Posted Feb 5, 2013 11:35 AM
It's hard to dribble, pass and shoot with one hand pressed to your forehead and the other constantly checking for a pulse.
Yet that's how the Los Angeles Lakers have tried to navigate this 2012-13 NBA schedule, in a very public and self-conscious manner that has only furthered the frustration and sense of despair surrounding them. The Lakers set the tone from the very start, losing four of their first five games, sparking concern and fanning that into full-scale panic while burning through coach Mike Brown (1-4) and placeholder Bernie Bickerstaff (4-1).
Mike D'Antoni arrived, but looked more like Custer than cavalry, presiding over a 12-20 swoon that triggered team meetings and a hundred suggested fixes. It divided the Lakers locker room, with cross-eyed glares going every which way (D'Antoni-Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard). And it left them in 12th place in the Western Conference, 14.5 games from the top and -- yikes! -- only three from the bottom.
By that point, the league's defining storyline had nothing to do with Miami's defense of its 2012 championship, the rebirth of the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics' understandable stumble or those overachievers in Chicago and the Bay Area. "What's wrong with the Lakers?" was playing on a loop 24/7, a hot mess that few saw coming and fewer still spoke up about.
"At the beginning of the season," one NBA executive confided to NBA.com, "I would have thought that Kobe and Dwight could play with me and we'd make the playoffs."
Since that low point two weeks ago -- 17-25 on Jan. 23 -- Los Angeles has won five of six heading into its NBA TV Fan Night clash tonight (7:30 ET) with the Brooklyn Nets. The first two were as atypical as they were resounding, victories over Utah and Oklahoma City in which Bryant had more assists (28) than field-goal attempts (22), Steve Nash took as many shots as Bryant, and Metta World Peace topped them all, pumping up 30. Their past three games -- blowing a 13-point lead to lose at Phoenix before surviving scares at Minnesota and Detroit -- were part of a seven-game trip that has winnable games in Brooklyn, Boston and Charlotte before concluding Sunday in Miami.
A 3-1 finish would get the Lakers to 25-27 with 30 games to play. But they'd still be just 10-17 on the road. They are 3.5 games out of the No. 8 playoff spot, yet they are a combined 4-10 against the West's top six teams (Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies, Warriors and Nuggets). Winning in the East is fine, but the Lakers are dragging around a 13-18 mark against the West and will play 21 of their final 30 within their conference.
As the schedule revs into its fourth month, the Lakers, supposedly "insta-contenders" like the 2007-08 Celtics, have gained familiarity.
But that doesn't mean they fit.
"This is a team that has the puzzle parts, but they might not all come from the same puzzle," said one respected NBA scout. "It shows that putting together a team is not always just a matter of getting the 'best' or the 'most best' players together. On one hand, you might have been able to get better results faster if you put Nash together with Howard and let them pick-and-roll everybody to death. When you're mixing in Kobe and Pau, guys who have played a different style in a different system, you're forcing things."
NBA.com's staffers spent the past couple weeks combing the league for analyses, opinions and possible fixes for the Lakers, exchanging anonymity for candor. Some of the responses focused on the most obvious and understandable: injuries. Nash's leg injury, initially thought to be a bruise worth two weeks, wound up as a fracture that cost him eight weeks. Gasol missed time with a head injury. Howard claimed deep into January that his rehab from back surgery should have sidelined him until, well, right about then. He instead came back in some mix of excitement, responsibility and a tooth for the spotlight. He's day-to-day after receiving treatment on his right shoulder.
But D'Antoni -- working without a training camp for the second straight season -- invoked some All-Star team imagery, too, noting how disjointed and "awful" the quality of play can be when parts don't form a whole. The Lakers haven't found their version of ubuntu, the philosophy of bonding that coach Doc Rivers sold to Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and the Celtics six seasons ago.
