HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Happy New Year, Mike D’Antoni. A”We Want Phil” chant, however silly, percolated through Staples Center in L.A. on Tuesday as the glamorous-turned-anonymous Lakers faded to black again in an ugly loss to the now seven-win Milwaukee Bucks.
Total bummer of a New Year’s Eve party.
Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, of course, wouldn’t touch this sinking M*A*S*H unit with a bionic-kneed Andrew Bynum. At this point, any talk of the league’s worst teams has to include the purple and gold, who are 13-19, have lost six in a row (half of those by an average of 17 points) and show no sign of snapping back any time soon.
How could they snap back? Consider D’Antoni’s starting five in the 94-79 loss to Milwaukee: Jordan Farmar (who tore his left hamstring in the game and will miss a month), Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Shawne Williams and Pau Gasol. His available bench was limited to: Jordan Hill, Ryan Kelly, Kendall Marshall, Robert Sacre and Chris Kaman (who has fallen so far he couldn’t even get in the game).
Look at it this way: These unidentifiable Lakers are closer to last-place Utah than to eighth-place Dallas in the Western Conference standings. That gap will either shrink or grow Friday night when the Lakers welcome the Jazz (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) — who, ahem, just beat L.A. in Salt Lake City a week ago.
When these two teams meet Friday, the most exciting player on the floor just might be Utah rookie point guard Trey Burke, who’s quietly making a major move in the Rookie of the Year race. No offense to the impressive Burke, but that’s how far the mighty Lakers have plummeted: A rookie on the opposing team — a team with 10 wins — is the most exciting player on the floor.
With Dwight Howard in Houston after turning his back on the Lakers in free agency, Kobe Bryant on the sidelines again with a fractured knee, Steve Nash still plotting some way to get back on the floor and Pau Gasol sniffling through recurring physical and emotional trauma, the Lakers’ star power is flickering like a faulty neon sign.
The Clippers, once known as the “other” L.A. team, are another story altogether.
We may never truly understand all the reasons that prompted outgoing commissioner David Stern, acting as the de facto head of the league-owned New Orleans Hornets two years ago, to veto the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade.
(Stern said in a statement shortly after the December 2011 trade that he nixed it “in the best interests of the Hornets” and that he decided, without influence from other owners, that “the team was better served with Chris in a Hornets uniform than by the outcome of the terms of that trade.”)
But by now, we certainly grasp how drastically that decision altered both franchises’ outlooks. Remember, the Lakers thought they had Kobe’s future sewn up: CP3 in a deal that shipped out Gasol and Lamar Odom, followed by getting Dwight in a deal for Bynum. It’s hard to imagine a Kobe-CP3-D12 trio going up in flames like last season’s Howard-Kobe-Nash gathering did. Or like this season’s team has. The Lakers were 10-9 without Kobe to start this season and have gone 3-10 since his brief return and subsequent exit.
The Clippers (22-12) haven’t been nearly as consistent as coach Doc Rivers would like. But they are fourth in the West playing without injured sharpshooter J.J. Redick. They have won seven of their last 10. They’ll try to move 11 games over .500 Friday night at Dallas (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).
Off the court, the Clippers have been even better. Every second commercial on TV has Paul selling insurance with his equally assisting faux-twin brother Cliff, or a white-caped Blake Griffin saving us all from buying a lame automobile.
Meanwhile, the best news about the Lakers, off the court, is what they’re trying to do to fix their on-court woes. They are paying about $6 million more in payroll this season than their co-tenants, with close to $50 million wrapped up in Kobe and Gasol. The rest of the roster accounts for nearly $30 million. It’s why a rumored Gasol-for-Bynum swap with the Cleveland Cavaliers — followed by waiving Bynum — would be so attractive to Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. It would wipe out millions in salary and costly luxury tax from the Lakers’ 2013-14 slate.
Whether that happens or not won’t change the Lakers’s fortunes any time soon. They’ll still be the talk of L.A. They are, after all, still the Lakers.
But until further notice, the star-studded Clips carry the bigger stick.