For the 2nd straight year, the Los Angeles Lakers fell short in the Western Conference Semifinals. And also for the 2nd straight year, the vast majority of fans and the media have labeled it as a disappointing season. Out of all the teams going fishing so far, I’ve never heard so many names being thrown around as possible scapegoats than the Lakers. People think they know who to blame (for the most part, Pau Gasol), but they don’t seem to fully understand how much adversity has affected this team’s chances of contending for a title.
All things considered, the Lakers have overachieved this season. Since the offseason, there was a series of team chemistry-crushing events that make me wonder why anybody expected them to win a championship. First, their offseason turmoil last summer was overshadowed by that of the Orlando Magic with the Dwight Howard debacle. After being swept by Dallas in last year’s playoffs, the Lakers did almost nothing to improve their team. In fact, they took about five steps back over the course of the season. Considering their lack of chemistry with this particular roster and style of play, current or incoming players that did not meet expectations, or uncertainty with the roster as well as coaching staff and general disarray, the Lakers should consider themselves lucky for getting this far.
That being said, let’s break down the top three reasons why the Lakers fell short this year.
1. Instability of the team caused by the front office and coaching staff
The quality of roster management of this team has been shaky at best, and the trade rumors didn’t help matters there. Star bigs Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum dealt were involved in trade rumors virtually all season. In fact, Gasol was almost shipped as part of the Chris Paul trade that David Stern eventually nixed – something that many seem to think would have made them serious title contenders had Stern not rejected it. Since last season, Bynum has been in trade rumors involving Dwight Howard. Clearly, the trades made (as well as the trade talk) affected the chemistry of the team. Even when Kobe Bryant pleaded to GM Mitch Kupchak to make up his mind on the trade rumors – particularly with Gasol – in an attempt to establish some stability for the team, Kupchak and the Laker management continued to keep the team in a state of limbo. Even Derek Fisher – a staple of the Lakers’ success over the years and one of Kobe’s best friends – was sent packing.
A lack of cohesion can be blamed on the coaching staff, as well. On several segments of the ESPN/ABC studio show, I heard Magic Johnson make several critical comments about Mike Brown and his inability to make in-game adjustments. He emphasized the fact that this has hindered Brown’s playoff success in years past with Cleveland, as well. While I don’t disagree with that, people do need to understand how different his system is than that of his predecessor, Phil Jackson. The Lakers got very accustomed to Jackson’s triangle offense, and Kobe and Gasol absolutely flourished in that system that helped them get to three NBA Finals (and winning two of them). Talk about big shoes to fill. Adjusting to a new system takes time. But at the same time, Brown had to realize that he did not have the personnel to run his pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop schemes. Bynum and Gasol were vastly underutilized throughout the season, despite the two of them being a matchup advantage for the Lakers on a nightly basis.
2. Pau Gasol got fed up
As I mentioned, there has been a lot of misplaced finger pointing going on. One of the biggest scapegoats, of course, is Pau Gasol. Now, because of how badly people underestimate Gasol’s impact as a Laker, allow me to take the time to defend him. Since STEALING him from Memphis in 2009 (which was quite possibly the most lopsided and shadiest trade in NBA history), the Lakers have had a 70%+ winning percentage with Gasol. In their two championship runs in 2009 and 2010, he outplayed many of the league’s premier power forwards and centers in crucial playoff games (Amare Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Carlos Boozer, Dwight Howard, and Nene to name a few), even after being universally labeled “soft” in his first season as a Laker in 2007-08. He became arguably the best two-way big man in the league, and is one of the few top talents that don’t mind playing with Kobe (at least until now). Being in the shadow of Kobe, his impact has been vastly underrated, and is one of the most underrated true team players on a championship team that I can remember.
