Lost causes are never quite lost, there is always a beacon of light. And yet like a car wreck, the Lakers damage piles up. Two weeks ago Steve Blake hurt his elbow and played through it until he couldn’t. Jordan Farmar grabbed his hamstring against Portland only to find out it was torn. And what seems like ages ago but has only been a year, Steve Nash cracked his leg colliding with Damian Lillard. Add to the list Kobe Bryant and a fracture in his knee. It seems less of a setback than another chapter in the continuing saga of the Lakers injury woes to players both young and old.
If there is a moral to the story it is this: be careful of the plans you make because they can go awry even after you eliminate all of the tragic variables. But of course all men are human, their bodies veering between an unholy blend of luck and strength. After the Lakers lost Steve Blake to an elbow injury that would have ended the season for a baseball pitcher, the plan was to have Kobe be the point guard. If nothing else Kobe has a belief in Pau that is absolute. It is like a father’s trust in his son- he believes in their combined strength the way no one else does, not even Lakers management. With Kobe out for six weeks there is legitimate concern about Pau and his production. Will the Lakers resort back to their misguided notion of Pau on the perimeter? Or will they have the patience and skill to feed Pau when he is close to the basket? And when Pau is distracted as is commonly the case, when he is feeling sorry for himself, is there anyone on the team who will chastise him?
Let’s reflect. Steve Blake was having a tremendous year, a career high in assists, and he ran the offense expertly. In the first few games without him the offense looked broken. Efficiency disappeared inside an invisible vacuum and Mike D’Antoni appropriately called it ‘ugly’ basketball. It was a far cry from ‘rhythmic’ basketball which is what D’Antoni lives, breathes, teaches and recognizes. It was two man basketball, post up basketball, depend on Kobe basketball. And yet D’Antoni was right in this sense, the absence of a point guard has a trickle down effect, it is the absence of cohesion. What is left is the body but not the brain. There is little organization and the team is disjointed and accidental. Players who are mostly one dimensional struggle when asked to do things they are not capable of doing. There is interrupted ball movement, limited creation off the dribble and poor ball handling in traffic and through contact.
In a span of four games this past week the Lakers averaged 19 assists, not terrible, but five assists lower than their season average of 24. But as each game ended and another one began the assist total decreased. Against the Thunder the Lakers had 26 assists. Against the Bobcats 19 assists. 18 assists versus the Hawks and 16 assists against the Grizzlies. As if it was made of glue, the ball stuck to one side of the floor. It was all particularly predictable.
The reconstructed plan was always with fingers crossed. Kobe took over point guard duties last year and thrived, averaging 6 assists a game, and 3 turnovers. But he was healthy then, he was not working his way back into shape, trying to adjust himself to the speed of the game, his new limitations, his teammates and the oppositions strengths, the passing lanes, the defensive pressure of double teams. His three turnovers of last year have climbed to 6. Some of his turnovers were entirely based on playing with a different group of players and adjusting his game to theirs and reading what they were doing. Some of his turnovers were misreads and bad passes. It was a risk worth taking because of Kobe’s relationship with Pau. In his six games, Kobe has been great at leading Pau to the promised land. Pau consistently set up on the low block, took high percentage shots in the paint and basically played his game. His numbers show the Kobe effect. While Kobe was recuperating, Pau averaged 14.5 points on 40% shooting. In the six games Kobe played, Pau averaged 15.3 points on 54% shooting.
Because they had no choice, the Lakers signed Kendall Marshall, a second year player and former North Carolina Tar Heel who was a teammate of Harrison Barnes. Kendall was a lottery pick of the Phoenix Suns who was then traded in the Gortat deal and waived by the Washington Wizards in October. Kendall is a traditional point guard with good court version and instincts for the position but little to no offensive game. His best game of his rookie season was in April against the Nuggets. He played 40 minutes and had 14 assists. In 48 career games he has had 3 assists or more 26 times but he has rarely started. More than likely he will back up Xavier Henry who will start for the Lakers. Xavier is very inexperienced at making plays for others. He has never had 3 assists in a game. He has had one assist or fewer 137 times. Xavier does not possess the court vision or the skill to make cross court passes to shooters. He does not have experience running a screen and roll offense, getting into the paint and not thinking of himself. He cannot rely on instincts; he has not played the position long enough to develop any. He is a scorer though who can get into the lane and create his own shot. But what can he do for others? In the starting lineup he has the comfort of playing with someone like Pau whose nature is to be selfless and Jodie Meeks who has deep range from the perimeter. But can he find them open looks? Luckily for the Lakers, Jordan Farmar is expected to return within a week.
So much of life is fate. Xavier Henry was never supposed to make the team, he was a throw in body for training camp. Now he is the starting point guard. Kobe Bryant worked hard to get back but it was not the Achilles that was part of the coup, it was a fracture he did not even know he had. Mike D’Antoni, wounded by his own past experiences with star players has the type of team he believes he can develop. Jim Buss lost his father. Everything that has happened since then has been a disaster. Yet, even as the Lakers have a wide audience witnessing their public despair it is because of their own sense of obligation to themselves and to their fan base that in their bad luck and failure they revel in their glory, faded as it may be. And so it is. The Lakers take out the proverbial drawing board and shuffle around moving pieces and wait for the light to shine upon them as they assess the damage, this new dirt on the grave, and prepare for Ricky Rubio, Steph Curry, Goran Dragic and Mario Chalmers. They move forward because that it was what people do. It is not the worst thing that has ever happened to them- Magic Johnson and his HIV diagnosis stands alone. But this is a basketball challenge, something to try to get right. Or just maybe, it is one more obstacle on a winding and twisting road that will lead them into the arms of the draft lottery.