HANG TIME PLAYOFF HEADQUARTERS — Before anyone else in Los Angeles points another finger at Pau Gasol, Mike Brown, Ramon Sessions or any of the other convenient scapegoats in the wake of a second straight second-round playoff exit, look in the mirror.
Stare long and hard and ask yourself if you didn’t see this coming. Didn’t you realize last season, when Andrew Bynum was heading to visitor’s locker room in Dallas without his jersey, that this team was fatally flawed and had no chance of overcoming its own internal obstacles?
Like an aging heavyweight champ who gets K.O.’d in his last bout and then comes back into the ring the next time without truly understanding what went wrong, the Lakers got popped against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals. This time, it came by believing in their ability to overcome any obstacle with sheer talent alone.
Avoiding the sweep this time around shouldn’t ease the sting for Lakers fans, either. They knew (better than most) what they saw from this group during last season’s semifinal flame-out against the Mavericks exposed the team’s flaws.
Why would anyone, Kobe Bryant included, be surprised at Gasol’s struggles against the Thunder when you saw him crumble against the Mavericks?
You replaced a living legend in Phil Jackson with a good coach in Brown, but if Jackson couldn’t get this team over the proverbial hump in his final season, why would anyone assume Brown would be capable of pulling it off now? And Sessions was supposed to be the anti-Derek Fisher — a younger, more athletically gifted point guard capable of matching up better against the league’s younger and more athletic guards. He proved to be just as ill-equipped to handle Russell Westbrook as Fisher would have been.
This is a mess of the Lakers’ own making, whether they admit it or not. They are the ones that tossed Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Brian Shaw, aside in favor of Brown. They saw the cracks in their foundation and opted for some instant sealant instead of legit fixes.
Sure, we’ll give them credit for trying to address a glaring issue in the preseason with that squashed trade for Chris Paul, a missed opportunity that has haunted their every move since.
But Paul alone wouldn’t have solved all the Lakers’ problems. They want to depend on Bynum and treat him like the elite, low-post anchor this franchise has always had during their championship runs. The only thing he has in common right now with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal is the need to duck when walking through most doorways.
He’s not in their class at this stage of the game, not even close. And for anyone within the organization to make him feel that way is a travesty and even more detrimental to Bynum’s continuing development as any of his own antics (unauthorized 3-pointers, sulking on the end of the bench during timeouts, etc.) have been or will be.
The Lakers aren’t the first team to look at the expiration date on their roster and try to push it a little bit. They thought they could squeeze one more run out of this group. We heard Kobe loud and clear last night when he said this was not going to be a repeat of the Bad Boys Pistons, who after finally being vanquished by the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in the 1991 East finals, disappeared into the NBA’s witness protection program for the next decade or so.
He’s probably right. The Lakers won’t fade into the Lottery litter, not as long as Bryant is capable of doing what he did this season and in the postseason. (For the record, the Lakers have to be able to lean on more than just an inspired Bryant and a determined Metta World Peace with their season on the line.) But what he’s missed sitting in the middle of the storm is what the rest of us can see from the distance: these Lakers are who we all thought they were a year ago.
They finished this season as basically the same flawed bunch they were when Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and the Mavericks crushed them in the conference semifinals finals sweep.
So if, as Bryant suggested, it’s going to take a little time to process all of this before the Lakers’ brass (Jim Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak) get together and decide who stays and who goes, there needs to be a significant time set aside for reflection.