Nothing that happens before Christmas really matters in the NBA, at least based on the favored-nation status that holiday held with the league back in December 2011, when the lockout ended and a truncated season began ‘neath the warm glimmer of tiny lights and pretty ornaments.
The problem with that thinking is, the Los Angeles Lakers still are in trouble.
If we set aside all the hand-wringing and knee-jerk reactions, from both inside and outside the Lakers organization, over the first eight weeks of 2012-13 and cut them slack for the panic firing of coach Mike Brown and botched replacement process that landed Mike D’Antoni while offending backers of Phil Jackson, one hard truth remains: They’re no better now than they were two months ago.
Six games into this ballyhooed season, the Lakers were 2-4. They were both Brown-less and, thanks to injury, Steve Nash-less by then.
Six games from the NBA’s “unofficial” opening-day of Christmas, the Lakers are 2-4. They still look clueless to many for ways to salvage this most disappointing season.
One possibility? Tamp down the expectations, which started out ridiculously, 70-plus victories high prior to training camp before being dampened in November and December. Might as well dampen them further, with only 60 percent of the schedule left to limit any dramatic change.
It’s time to do what any rational tavern owner would do if the national drinking age suddenly were changed to 6 years old. It’s time to lower the bar.
That’s what ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin wrote about in the wake of the Lakers’ home loss to Denver Sunday night. This group that was going to shove aside the Miami Heat come June either has been beaten into relative ordinariness in its ambitions or it is trying to alleviate pressure by aiming at an achievable goal. Here’s McMenamin quoting D’Antoni after L.A. slipped to 15-18:
“…Yeah, there’s concern. The hole’s not too big. Mathematically, we can still make the playoffs. We just got to figure out our identity and play better. We’re just not playing well.”
The Lakers are in 11th place in the West and three games behind Portland for the eighth and final playoff spot.
“The West is difficult,” Steve Nash said. “We got to find a way to win 45, 46, 47 games. The window is closing.”
The Lakers would have to go 30-19 the rest of the way to achieve the minimum amount of games that Nash mentioned.
Whoa! All of 30-19? That’s a heady .612 pace that, over a full season, would have the Lakers up in nosebleed territory of 50 victories.
And that is a little bit of sarcasm, because the delusions had been so much more grand.
Harsh reality is setting in at every corner of Lakersland.
- You figured Nash might wind up as the team’s fourth- or fifth-highest scorer. But down there at 10.2 points per game? Nash hasn’t scored that little since 1999-2000, his fourth season in the league. But he’s a month shy of 39 now and that might be as good as it gets.
- Kobe Bryant? He remains solution rather than problem. But every day this lingers, every game Bryant has to do more to make up for others — and the sum — doing less, he gets a little older, a little quicker. Like the rest of them.
- The Pau Gasol rumors are flaring again, sure to catch fire as the Feb. 21 trade deadline nears.
- Speaking of trades, GM Mitch Kupchak told a group of 1,000 season-ticket holders he’s “disappointed” in the team’s performance. Kupchack cited the Lakers’ defense in his talk with the fans, but didn’t address any potential roster changes.
- Dwight Howard’s back remains a red flag and his right shoulder is an even greater concern at the moment. Howard aggravated his already sprained rotator cuff in the loss to the Nuggets, McMenamin reported, and was scheduled for an MRI exame Monday morning. The Lakers face back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday at Houston and San Antonio.
- The rotation is in shambles, with Metta World Peace moved from starter to reserve and forgotten Antawn Jamison pining for a move to Charlotte. D’Antoni was quoted by the Los Angeles Times Sunday: ”The hardest problem is figuring out who can play — who I’m comfortable with, who I’m not. … I’ve kind of gone through the gamut. I’ve tried everything and usually you do that in September, October and half of November, even December, to try to get it straight. I haven’t got it straight yet.”
- The defense is equally troublesome. The Lakers’ defensive rating of 106.6 ranks 21st in the NBA. They’re allowing teams to shoot 44.7 percent from the field and 36.1 from 3-point range and they’re 29th in defensive turnover percentage (12.3).
The performance at that end, always an issue with D’Antoni-coached teams, had longtime Lakers beat man Kevin Ding invoking more Zen Master memories in the Orange County Register:
Hmm, Jackson never had the speediest or youngest Lakers teams, but they got back on defense well enough to win most of the time. The key was floor balance provided by Jackson’s two-guard front in that triangle offense, which would set the Lakers up at all times with two perimeter players positioned to get back on defense – and not, for example, ask Gasol to be someone he simply is not and never was before: the first guy back on defense.
The repeated image of Gasol on worn-down legs, giving maximum effort in straining just to remember to get back and then chasing with full sprint behind some faster Denver big man as if the guy had just swiped the keys to Pau’s Porsche …
Taken together, all of the above have swiped the keys to the Lakers’ championship swagger, at least for now. Porsche? This is a team playing at a Prius level right now.