Perhaps he was intuitive and aware of what was going to happen. Perhaps being outfitted in black on New Year’s Eve was purposeful or if not purposeful than it was prophetic because black is for funerals and Kobe, at the end of the Lakers bench, was attending a burial. The black color matched the Lakers jerseys and their woeful inattention to defense, their lack of affection for the game and their own careers in the short term. For this latest exercise of malaise, Pau Gasol was a witness; he had missed the past two games and for doing so was being treated as a villain, like he had done some unthinkable crime by wanting to have bronchial strength before he had to run up and down the court. That Pau had not been traded before game time was an interesting side note to this display of futility spotlighted by multiple cameras. The truth was sobering. Milwaukee has won 6 games. On Tuesday night they shot 44%. They made 57% of their free throws. They missed seventeen 3 point shots. And they won the game by 15.
By game time it appeared that the Lakers had not officially thrown in the towel for this season, Pau was still on the roster and Andrew Bynum had not been acquired and waived. But there is more than one way to give up on yourself- you don’t need to give away your second best player for free. You play as if you are asleep. You do not guard anyone. You let the opposing point guard destroy your defense as if he is Isaiah Thomas. You make zero adjustments. You give up offensive rebounds. You do not coach. You are lethargic and careless and you wish you can be anywhere else but here. You do not compete.
The beauty of this Lakers team from their inception was how connected they were to each other considering their hopeless situation. Virtually no one had contracts past April so everyone was auditioning for something, for some job either here or elsewhere. For the first 25 games they played as if they were not giving up on themselves or the impossible situation they were in but now at game 32 they have lost six games in a row. They lost to the Warriors by 19. They lost to the Suns by 27. They lost to the Heat by 6. They lost to the Jazz by 2. They lost to the 76ers by 7. They lost to the Bucks by 15. Six losses in a row and not much confidence that a seventh, eighth and ninth loss is not on the horizon. There was a point in the game against Milwaukee, there was the sense that the players know what they were facing the next few months, the climb up the hill, the fall down, the trying to get up, the bruising. Their lost gazes seemed to acknowledge they are entering the sort of trouble no one can really fix.
The most ridiculous part of the loss to Milwaukee was the rebirth of Brandon Knight. For much of his career he has essentially been a promising but underachieving point guard. He entered the league young, at 19, and has struggled for much of his career until he was matched up against D’Antoni’s defense and then, of course, he felt as if he was back at Kentucky. Pull up jumper here, pull up jumper there, no one contesting, no one in the paint, dribble and go, in the lane no one meeting him, in the paint no one inhibiting him, okay shoot, arc a mid range shot, and then another, measure a three. For all intents and purposes he was shooting by himself. On the season, Brandon is a 38% shooter and 32% from the three point line. Against the Lakers he was a 60% shooter. He made 37% from three. This is the D’Antoni curse, what inevitably is going to occur when you hire a coach who has never had a team finish higher than 25th in the league in defense. Expecting different results than what is the main principle in his biography of accidental defense is the true definition of insanity.
For his part, after the game, D’Antoni appeared as a drowned man would. He adhered to nothing, he appeared like he was floating in space. He had the look of an endangered species and that part is right, coaches in this era demand defensive accountability. The way of D’Antoni after his latest loss was a similar demeanor to last year but a little worse because last year he had the brilliance of Kobe and the physicality of Howard when things were spiraling out of control. At some point he knew the enormity of their talent would find some path to make things happen even as they disagreed with one another, great players have the habit of taking themselves to a level few others can. For D’Antoni there was comfort in that. But this, this is grave territory. You dig and you dig and what can you really say. Kobe is injured. Steve Blake is injured. Farmar is injured again. Nash is injured. Xavier is injured. Your best point guard just came out of the D-league last week. You refuse to play Chris Kaman. Nick Young is a streaky shooter but when things fall apart he falls apart by trying to be something he is not. Shawne Williams is averaging 5 points on the season. Jodie Meeks has been consistent but dreadful lately. Jordan Hill is the true bright spot. And Kendall Marshall. He is a better shooter than was promised, he runs the offense well and his size is an asset.
It was inevitable after its inception how it was all going to play itself out and yet the losses this Lakers team will inevitably rack up is not what is unthinkable. It is playing without pride, it is playing as if you are willing to abuse yourself, it is playing as if you do not care, it is playing as if noting matters anymore, as if you are beaten and you have given up on all of it. But also in its odd way, this Lakers team is a cautionary tale for the casual observer who believe in the concept of meritocracy, who thinks of the world in such a narrow way they classify men and this bunch of Lakers players as ‘good guys’ who deserve better. No. No they don’t. They deserve what they are capable of earning.
On November 29th the Lakers beat the Detroit Pistons and it seems like a lifetime ago since Nick Young stood in and took a charge from Josh Smith. Since then, since that Friday night, the Lakers have played 15 games. They have lost 11 of them. They have lost 11 games by an average of thirteen points. Against teams with a winning record, they are 0-7. They have lost games to teams with woeful records too: Milwaukee, Utah, 76ers. It does not matter who is forthcoming, who is on the schedule. When you cannot score and when you cannot keep the other team from scoring, well that is misery.
After the loss, through Twitter, Kobe wished everyone a Happy New Year. He implied that 2014 will be better than the disaster of 2013. Perhaps it is wishful thinking on his part that things will change for the better, perhaps it is what he needs to tell himself in order to get through this, to get healthy himself. Who knows? He may be right, 2014 may have hidden riches and potential and larger parts than this. But for right now, a few minutes before the New Year descends upon Southern California, what is true is that the Lakers are in a period of uncomfortable realities. Their string of mediocre players are sadder than they have been all season long. They cannot win. Their roster has been depleted, withered to the bone. And to their dismay help is not on the way.