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Holding Court – Time, injuries have blunted the Lakers

Bert A. Ramirez

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With the Lakers poised to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005, columnist Bert A. Ramirez analyzes the reasons why one of the league's premier teams is struggling this season

DOWN AND OUT. Kobe Bryant, seen injuring his achilles tendon last April, has been hobbled by injuries for the past year. Photo by Michael Nelson/EPA

MANILA, Philippines – The Los Angeles Lakers, arguably one of the two most illustrious franchises in NBA history – the other being the Boston Celtics – will not make the playoffs. The Lakers are simply too far behind at the back of the pack with a 20-39 record, which is tied with Sacramento for the worst mark in the Western Conference and for the fifth-worst in the entire league, to have any realistic chance of even having a cameo appearance in the postseason games.

This is a radical development indeed, as the Lakers are one team that has seldom missed the playoffs or posted a losing record. The last time the Lakers missed the playoff bus was in 2005 when they had their last losing mark of 34-48, just after Shaquille O’Neal, fed up with his ongoing feud then with Kobe Bryant, bolted to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. The Lakers have actually missed the playoffs only five times in their storied history while ending up a season with more losses than wins a total of 12 times in 66 years in the league.

If anybody thus told you before the season started that LA would fare like it has – even without Kobe Bryant who was recovering from a left Achilles tendon tear, and Dwight Howard who decided Hollywood and its accompanying distractions were not his cup of tea – you would at least have some doubts. After all, the club still had holdovers Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks, and added Nick Young, Chris Kaman, a returning Jordan Farmar and rookie Ryan Kelly to the rotation while awaiting the return of Bryant. Heck, even the oddsmakers in Las Vegas picked the Lakers to win some 40 games when the regular season ended.

True enough, the Lakers, while not spectacular, posted a respectable 10-9 record through games of December 6, or five weeks into the season. Then, Bryant defied what experts considered was a difficult injury to recover from to return for a home game against Toronto on December 8.

Kobe Bryant chews his jersey during a December game against the Toronto Raptors. The game marked his return to action in the 2013-14 season from injury. Photo by Paul Buck/EPA

The return, while then considered as risky, “shattered” the normal timetable according to the 35-year-old Bryant himself, who prided himself with being capable of doing “unprecedented” things as the American Journal of Sports Medicine had just published a study featuring data and analysis for 18 players who suffered major Achilles injuries from 1988-2011. The study found out that a complete rupture of the Achilles tendon and subsequent surgical repair, although rare, seriously affects the career of an NBA player. Of the 18 players identified over those 23 seasons, only 44 percent were able to return to play for longer than one season after their surgical repair, and those who did return to play more than two seasons “did not perform as well as their control-matched peers.”

Bryant did return earlier than expected, but instead of improving on their 10-9 record at that point, the Lakers lost four of the next six games that their spiritual leader played. Bryant averaged 13.8 points while shooting .425 from the floor as well as a career-high 6.3 assists as he pinch-hit at point guard with Nash also being bothered by an assortment of ailments, including nerve, leg and back problems.  But just nine days after his return to action, Bryant suffered a major setback when, in a 96-92 victory in Memphis, he hyperextended his left knee and learned that he fractured the lateral tibial plateau in the knee. He was declared out for the next six weeks.

The Lakers then went on a free fall shortly after that, losing 12 of their next 14 games, including an embarrassing 123-87 blowout against the Clippers – their biggest loss ever to their crosstown rivals – to fall to 14-25 on the season. They then lost seven straight contests to fall irretrievably farther back to 16-32.

Bryant, meanwhile, had his timetable on his latest injury revised. The Lakers examined Kobe on February 21, with the 16-time All-Star still experiencing pain, swelling and soreness in his knee, and they were set to reevaluate him after three weeks. But at this stage where LA is 19 games below .500, even Bryant himself must be thinking if prudence would be the greater part of valor.  Even if Bryant can actually play sometime in March or April, it would be foolish to risk another injury, or to aggravate the previous ones, just to improve the team’s record in a hopelessly lost campaign. The Lakers, in fact, have gone on record that they won’t push a return by Bryant this season.

“We’re not going to push him to get back,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said. “I don’t see why you would.  We’ve made a commitment to him for two more years, and I just don’t know why we’d do that (push him to come back). But if he feels he’s ready and he’s in shape and he gets the doctor’s approval, then there’s no reason why he couldn’t do that.”

The only motivation actually remaining for a Bryant comeback is the idea of giving potential free agents something to think about when choosing a new team, but what if Kobe fails to recapture his old form within that time span? And even that may have to take a backseat particularly if it jeopardizes the team’s chances of landing a top-five pick in what’s expected to be a loaded draft class, a prospect that even LA never thought it would have at the start of the season.

Bryant’s injuries actually capsulize the Lakers’ wretched injury luck, which is the primary reason they’re where they are now.  With Kobe, Nash (who actually turned 40 last February 7), Gasol, Blake (since gone to Golden State in a trade for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks) and Kaman all on the wrong side of 30, some of the injuries would have been easier to predict. Still, the more than 230 player games the Lakers missed due to injury as the season approached the end of February, the most by far in the league, couldn’t have been anticipated. The starting backcourt of Bryant and Nash alone has played a combined total of 16 games, with Bryant having missed 53 and Nash 49. That’s a puny return for the $39.8 million the Lakers have invested in the duo this year.  

Los Angeles Lakers forward Nick Young (R) and Atlanta Hawks guard Shelvin Mack battle for a loose ball during a December game. Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA

Other Lakers having missed a significant number of games are Farmar with 30, Xavier Henry (currently in the D-League) with 28, Kaman with 25, Blake (while with the team) with 15, and Gasol and Young with 10 each.

