You can’t kick dirt in their grave if they’re not dead yet, but in your modern sportswriting biz, we like to cover all eventualities just in case, starting with the most spectacular.
It doesn’t come more spectacular than the Lakers, who now resemble a centuries-old redwood toppling over, picking up speed as it goes.
I’ve been fortunate to have covered these guys for the better part of 20 years.
Aside from being great most of the time, they were gourds most of the time, managerially as well as on the player level (it’s not every team whose coach lives with the owner’s daughter and publicly zings the owner’s son) and more fun that a barrel of inmates.
The wacko days actually ended circa 2007, after Kobe Bryant came down from the orbit he’d gone into, when he demanded to be traded.
After that, there was nothing like the good old days, like training camp in 2003 when newly arrived Gary Payton and Karl Malone assured us that Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal would stop sniping at each other in the papers, after which Kobe went home and announced through Jim Gray that Shaq was a malingerer, a fake leader, a fake friend, etc.
In a crushing blow, Kwame Brown left in 2007. How do you replace someone who capable of hitting a fan in the face with a birthday cake on the sidewalks of El Segundo?
I bring this up because if the Lakers aren’t actually over, they’re in the greatest peril they’ve faced since trading Shaq and showing Phil the door in 2004, after which they went 34-48 and saw their new coach, Rudy Tomjanovich, light out over the hill in January, leaving his five-year, $30 million deal on the table.
At the time I thought they were dead and had only to fall into the hole waiting for them, with two first-round exits under Jackson in 2006 and 2007, Bryant blasting Jerry Buss and getting permission to put his own deal together days before the 2007-08 season.
Instead of blowing up into their constituent pieces, the Lakers made the NBA Finals as Andrew Bynum began to happen and Pau Gasol arrived from Memphis. The Celtics rolled over them in 2008, but the Lakes came back to win in 2009 and 2010.
Turning this team around wouldn’t seem to require a miracle of the same order with Bryant, now a Laker lifer, alongside Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
Except, as Bryant said last week as they fell to 17-23, “It’s not working,”
Seldom do things not work as definitively as this Lakers team. They don’t score, or spread the floor, or do anything like a Mike D’Antoni team – except on defense.
“Who says there is one?” I said.
There damned sure are no easy ones.
If trading Gasol seemed to be the obvious move, there isn’t a lot they can get for a 31-year-old, making $19 million this season and next, with a 15 percent trade kicker.
Besides, the Lakers apparently figured out, what happens if Dwight leaves?
Lakers fans and officials have yet to fall in love with Howard, coming off back surgery and hardly the force he was in Orlando.
Despite reports of trouble between Kobe and Dwight, the problem isn’t what has happened but what hasn’t. If there has been no sign of trouble, there’s also no sign there has been any bonding.
Dwight, of course, will – finally – be a free agent. So a disappointing season (like the one the Lakers have had), and a bad season personally (like the one he’s having) with a new role as non-focal-point (like Monday in Chicago where he scored eight points and complained “I can’t do what I do with five shots”) and less-than-heartfelt acceptance, and he could be on the road again.
And another disappointing season in 2013-14 when Kobe’s deal runs out might do it for him.
Bryant has been every inch a leader in recent seasons, going so far as to tweet a picture of a brick wall after shooting 10-for-32 in Toronto on Sunday, blaming himself for recent losses.
Nevertheless, when asked last week if he could take this for two more seasons, he burst out laughing.
“Noooo!”” he said. “I’m optimistic but I’m realistic.”
What to do?
One scenario you hear a lot about is trading Dwight to his hometown of Atlanta, with the Hawks clearing cap space to pursue him, for Josh Smith, who’s on an expiring deal.
If it’s really out there, I’d do it in a heartbeat, assuming the Lakers still have one.
If it’s not out there, the Lakers will have to figure out Plan B, or pray.
Or maybe Plan B is prayer.
If it won’t take a miracle to turn them around this season or next, it’ll take some fancy footwork soon.
On to the rankings.