Lakers 2011-12 Season Summary
The championship aspirations that have so consistently marked players who put on the Purple and Gold jersey were there coming into the 2011-12 campaign, yet again. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum led the Lakers into a lockout shortened season that began on Christmas Day, the mindset simple: title or bust.
With the standard set and the talent good enough for another deep run, the team's ultimate loss in the Western Semi's -- despite signs of promise and flirtation with playoff success — was not what the Lakers had in mind.
“We’re disappointed,"said GM Mitch Kupchak, who built the roster that went to three straight NBA Finals before back-to-back Round 2 losses. "We don’t grade ourselves on getting into the second round. We thought going into the season that we were one of three or four or five teams that could contend for a championship."
Indeed, having given up a 7-point lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder with two minutes to go on the road in Game 2 of the Round 2 series they lost 4-1, then failing to hold onto a 9-point edge with six minutes remaining in Game 4 at home, the Lakers felt like they let things slip away, even while acknowledging the difficulties faced throughout the season.
“Sitting here at this point in the year is definitely not satisfying," reflected first-year head coach Mike Brown at his exit interview. "Under the circumstances, I feel like we got a lot accomplished and feel we learned a lot … but we can be better.”
The circumstances to which Brown referred centered upon the lack of continuity and cohesion possessed by teams with similar elite talent such as the Thunder, Spurs, Heat, who not coincidentally all advanced to the conference finals. For those coaches, the lack of training camp and practices stung a bit less.
Brown accepted L.A.'s head coaching position in late May when Phil Jackson required subsequent to the 2010-11 season, but was on the job for only about a month before the NBA lockout commenced. While he and his staff met daily as the work stoppage wore on through the fall and early winter, Brown was unable to have any contact with his players, and ended up getting only nine days of training camp in mid December with which to put in an entirely new system on both ends of the floor. Kobe, Gasol, Bynum and Co. had been running the triangle offense for years, but not only had to de-program those thoughts, but try and figure out a bunch of new ones.
"It was difficult," said Brown. "I like the core of this team; we have some good guys on this team that can help us win ... but I know there were a lot of things I felt rushed on that I did on the fly based on the lack of time."
It wasn't just a lack of camp or the new systems, but the difficulty of a compressed schedule, which on average had one more game for each team per two weeks than a usual schedule in order to maximize the number of games each squad could play in a 66-game season. The casualty was practice time, which hurt L.A. more than San Antonio, who has been running the same system for years under America's longest-tenured pro sports coach, Gregg Popovich.
A preseason trade that ended up not going through also made an impact, resulting ultimately in reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom being traded to Dallas for a trade exception that L.A. still possesses, and forcing Gasol to deal with a steady stream of trade rumors that would last all the way up to the trade deadline, uncertainty hanging over the Spaniard's head.
But the level of talent in Los Angeles remained undeniable, thus the disappointment no matter the circumstances.
The team began the season by blowing a big lead to the Chicago Bulls at home on Christmas day, losing an 11-point advantage in the final four minutes, an unfortunate harbinger for what would come back to haunt in the playoffs. Bynum missed the first four games due to a suspension at the conclusion of Game 4 of the 2011 Western Semi's, and by the end of January the record stood at 13-9.
L.A. went 8-5 in February, 11-6 in March and 9-5 in April, always good but never great, towards an ultimate 41-25 record that was good for third in the Western Conference behind San Antonio and OKC.
Ramon Sessions, acquired in a trade with Cleveland at the trade deadline, was the primary in-season addition for the Lakers. He played some excellent basketball, giving L.A. an entirely new dimension on offense, but tailed off in his first career playoff appearance. Fellow deadline acquisition Jordan Hill found success on the glass for L.A. after replacing bigs Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy in the rotation, while Steve Blake and Matt Barnes both had strong, if inconsistent, stretches off the team's bench. Metta World Peace continued his solid play from the second half of the season into the postseason – at least after serving a 7-game suspension for elbowing James Harden – but struggled in the season's first half while getting in shape and healthy from offseason injuries that couldn't be properly worked upon during the lockout.
Bryant nearly led the league in scoring in his 16th season with 27.9 points per game and typically brought his best effort every night towards another All-Star appearance, and was also named to the All-NBA First Team for the 10th time, and to the All-NBA Defensive Second Team, his 12th time earning All-Defense honors. Bynum was named the center for the All-NBA Second Team, and also made his first All-Star appearance after spending much of the season dominating opponents on both ends of the floor. Gasol accepted a facilitating role on offense and got fewer lost post touches as he helped Bynum emerge, and found a way to keep his elite production despite his lessened role and the trade rumors.
“This year was useful as a growing process for us, learning together with a new coaching staff," summarized Gasol. "We had to find and search for consistency; we had too many games where we weren’t consistent, where we let a lot of leads get away from us, where we lost some games we shouldn’t have lost. That also happened in the postseason.”
As Kupchak explained, management and ownership are certainly going to look at a wide variety of ways to improve the team in the offseason; but that doesn't mean the current roster couldn't win even next season.
“In short, if we were just able to bring the players back next year and have a full training camp, we’d be one of those five or six teams with a chance to win," Kupchak concluded. "I can’t tell you if that’s going to happen, (but) it’s not like we don’t have a group that’s talented, and that’s all you can really hope for.”