But age and injuries alone are not the only factors that have hampered the Lakers this season.  A rather offense-centric philosophy, which has been a trademark of teams coached by Mike D’Antoni, has also hurt the 16-time champions. Reflecting this lack of defensive moxie is the Lakers’ having allowed 106.5 points per game, which ranked 29th in the league and is only better than the sad-sack Philadelphia 76ers’ dead-last average of 111.1 points. The Lakers also ranked a poor 23rd in rebounds with a 41.8 clip while also ranking in the middle of the league in scoring at 14th with 101.1 points per outing.

The problems LA is going through, however, are not limited to the defensive side of the court either. Its remaining active All-Star on the floor, Gasol, has clashed with D’Antoni for what he feels is a “lack of discipline” in the way D’Antoni runs the Lakers’ offense. D’Antoni wants a running style employing a smaller lineup, while Gasol preferred to have a more disciplined approach where the players moved the ball and looked for the open man instead of going up-tempo all the time, a scheme where his own talent is not maximized. 

D’Antoni took Gasol to task for going public but the seven-foot center has made his point.  While a number of Lakers have compiled good numbers, like free-agent pickup Kendall Marshall who ranks second in the league in assists behind only Chris Paul with a 9.4 average, the Lakers are still just 23rd in offensive efficiency, which means it’s not working the way D’Antoni himself wants.

But D’Antoni is adamant. “We want a certain type of basketball, and we’re trying to establish that and we’re trying to put everything into it,” the Lakers’ headman said. “Clearly, the numbers say that when you spread the floor and move the ball and get up and down the floor, we have a lot better chance to win. That’s what we’re going to do.

“We want to establish our identity,” he continued.  “This is how we’re going to play and we’re going to get better at it and we’re going to push the ball and we’re going to evaluate talent and get better at it.  It’s frustrating some players, and I understand that obviously if you lose playing one way, let’s play the other way.  So you can get killed the other way.  We’re going by numbers, we’re going by feel, we want to establish an identity and we don’t want to be all over the board every night changing something up and matching up to other teams and then just grasping the straws.”

It’s clear, however, that the battle lines have been drawn between D’Antoni and Gasol, with Gasol finding an ally in Farmar, a key reserve on the Lakers’ 2009 and 2010 championship teams, who remembers how the Spaniard’s post presence contributed immensely to those championships.

“He’s one of the best players in the NBA. We have to use him to his strengths,” the former UCLA guard said. “We can’t just expect him to just play through the motions and figure it out.  So, playing through him, he’s a willing partner and once he starts going to work, guys start doubling and guys get more open shots. 

“It’s not always the solution, but we should have a healthy dosage of him. Just give him his touches.  He’s not going to shoot it every time.  He’s a very willing partner and a playmaker.”

Through 49 games in the campaign, Gasol has averaged a team-leading 17.1 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.51 blocks while norming 3.3 assists and shooting .476 from the floor and .750 from the stripes.  But this could be his last season with the Lakers, who pays him $19.3 million this year, and could opt to join younger brother Marc Gasol with his original team, the Memphis Grizzlies, when he becomes a free agent in July.

The Lakers, judging from the way they dangled the 33-year-old Gasol before the trade deadline, seem to have also put their trust in D’Antoni, thinking perhaps that the 62-year-old mentor can revive the club’s legendary “Showtime” in the new millennium.  But even the primary figure on those ‘80s teams, Magic Johnson, was critical of Lakers owner Jim Buss’ choice of D’Antoni as coach when Mike Brown couldn’t quite make the grade in 2012, saying Buss should have brought back Phil Jackson, who steered the Lakers to five more titles after Magic himself sparked them to five titles in the ‘80s. 

The former Laker superstar used to own a five percent stake in the Lakers but sold it to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a multi-billionaire and life-long Lakers fan, in 2010. Magic later led a group that bought Major League Baseball’s Dodgers for a staggering $2 billion in 2012.

With the playoffs out of reach, the Lakers are in for a massive rebuilding, with only three of the 19 players on their payroll, which include Bryant himself and Nash, still under contract. The Lakers currently have $77,363,178 in salaries on the roster, and with the NBA luxury tax threshold pegged at $71.7 million, are over that threshold by about $5.7 million.  This means they’re set to pay some $8.9 million in penalty tax. Including tax and amnesty, which they exercised by waiving Metta World Peace’s $7.7 million salary to reduce their cap hit while still paying it, the Lakers will spend almost $94 million for a team that’s not expected to win more than 30 games, if at all.

But Kupchak is undaunted, and he proved it by not making deals for the sake of a “salary dump” during the trade deadline if those didn’t have a sound basketball component, as his trade of Blake for Bazemore and Brooks indicated.  

“We accomplished one of our goals, which is to free up the backcourt a little bit so we can evaluate our ball-handling guards,” he said. “We want to look at young talent, which I think we did with Golden State. Our main goal is to look to the future, evaluate the players we have, maintain our flexibility during the offseason and improve this team.”

While the Lakers signed Bryant to a two-year extension worth $48.5 million last November, making it clear he’ll be part of the future whatever happens, they may not accord the same treatment to Gasol, or even Nash, for that matter.  The Lakers could in fact waive Nash so only $3.23 million of the $9.7 million he’s owed in his last year could count against their cap through the “stretch provision,” a provision in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that gives teams the ability to release a player while still paying the full extent of his salary.  This, however, would be done over twice the length of the remaining contract, plus one season.

In the end, the Lakers are not expected to get back into the circle of elite teams anytime soon, particularly if Bryant does not measure up to his old form and the Lakers do not land an impact player in the next draft in June.  It’s going to be a test of wills on the part of Laker management, and patience on the part of Bryant and whoever dons the purple and gold, as LA navigates the tricky path back to title contention. – 


Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.

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