in a white jersey (hitting point guard Goran Dragic in the head in the process). Len and Young were both ejected.

    “What I’m mad about is it was 1-on-5,” Young said, per Chris Greenberg of The Huffington Post (via Associated Press). “I felt like if someone would have gotten in the middle of everything it wouldn’t have escalated as much. I felt bad for Dragic.”

    As a result of his antics, Young was suspended for one game without pay—something the Lakers can ill afford right now with so many injuries.

    Nobody appears to be buying into a team concept anymore, and that’s crippling the Lakers' chances of winning games moving forward.

3. Father Time Is Undefeated

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    OK, so we certainly didn’t need the first half of L.A.'s 2013-14 season to learn that Father Time is undefeated, but he’s pushing his weight around with this roster.

    Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant—two NBA legends with a combined 23 All-Star appearances and three MVP awards—haven’t been able to stay on the court.

    After just six games played from Oct. 29 through Nov. 10, Nash understood he was doing more harm than good and decided to shut things down in an attempt to get healthy. He hasn’t appeared in a game since.

    According to a Dec. 8 article by Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Nash said, “I had three good days of practice and I could play right now, but we don’t really have any confidence that it’s sustainable.”

    Approximately one month later, Nash is looking to return in early February, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. That’s still a few weeks away.

    Bryant also appeared in just six games after rehabbing an Achilles tear he suffered in April. In his sixth game against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Black Mamba fractured the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. He might be able to return before the All-Star break.

    These guys are two of the all-time greats at their respective positions, but age has caught up to them in a huge way.

    Neither player may ever be the same again. This is terrible news for Lakers fans, because Nash and Bryant will make more than $33 million combined next season.

2. Mike D'Antoni Unearths Talent

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    Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

    Mike D’Antoni is, without question, one of the most underappreciated coaches in professional sports.

    Does he deserve some criticism for having a long track record of poor defensive teams? Sure, no coach is perfect.

    With that said, D’Antoni just continues to extract talent out of a roster ravaged by injuries and compiled of NBA sendoffs.

    He has Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Kendall Marshall playing arguably (in some cases unarguably) the best basketball of their respective careers.

    That success can be attributed to opportunities players haven’t been afforded yet in the NBA, but every one of those names has been productive thus far.

    Perhaps the most impressive case is Marshall.

    The University of North Carolina product was drafted 13th overall by the Phoenix Suns in 2012. He had some nice moments as a Sun (showing off some nifty passing skills), but was sent to the Washington Wizards in the Marcin Gortat trade last summer.

    Oddly, the Wizards decided to cut Marshall rather than keep him as a safety net behind point guard John Wall—a job held down by the lackluster duo of Eric Maynor and Garrett Temple, who are averaging 4.4 points and 3.1 assists combined.

    The Lakers desperately needed a point guard, so they picked up Marshall. D’Antoni’s offensive system has allowed the youngster to thrive.

    The 22-year-old has already posted four double-doubles, including a 20-point, 15-assist, six-rebound effort in a win over the Utah Jazz. He’s averaging 12.6 points and 12.1 assists in January while shooting 40 percent from behind the arc.

    The Lakers have struggled to keep their heads above water this season. Those shortcomings can’t be pinned on D’Antoni, though, because, quite frankly, what does he have to work with?

    More often than not, D’Antoni makes mediocre players good, good players great and great players elite. Without him, Boris Diaw probably wouldn’t be in the NBA right now. We might say the same of Marshall a few years down the road.

1. The Future Is Cloudy

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    Although Kobe Bryant has defended it, his two-year extension worth $48.5 million looks more and more unsettling with every passing game he doesn’t suit up for.

    Bryant signed the extension prior to playing a single minute in 2013-14, and although it’s important for the franchise to stay loyal to a star that brought them five championships, he hasn’t shown anything this year on the court that justifies his new salary.

    On top of questions as to whether or not this team can compete in the immediate future with so much money invested in Bryant, the ownership has repeatedly been called into question by a Laker legend.

    Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who won five championships and three MVP awards as a member of the Lakers, said on ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” in 2012, “I love Dr. (Jerry) Buss. I don’t believe in Jim Buss,” per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

    Johnson expanded on that claim recently by saying the following, according to Mike James of the Los Angeles Times:

    The biggest problem they're going to have right now...you've got to get a guy like Jerry West to be the face of the team. ... You've got to have someone helping Jim. He's got to quit trying to prove a point to everybody that he can do it on his own, get his ego out of it, and just say, 'Let me get someone beside me to help achieve the goals I want.'

    The Lakers are in a dark place for the first time in a long time. If they don’t strike gold in 2014 free agency or the 2014 NBA draft, the downward spiral is likely going to continue.