It was a sinking feeling for Mike D’antoni, his stomach filling up with rocks until he felt sick. It was the only caption necessary for this moment of surrender. He breathlessly watched Steve Blake leave the court on February 19th. D’Antoni calculated that the Lakers leader and toughest player was now gone so he knew how the story was going to end even before it got that far. D’Antoni had been around long enough, had been around enough players. He knew: the Lakers could survive a lot of things. They could survive a loss of 48 points. They could survive being manhandled and being out-rebounded by 20. They could survive the public beating in the media. They could even survive their casual don’t care attitude. But the Lakers could not survive the loss of Steve Blake. They could not. And neither could D’Antoni. He misses coaching Steve Blake. D’Antoni said it yesterday. He misses “everything.”
Since February 19th,, since Steve Blake went to the Warriors and Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks (who never plays anymore despite injuries/D’Antoni math) came to the Lakers, it has been dreadful to watch what has happened on the court. There is no one to organize the offense. There is no one to lead. There is no one to absorb contact and play with any sort of toughness. There is no grit. Or pride. Basically you have a bunch of players acting as if it is a pick up game. They don’t play angry; in fact they don’t get angry. Steve Blake was the second greatest competitor the Lakers had, which is an indictment of the group. The Lakers are a bunch of nice players who have average to mediocre games. But no one you trust in big moments. No one who is tougher than whoever he is playing against. No one who looks at winning as a street fight. And who takes losing personally. In the locker room Steve had a perpetual scowl after games because he hated losing so much he couldn’t bear to speak after it happened. It actually pained him. And then he was angry. Steve Blake and Kobe Bryant were cut from the same cloth, the competitors cloth. It cemented their friendship. In a way they were the same person. And now they are gone.
A lot of rhetoric surrounds this year especially in conjunction with the Lakers lottery pick and who best fits them. At their current slot many mock draft experts have Aaron Gordon as their pick. It makes sense. He is the toughest player in the draft, the best offensive rebounder in the lottery, the best defender of the rim and he can guard anyone. Aaron Gordon does what no one on this Lakers team, absent Kobe Byrant and Steve Blake, can do. He competes. Instead, this Lakers team up and down the roster take a whatever approach to their careers. Winning may matter but it is not everything. For Steve Blake winning is everything.
Steve loved playing for D’Antoni. It was the perfect system for Steve’s skills. And this year he was a Steve Nash clone as he dribbled in and out of the paint and dished his teammates or served himself. Look at where Blake has come from. He played on a high school team with Heat forward Udonis Haslem. He was a starter as a freshman in college and was the first ACC player with 1000 points, 800 assists, 400 rebounds and 200 steals. He won a college basketball title when most people did not think much of a 6-3 white point guard who could make threes. The irony is that Steve has outlasted Juan Dixon and Chris Wilcox, his Maryland teammates, who were predicted to have longer careers. (so much for the experts). He was a second-round pick. He was in the same draft class as LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and Chris Kaman. But he was a long shot to make a team. He has been on several. He stayed in the DC area and played for the Wizards. Then he went west and played for the Blazers, the Bucks, the Nuggets, the Blazers again, the Clippers, the Lakers and now the Warriors. He is the definition of NBA journeyman. His longest tenure was with the Lakers, a team he loved, a city he adored. He misses Los Angeles. But he does not miss the losing.
The Warriors hated to give up Kent Bazemore. He was cherished among his fellow players. He had potential written all over him but with Harrison Barnes and Jordan Crawford coming off the bench Bazemore was squeezed out, relegated to cheerleading. The Warriors needed a way to give Steph Curry some breathing room. They needed a pass first point guard to organize the offense of the second unit, someone who cared nothing about himself and everything about getting his teammates the shots they needed. Of course, with the Warriors, Blake plays a lot less minutes, he is not counted on in the crucial moments, he is not the glue that keeps their team together. But he does do Steve Blake things. He moves the ball and he helps his teammates and he is the toughest guy on the court. Since the Warriors made the trade for Steve their record is 16-8. And the Lakers are 7-18.
The Lakers point guard situation has been miserable since the All Star break. They don’t have anyone who exhibits toughness, who can take contact, who can finish at the rim. They don’t have a leader. As far as D’Antoni is concerned Steve is the one who got away. Steve ran his offense the way it was supposed to be run. He moved the ball from side to side. He played with ferocity. He paid attention to detail. It was Steve who made the winning shot oh so long ago at Houston. It was Steve they have not been able to replace.
Even though he is part of a team that is going to the playoffs, his Warrior stint has not lived up to its expectations. The Lakers got Bazemore and will look to sign him in the off-season. He is a young player who is athletic but has certain deficits in his game he can improve upon if he has the desire to get better. But what about Blake? The Warriors will make the playoffs but they are not a contender. Their coach, Mark Jackson, is under fire. The moves they made last summer, specifically bringing in Andre Iguodala for $50 million, seems like wasted money. Iguodala has not provided the consistent defense they thought he would and he only averages 9 points a game. Klay Thompson is one dimensional. He makes threes and nothing else, nothing off the dribble, nothing at the rim. Harrison Barnes has been a bust coming off the bench. Jordan Crawford is Jordan Crawford- you get what you get. Of course Andrew Bogut is always hurt and so is David Lee. The Warriors extended themselves financially. This is the team they are stuck with. Jermaine O’Neal and Steve Blake can walk this summer.
Steve has no choice, he has to live in the moment, the here and now. He has to think about the playoffs and the match-ups. The Clippers? Maybe the Thunder? Steve is separated from his family so Steve has to make all of this count somehow. In the playoffs, the games slow down so you expect his impact to be greater. As it is, he has not been as efficient. His numbers are down across the board. He hasn’t played these few minutes in four years, since his first year with the Lakers. But Steve doesn’t care about stats, not at this point in his career. He has put in 11 years. You get the sense that if Mitch Kupchak offered D’Antoni a stay of execution, if he let him come back for one last year, D’Antoni would ask for one thing and one thing only: the return of Steve Blake.