The only thing more frustrating than watching the Los Angeles Lakers these days is trying to write anything definitive about them. Every assertion seems to boomerang back and to crack the profaner square in the sternum. “The Lakers are, literally speaking, one of the weakest teams still in the Western playoff picture” is immediately countered by “but they’ll probably end up as one of the top two teams in the world.” This method of observation is self-negating and seems to render conclusive statements meaningless.
But we don’t really have any choice.
Blame the Lakers’ greatest rival, the Boston Celtics, for this situation. The way the Boston played possum for two-thirds of the season then roared to life like an enraged phoenix, dousing the Eastern conference and prognosticators alike in vengeful flames for our insolence. Now everyone’s afraid that the Lakers, with their tremendous size and clutch reputation, will do the same.
We are forced to choose between present and historical performance as our guide.
But these Lakers are not last year’s Celtics. The 2009-10 Celtics began the season at an electric 24-5 pace before injury, not complacency, derailed the beatdown express. These Lakers began well against the groveling serfdom of the NBA, but have been only one game over .500 since their 13-2 start.
As John Hollinger points out, were the Lakers to win a championship, given their start it would be the biggest surprise since the 1977-8 Bullets. Yet he also assures that “absolutely nobody is ready to write off the Lakers just yet. We’re not even to the point of sharpening pencils.” Exactly. We’re just draining the ink from our metaphorical pens until the end of the regular season.
The emergent problems with Kobe and Pau are sundry and scary, but the fact that Derek Fisher and Ron Artest are both comfortably on the negative side of season plus-minus and Steve Blake looks like a husk of his caterpillar state self is equally unnerving. If the Heat’s Yuletide romp over the defending champs showed anything, it’s that Kobe isn’t better than Wade or LeBron, and the Lakers are going to need a supreme team effort to come out of this season with a third straight chip. That was also the case last year, when their outstanding team defense smothered the Celtics in games six and seven of the finals.
How one describes this year’s Lakeshow really comes down to contractions: can’t or don’t.
Is it that the Lakers don’t run due to minor injuries and energy conservation tactics, or that their old, wobbling legs can’t create easy buckets? Is it that Kobe can’t carry them to victory as he once could, or is it that he’s valiantly trying to, err, kick start an offense that couldn’t unravel the Grizzlies’ slightly above average defense? Has Phil Jackson descended into some wild Zen meditation dimension that reveals his crunchtime offense will only work as long as his team prevents Pau Gasol from touching the ball, or is he just taking losses to prove a point?
Like in the movies, we assume coach knows best and expect that the hero will always rise with 12 minutes left to save the day.
Perhaps our faith in the Phil and Kobe’s powers of resuscitation rests more on our distrustful evaluation of San Antonio, Dallas, Oklahoma City and Utah, who all have records equal to or better than LA (fine, the Thunder have one more loss). I guess disregard the latter three because of recent postseason ineptitude. When it comes to the final challenges, they are undersized, overmatched and outfoxed.
Then what the 48 minutes of hell about the Spurs? At 29-4, they’re the class of the Western Conference by a significant margin, having spanked the Thunder, Jazz, Hornets, Trail Blazers, and Lakers by double digits.
But Duncan is old, you say. And Manu and Tony Parker are, well, as foreign to this country as efficient fourth quarter offense has recently been to the Lakers. I’m pretty sure the mere existence of Gary Neal is also influencing opinion.
Just remember that the Manu-Tony-Timmy core has won just as many rings as the Kobe-Pau tandem, albeit not as recently.
So let me be the first to emphatically invite a dripping, crow-stuffed humble pie to the face: the Lakers are cooked. They’re done. Get out the walkers! There’s no way this team is contending for a title come June.
Unless, you know, last season’s strange history repeats itself, in which case these 82 games appear an extended preseason.
Either way, I told you so.