Someone is at fault for this. This is a storied franchise, the Lakers. Since Kobe Bryant’s joined the team, never have they been as futile as they have been so far this season. Currently at 7 games under .500 and falling quicker and quicker with each game, the Lakers are destined for their highest pick in the draft in decades.
This isn’t the norm. Coddled Lakers fans are used to championship aspirations, not draft projections. With 35 games gone in this season (just over 42%), the consensus is this is a lost season for L.A.. But for a team that started so well sans Bryant, when did things go so terribly wrong? And who can we blame?
The answer isn’t as simple as blaming one figure. In fact, there isn’t one figure TO blame. Unfairly so, Mike D’Antoni seems to be the Lakers’ fans scapegoat. Message boards, tweets, and comments are filling up more and more with the sentiment of firing D’Antoni.
News flash Lakers Nation: D’Antoni isn’t the problem and is here to stay. Hell, he may even be back next year. There are a couple of conclusions we must come to, as a fanbase, in accordance with this.
1. This season is done. If the Lakers are smart, they start a firesale on players like Pau Gasol, Steve Blake, Chris Kaman, and anyone else they can get a nice return from. With no second round pick, it makes too much sense to not swap someone like Kaman or Blake for a second rounder or two. And if you can pull off a trade with Gasol involving a first rounder? More kudos to Mitch.
2. Injuries derailed this season. Any rational Laker fan could tell you this season was always going to be an uphill struggle. The team formed in the off-season was a huge defensive liability, with too many x-factors on the offensive end. As players started dropping off one by one, it was too much for the remaining Lakers to make up. Kobe’s return was supposed to right the ship, but that plan sank when he went down six games into his return with fractured bone in his leg. Bryant’s return to the lineup was always seen as a benchmark early in the season. If the Lakers could just survive until he came back, then he could help lead the team to the promised land….err playoffs. When he went down with an injury again, the morale of the Lakers went down with him.
When everyone was healthy and playing well at the start of this season (minus Kobe and Nash), we saw the best version of the 2013-14 Lakers. They were deep, outlasted opponents, and were fun to watch. But as the season wore on, they began regressing to the mean, which brings me to my next point…
3. The Lakers level of play early in the season was unsustainable. Opening night will go down as likely the highlight of this season. The Lakers come out motivated, determined, and fired on all cylinders. In reality, their first 19 games couldn’t have went better, leading up to Bryant’s return. Steve Blake was playing arguably the best basketball of his career, with the same going for Jodie Meeks. Nick Young was unfathomably efficient, and even Wesley Johnson was throwing in a random 27-point outburst in a game.
But Bryant’s return marked a new chapter for the Lakers. In their attempts to adapt to Bryant, they regressed to the mean sharply. Johnson has scored in double figures four times since his 27-point game. While averagine 15.3 points a game, Meeks is shooting just 41% from the field. Xavier Henry’s shooting percentage has dropped. Only the beloved Swaggy P has maintained the level of play all season long, and even that involves shooting just 41% from the field.
Notice that none of these factors include the blame of D’Antoni. In fact, it should be the opposite. D’Antoni should be praised for his coaching job this year. Do detractors realize he has had SIX different starting point guards this year, all changes having come following injury? Do they forget how he’s revitalized the careers of Henry, Johnson, and most recently Kendall Marshall? Is it a coincidence that Meeks is playing the best basketball of his life as well under D’Antoni? And it can’t be stated enough the horrific hand he’s been dealt with injuries.
As it stands after last night’s game in Dallas, with Young battling a bad back, the Lakers have one healthy point guard (Marshall), one healthy shooting guard (Meeks), one healthy small forward (Johnson), one healthy power forward (Kelly), and four healthy centers (Gasol, Sacre, Hill, Kaman). Can you blame the man for not producing wins?
Without D’Antoni, the Lakers don’t have the revitalized careers of X, Wes, or Marshall. They don’t have the fast-paced, free-flowing offense that has suited Swaggy or Meeks so well. And without him, they aren’t in any better position. This team was doomed from the start. There’s no more Phil. He’s not saving us anymore. No one in the free agent market who is open for a return to coaching is better than what we have in D’Antoni. Blaming him is like blaming Mitch Kupchak for all this. Neither could have predicted the injuries, but both are making due with what’s available.
So buckle up Lakers fans. We aren’t even halfway home.