Said the scout quoted above: "That's not saying they can't work together, but it's going to take a lot longer. What the Lakers are going through kind of validates the problems that Miami had in their first season together. When they kept saying that it was matter of figuring things out, a lot of people just shrugged it off and said they were whiners. And even that was a team where the individual pieces of LeBron [James], [Chris] Bosh and [Dwyane] Wade fit together more naturally than the Lakers."
A lot of the insiders still just see pieces in purple and gold, with enough criticism to go around:
"People act like this is a Kobe issue and he's not the problem," an Eastern Conference exec said. "The problem is he's trying to do the work, at least on defense, of both guards. He's trying to guard the guy Nash needs to be guarding. And that doesn't allow the Lakers to play on a string defensively because you can't hide Nash. He's a defensive liability, same as he's been for years ... With the Lakers, his inability to deal with younger, more physical and more athletic point guards has been a huge issue."
Howard remains a big target, literally and otherwise.
"Dwight is not the same as he was before that back injury," a West team's personnel man said. "He just doesn't get off the floor as quick as he used to. You see him play against guys he's dominated in the past and they are outworking him on the glass and beating him up and down the floor. There was a time when no big man in the league could match Dwight in those areas. That back injury has really put a cramp in his game. ... That's why you have to find a way to get him and Gasol playing off of each other. This idea that you bring Gasol off the bench as his backup is crazy. There's no way you play to your strengths by doing that."
A head scout from the East added: "This is about Dwight ... he's not totally committed to being there and playing in that system. Under Mike Brown, he was going to be a focal point. When you make the coaching change and move to the style of play D'Antoni prefers, it doesn't include making sure the ball goes through Dwight and back out in order to get the offense going. His effort has been comical at times. He wants the ball but has no intention of working for it."
One former NBA player, now an analyst for a rival team, talked of a mismatch between D'Antoni's preferred style of play. "Systems have to fit your personnel," he said. "It's fools gold to think that Kobe, Steve, at this stage in his career, can run the D'Antoni system."
The coach, in other words, need to adapt to his players, not vice versa.
"Dwight Howard is a low-post player, you've got to find a way to get him the ball inside," this critic said. "Pau, same thing with him. ... I don't know what they need to run, but Steve Nash is a pick-and-roll guy, half court, and you can't be discombobulated at this stage in the year as to what you're going to be running offensively. The game is instinct and when you go out on the floor and you're wondering what to do, you don't have a chance."
Said an East scout: "If you listed the 10 best offenses to run for the Lakers' personnel, the two they've tried to run -- the Princeton offense and D'Antoni's offense -- would be near the bottom. That's their biggest problem. Where, with Howard, Gasol and Kobe, Phil Jackson's triple-post offense would give them all sorts of options. But I guess for whatever reason the Busses [team owners] didn't want to go groveling to have him come back."
Nope. No one in Lakersland -- at least not in authority -- is going there now. As painful as it's all been, the team has lowered its expectations. Gone are championship conversations and, instead, they seem positioned for a more modest push to the postseason.
Also: Pay no attention to that Feb. 21 trade deadline. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told Newsday recently that the answers won't be arriving via a player swap. "We will not make a trade," Kupchak said. "We will not trade Dwight Howard. ... It's unlikely that we'll make any trade with any of our principal players. To make another change at this time of year being behind the 8-ball like we are, I think that would just make it more difficult. The talent is there. We have to find our way."
Keep in mind, Kupchak's choice to fill Jackson's chair in 2011 was Rick Adelman, but he got overruled by Jim Buss, the team's executive VP of basketball operations and son of owner Jerry. His might or might not be the final word on transactions in the next couple of weeks either.
Meanwhile, the question continues to get asked, every night, every quarter, sometimes on every possession.
What's wrong with the Lakers? Dribble.
What's wrong with the Lakers? Pass.
What's wrong with the Lakers? Mull. Stew. Fret.
The shot clock is ticking. Time is running out. And that's a hard way to play this game.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
NBA.com's Fran Blinebury, Jeff Caplan, Scott Howard-Cooper, John Schuhmann and Sekou Smith contributed to this report.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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