There is no discrete way to wade into these last 25 games, whether you jump in head first or just walk to the edge and get your feet wet, it is all the same. The Lakers will record their worst season in 56 years. All that means is that when someone looks back on this season five years from now, the injuries and the coaching missteps and the differing lineups will be a minor footnote. It will be the names in bold type that will start the story. Wes Johnson. Chris Kaman. Nick Young. Pau Gasol. They will be attached to what happened this year even if it was not entirely their fault. But none of this is fair anyway, not when you have won six games since January 1, and have not beat a team with a winning record in 37 days and the losses are regular. Everyone has their sword out. Blame is in the air. Of course what is at stake is July 1, 2014 and who will be signed as a free agent and who will be discarded. Chemistry lasts for a short amount of time. Then what sets in is worrying about your career, making your stats seem worthy enough
Let’s go back. It was a source of pride for Mike D’antoni in the early stages of crafting this team how everyone was connected. In the middle of September he happily cited the assembled players, he said they were a good group to coach. Of course. It was September. D’antoni was physically and emotionally drained after the Dwight Howard fiasco. So this was a walk in the park, players who wanted to be better than they were. But therein lay the paradox. You can never be better than you are. You are what the scouts have always said. It has been almost six months since D’antoni made his initial observations, since his voice was drowning in hope. The Lakers are closer to the end of the road than they are to how it all began, when there was inherent optimism on D’antoni’s side. The rest of the league knew better all along. This had all the makings of a disaster.
But give them credit. They went through this as friends. It was easier to accept fate that way, to reconcile the truth of their game: they were marginal players asking to be heroic. They just couldn’t stand up to the challenge. But their game was based on love and on insignificance. And so it was possible to lose eight games in a row at home and not point the finger. To lose six games in a row twice, seven games in a row once, and not tear the locker room apart. Only the Lakers themselves can describe the mental damage of these past three months. It has certainly drained them to participate and witness the staggering disappointments and humiliating defeats. To want to win but not have the talent to win, to get beat on offense and on defense, to wound the game by their lack of rebounds, to consistently turn the ball over, to lose by 30- all of it was an epic sorrow of injuries and bad coaching and mediocre effort. All that is true. But they went through it together; they at least had that much to congratulate themselves on, they had each other. Kobe was not around much and it was just them, these players who signed one year contracts and then hoped they could prove the rest of the league wrong. But G.M.’s know what they are doing. They separate the talented from the dedicated, the dedicated from the average, the average from the lazy.
The Lakers mourn Steve Blake, that is how much things have changed. He was traded in a very dramatic fashion befitting a movie making town. Less than an hour before the Houston game was going to start, Steve was yanked from the court, forced back into street clothes, off to a better place, to the playoffs perhaps while the Lakers have to linger in this mess. Since that moment on Wednesday the Lakers have never recovered from the loss. Steve Blake was their glue and he was their saint and he was their teacher and he was their friend. He kept them connected; his departure has kept them detached.
The reaction to Steve Blake being traded, to the players shock, is an obvious one. If you had played better, if you competed harder, if you rebounded more, if you communicated on defense and turned the ball over less he would still be here. So in some ways the players who were not traded were responsible for what they decry, Steve Blake’s departure. Add to that indignity the arrival of Kent Bazemore, a player no one heard of, a bench guy but one who was buried because of a numbers crunch. In his first game he played 33 minutes and it was easy to see why. He is a 6’5” guard who plays much bigger. He is long and athletic, he passed the eye test. He is someone you could visualize on the Lakers. Or the Clippers. Or the Pacers. He had it. For the rest of the team that was a splash of cold water, a gut check. It exaggerated their season long hopelessness and why misery does not always love company. Bazemore’s game was aggressive and athletic and willful. His performance in his first game made it even more of a slippery slope for the rest of the team. What now? What happens to Nick Young? What happens to Wes Johnson?
You cannot blame D’antoni for his crush on Bazemore. He has had to slog through this year with players not playing hard, not rebounding, not getting back on defense. Self absorption was beginning to settle in. They played but without honor; so why play at all. Bazemore has been more than anyone expected. After two games he is already the Lakers best offensive wing player. He is shooting 47%, their best for a wing player. He makes 52% of his 2 points shots, one of the highest percentages on the team, higher than Pau Gasol. He is their best ball creator. He is their best finisher at the rim. He is their most aggressive player. He can blow by defenders and get to the basket. He is their best perimeter defender. He plays with the most confidence and energy. He forces you to pay attention to him, to watch. And he has made the rest of the players not named Jordan Hill, appear as if they are sleepwalking. Give him credit. He knows what is at stake. He is a combo guard who has a variety of skills and he is pressing his advantage whenever possible. For two years he has been waiting for this opportunity and no one is going to take it from him now. It is the kind of attitude we expected from Wes Johnson, the number four pick in the lottery. Or from Ryan Kelly, a second round pick. Or from Pau Gasol on certain nights.
Trouble began brewing after the Celtics game. Bazemore’s minutes plus his heroics and MarShon Brooks skill in the paint and in the clutch- he makes 55% of his shots, highest on the team- affected the rotation; players sat who would have been playing. But once again, had they won more than 19 games then Bazemore would never have made his way onto the team. Nick Young felt so pressured by Bazemore’s presence he rushed back on Sunday without benefit of a MRI. Who knows the status of his knee, and by the way, has anyone told him the last thing he wants to do is to make his knee worse, so it impacts his off season opportunities? For the first time this year the Lakers players have been challenged and for the first time this year they are uncomfortable. The boat has holes, it is leaking. There are not enough lifejackets, everyone cannot be saved.
Contrary to belief the Lakers create interest even when they are terrible. Their game against the Pacers tomorrow is on NBA TV, as voted by the fans. The Lakers have the highest rated nationally televised game this year, the Christmas game against the Heat. Their game against the Knicks was the fourth highest in national ratings. And so it makes sense that fans are not the only ones watching. So are G.M.’s. This is all about next year. They are looking at possibilities. Whose game is about fear and loathing? Whose game is about attacking and hustling? No point in pretending it is not what it looks like. This is all about next year for Mitch Kupchak too. He has his list of college players. He knows who he is going to pitch in free agency. He is looking at Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks as possible pieces for the future, their athleticism and offensive skill is intoxicating. The rest of the Lakers, well that is up in the air. But it depends on who impresses him and how the team handles these last 25 games. Are they professional? Are they dedicated? Are they fearless or do they just want to survive the next six weeks? Do they care? Or are they just going to complain about D’antoni’s rotation and use that as an excuse to give in?
Tags: Los Angeles Lakers