When the conversation regresses from “Can they win the title” to “Can they make the playoffs,” you get a pretty good idea of how crummy the state of the Lakers is right now.
They’re interesting to watch for all the wrong reasons, fighting for relevancy when they were supposed to continue a legacy, and now they run the risk of being a total box-office stink bomb. They were so bad the other day against Oklahoma City that Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler left early -- Hollywood walking out well before the credits rolled, the ultimate thumb-your-nose by an entertainment town.
Is there such thing as a reality disaster show? If so, it’s playing at the Staples Center whenever the Clippers aren’t there, and who could’ve imagined this back in August? The Lakers are 16-21, a record that received a bump when they bravely delivered a must-win against the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers! In early January!
And now we’re left to try to make sense of it all, to apply some perspective to a situation that defies logic, to figure out why Jack didn’t cut them no slack, and to explain how the Lakers can still salvage the season and make the playoffs.
Whoa. Did that last nugget soar over your head like a football over a Broncos’ defensive back? Lakers? Playoffs? This season? Surely right now you’re asking: Did this guy find some untouched peyote that Phil Jackson left behind from a few years ago?
Let us be very clear about this. The odds of the Lakers saving face and doing an about-face are very, very, Jenny Craig-slim. The circumstances and the facts are quite cold and harsh and don’t portray a promising picture for the Lakers, who dug themselves a deeper hole than Lance Armstrong. Here’s what they’re looking at:
Going into Tuesday’s game with the Bucks, the Lakers are five games under .500 and sitting 11th in the West, three spots away from the final playoff position. Assuming 47 wins will give them a reasonable chance at the playoffs, they must go 32-14 here on out, winning more than twice as many as they lose.
The Lakers are 0-7 against the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs and Grizzlies, the top four in the West, and must play those teams seven more times.
Their final four games are against the Blazers, Warriors, Spurs and Rockets, and the Lakers could conceivably be fighting two or three of those teams for a final spot.
Pau Gasol has missed 12 of the team’s 37 games with concussion and knee issues and his averages are across-the-board career-lows, along with his psyche and perhaps his trade value.
Coach Mike D’Antoni hasn’t solved the Lakers’ defensive riddle -- you’re shocked about this, I can tell -- and the Lakers are giving up more points than all but four teams.
The Lakers are 5-12 on the road, and 10 of their next 15 games are away from Staples, creating the potential for doom to settle in right around the All-Star break.
Sounds depressing for the Lakers, sure. But not impossible to overcome. Stranger things have happened. Well, OK, maybe not. Still, in a best-case scenario, not only can the Lakers make the playoffs, they can climb as high as the seventh seed and even get beyond the first round.
For that to happen, everything must fall in place for this team, and immediately, and the Lakers must realize they’ve already used up their margin for error. D’Antoni said as much recently when he announced that the season started Sunday, meaning the win over Cleveland, a statement both silly and sound.
“We realize it’s important to make up ground now,” said Steve Nash, as the Lakers wisely adopt the “look ahead, not behind” approach to the final 45 games. The sense of urgency has finally smacked them in the face and the Lakers realize that for them, the playoffs start three months early. It’s all hands and hamstrings on deck regarding a season that’ll collapse under the weight of another losing streak.
If the turnaround happens, here’s how:
Dwight Howard is finally, maybe, probably over his injuries. Nobody believes Howard is 100 percent, but he did look lively against the Cavs and says he never felt better as a Laker. Howard realizes, injury or not, his status in the league is slipping. He might be the game’s best center by default, since the position has never been weaker, but a franchise player? Howard needs to re-confirm this, and that only happens if he’s giving double-doubles and playing like he wants the Defensive Player of the Year trophy back.
Kobe Bryant is having a terrific season. This has been buried under the avalanche of negativity, but the Mamba is scoring 30 a game and shooting 47 percent. Yes, he’ll need to share the load now that Howard is back, and he can’t treat his teammates like Smush Parker, but if that’s what it’ll take, figure Kobe will do it. His championship clock is ticking. He’s not behaving like he’s 27 anymore, just playing like it.
Nash vows to control the ball and deliver it better, now that he has a sharper idea of how to feed Howard and where to find his teammates. Remember, Nash has only played 13 games, not enough time to expertly learn everyone’s tendencies. His role and his level of play can only rise in the second half of the season (though the same is not true of his defense, alas).
Gasol should only miss another game or two as he recovers from the concussion he suffered last week. He can’t get any worse on the court, can he? Nash said his priority is getting Gasol more involved offensively, a clear message to D’Antoni that the coach must do the same.
The Lakers will likely fight the Blazers, Rockets, Jazz and Timberwolves for the final two spots. All of those teams have warts, just not displayed as spectacularly as the Lakers’. The Rockets lead the Lakers by four games but have lost three straight; they play Tuesday against the Clippers and then start a four-game road trip, and their defense is even worse than the Lakers’. The Blazers are a bundle of unpredictability and lean heavily on their starters and their rookie point guard; how much longer can that hold up? Utah is a fickle team, not good enough to be totally taken seriously, not bad enough to fade from view. And Minnesota will be without Kevin Love for the next month at least and, therefore, dead meat.
Strictly from a talent standpoint, the Lakers have an edge on the teams they’re chasing, none of whom are threatening to distance themselves from mediocrity the way, say, the Warriors have.
If the Lakers do make the playoffs, then they’ll only get there by playing better than most of the NBA -- and hot teams are usually rewarded in April and May.
“I’m an optimist,” said D’Antoni. “I think we can play well enough to win. I do. I think it can happen.”
So, there you go. The Lakers are on the verge of being fully healthy, Kobe is feeling frisky, Howard is getting serious and the teams fighting for the lower seeds are eminently beatable. Jim Buss, who built this masterpiece, says the Lakers are ready to make a move. D’Antoni likes what he hears and sees. There’s really only one way to go.
Therefore: Don’t you get the hunch that something special is about to happen? That the turnaround is around the corner? That the Lakers are ready to move beyond a dreadful start and find a way to keep Jack nailed to his seat this time? Don’t you? Don’t you?
Yeah. Me neither.