When you are going through hell, keep going. So cry the beaten. So laments a man named Mike D’Antoni whose coaching competency has been questioned repeatedly. But Winston Churchill was begging him. Don’t quit. Keep going. Churchill’s words are a plea for resilience while also implying things can’t get much worse. To that end the Churchill quote was meekly recited by Mike D’Antoni when called upon last week to explain another bitter loss. But there was a lack of defiance in D’Antoni’s voice. Instead there was resignation and even defeat as if he did not truly believe Churchill knew what he was talking about. Going through hell, walking or running or simply being dragged there by someone else- it hurts. This is shark infested waters the Lakers are submerged in and yes, drowning in, and the season is closely resembling that of 1993. On January 9th, 1993 the Lakers were 11-22. They would win 21 more games over the next 105 days.
Time distorts memory or often it erases it. You just do not remember. You do not remember the team with Valde Divac and Elden Campbell and Nick Van Exel and Sedale Threatt. You do not remember before the season began the Lakers released A.C. Green and Byron Scott. You do not remember Randy Pfund as the first coach. Bill Bertka as the second coach. Magic Johnson as the third coach. You do not remember it was the last days of James Worthy as a professional player. You do not remember the double overtime win over the Clippers and that Vlade Divac had 24 points and 23 rebounds. You do not remember the Lakers giving up 141 points to the Charlotte Hornets. You do not remember the Lakers were 24th in field goal percentage, 17th in rebounding, 17th in points, numbers that taken at face value are eerily similar to this year’s numbers whereas the Lakers are 22nd in field goal percentage, 13th in rebounding, 16th in points.
In the face of profound disaster this year all sides have dug their heels into the dirt. Mitch Kupchak attaches all responsibility to injuries even as he was the one who took the gamble and brought in an aged Steve Nash, a 38 year old who had never defended his position even when he was young, and had a history of back issues. He brought in Mike D’Antoni, a career defensive objector whose teams have never finished higher than 25th in scoring defense. He brought in a variety of receding players who have not the skill nor the ability to endure a long season in which they are expected to exhibit mental toughness.
For his share of the blame Mike D’Antoni deflects all responsibility leaving an impression that he is above the fray somehow, unaccountable for running an offense that this group of players simply cannot execute they way he needs them to. They are average shooters. They are limited finishers. They wander in and out of games. His offense has never delivered a team to the NBA Finals and yet he bristles at anyone who dares to critique it which is in itself a critique of its creator, of him and how thin skinned he is. He resents his players being judged in the same way as their NBA counterpoints because in his words his players are “good” guys. For that there should be privileges.
Can this be the same team that was 9-8 at the end of November? Of course it is not. The injuries have run roughshod over the Lakers identity, what they believed about themselves. These days everyone is playing out of position. They are being asked to overcompensate for being short handed and although the phrase next man up is noble, it is very difficult to continue for a prolonged period of time especially when you have players who are one dimensional. As D’Antoni said after losing to Houston, a game the Lakers controlled in the first half and were run out of the gym in the second half- “we’re asking a lot from these guys.”
And yet there is another point to be made here, about the Lakers having won only six games since Thanksgiving: game film. The first month of the season, teams had a very low expectation about this Lakers collection of players because of the preseason downgrade. Accordingly, Lakers opponents played to the narrative, what they heard in August and September and October. Lakers opponents were lackluster even though they tried not to be but it is human psychology to get bored when playing teams who are lesser than you. It is similar to how the Lakers play against Charlotte every year and why Charlotte usually beats them. But a winning record going into the month of December, coaches suddenly took notice and began breaking down the Lakers system in order to defeat it. Run the shooters off the three point line, they don’t have creators. Guard the rim, they don’t have finishers. Double Pau and he will turn it over. Hustle for rebounds and misses, the Lakers won’t. Run the break, the Lakers won’t get back in transition. When Xavier comes into the lane he is out of control, take a charge. When Nick has the ball put a body on him, he does not like contact. Foul the Lakers when you have to, they are inconsistent at the line. Move without the ball, their defense stops after the first action. Dominate them in the paint, they don’t have toughness.
Of all the ups and down and the injuries and even Mike D’Antoni telling the fans to root for another team, the message this year has been directed at the NBA as a whole, general managers especially. You cannot throw players together like this and assume the past will just erase itself, you cannot hand out minimum contracts and expect sandcastles to be built out of sand. The purpose of professional sports is to highlight exceptionalism. Anything short of that is an exercise in pretending what you see is closer than it appears when that it is a lie. What you see is much farther away.
Moving through this season, at least for the players, the pressure is building. This was to be a year for them in which it was an open audition. Jobs were to be had somewhere if they could demonstrate an ability to score, defend, pressure, rebound, create, finish. But it is difficult to disprove a negative. 10 weeks into the season what do you know that you did not know before it began. That Ryan Kelly may indeed have a future if he can develop. The same goes with Xavier Henry, heavy on the word if. That Nick Young’s shot selection sometimes is questionable. That Kendall Marshall can play in the NBA, can pass the ball. That Pau is not the player he was in 2008. That Kaman is disgruntled when he does not play. So far no one has proved much beyond what we already knew which only means the sum of the Lakers are greater than their individual parts.
To disagree with D’Antoni, this is not hell. That was last year with Dwight, Kobe and Pau, three of the greatest players at their position and yet they could not make it work until the second half of the season and they did so by scrapping D’Antoni’s beloved offense. This is just predictable. This is what happens when you try to win on the cheap. Money matters. You get what you pay for. If you do not think that is true take a look at the starting salaries of both the Houston Rockets and the Lakers. The Rockets who started Wednesday’s game are going to earn 44 million dollars this year in salary. The Lakers who started Wednesday’s game are going to earn 23 million dollars this year in salary. Just so you are not confused: Jeremy Lin of the Rockets makes more than twice the salary of Jodie Meeks, Robert Sacre, Wes Johnson and Kendall Marshall combined.
That 1993-94 Lakers team that won 33 games had the 10th pick in the 1994 draft. They selected Eddie Jones from Temple. And the next year they won 48 games. But not because of Eddie Jones, though his 14 points a game helped. The Lakers traded for Cedric Ceballos who was a 21 point a game scorer. That year they lost in the second round to the San Antonio Spurs in 6 games. They would not miss the playoffs for another thirteen years. Their one year drought was over.
So perhaps it is true. You do walk through hell. You do. And then, calmly you walk back out.