That being said, Gasol obviously had a subpar and inconsistent year. But before you go on blaming him, there are many reasons why Gasol’s play has suffered this season. First and foremost is the coaching situation, as described above. He thrives in the post – not running pick-and-roll offenses 20+ feet from the basket. The second major factor why Gasol is so jaded was the aforementioned nixed trade for CP3. You saw how Lamar Odom, who was in the same trade, reacted – he was distraught to the point where LA had to dump him to Dallas for basically nothing. Gasol, on the other hand, maintained his professionalism throughout the season, despite continuing to be in trade rumors and being called out by fans (and sometimes his teammates…and by his teammates, I mean Kobe – more on that below). When the trade for CP3 got nixed, I thought it was a blessing in disguise, as the Lakers front court depth would have suffered severely without him. In the end, why he constantly seems get blame and a lack of appreciation is beyond me.
Let’s go back to Kobe for a second. We all admire his drive and competitiveness, and the fact that he’s almost 34 and is stillarguably somehow one of the top 5 players in the league (I was talking to a coworker, a Laker fan, about this: he’s only a year younger than KG and is the same age as Jermaine O’Neal – yet we consider the latter two to be much, much older). But this season, not unlike other seasons, he has made several team-dividing comments. When Kobe publicly criticized Gasol for his play in Game 4, TNT’s Charles Barkley couldn’t help but say that Kobe should have been the one to blame for his atrocious shot selection; the Lakers were up handily in that game, and Kobe went away from throwing the ball into Gasol and Bynum and took several contested long jumpers. In the waning moments of Game 5, even with the game out of hand, Kobe was expressing a constant visible frustration toward Gasol on several plays where it appeared the two were not on the same page. Let’s not forget that this is not the last time he has called out his teammates and refused to shoulder any blame – I will never forget when he completely quit on his team in two very important games: Game 7 vs. Phoenix in the first round of the 2006 playoffs, and Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals vs. Boston. As much praise as Kobe gets for his freakish durability, high level of play and intense competitiveness, instances like these can help one understand why many players don’t like playing with him. I think he’s been extremely overcritical of Gasol, and I don’t think Gasol wants to play another possession with Kobe.
Because of these issues Gasol has had this season with both the front office and Kobe, I think he’s gone this offseason. He’s sick of being in trade rumors, and he’s sick of being called out and blamed. And when he does get traded, hopefully he will be in a system more conducive to his strengths. Maybe then he will get the recognition as an elite player that he deserves.
3. The supporting cast was terrible
The issues went deeper than just the star players. The Lakers’ supporting cast was among the worst of the league over the season (their bench was DEAD last in scoring this season). Ron Artest, Steve Blake, Ramon Sessions, and Matt Barnes proved not to be effective enough to put the Lakers over the top. Changes to the roster over the course of the season proved not to be very constructive, either. Two vital pieces to their 09 and 10 championship runs – Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher – were no longer there. When they acquired Ramon Sessions from Cleveland, I was suspicious that he would provide the same impact as Derek Fisher. Early on, he seemed to be on track to proving me wrong (12.7 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.2 rebounds in 30.5 mins per game as a Laker). But after a horrible postseason (9.7 points, 3.6 assists, and 3.0 rebounds a game), the Lakers have to wonder if they should have got rid of Fisher, who is now in a position to win a title NOT in a Laker uniform.
Before the playoffs even started, Artest didn’t help matters after earning a seven-game suspension for elbowing James Harden into a concussion. His absence made the Lakers already-thin bench even worse, and was a big reason why LA even struggled closing out Denver in the first round. In my opinion, they were very fortunate to even advance past them; if Blake didn’t catch fire in Game 7, the Lakers could have gone home much earlier. Other than Jordan Hill, the Laker role players were a disappointment.
What should the Lakers do?
With Kobe making $30 million next year, there is not much that LA can do in free agency. Their best move would be to throw Bynum and whoever else Orlando wants (other than Kobe) for Dwight Howard. But then, you would have to look at the coaching situation. If LA gets Howard, is Mike Brown the right coach for them? He failed to find ways to get two of the league’s best post players to get consistent touches. Howard had issues with his Orlando teammates for not getting the ball enough; how do you think he will like Brown’s offensive schemes?
Some have gone as far as to say the Lakers should consider amnesty’ing Kobe. As much as I blame him for having an adverse psychological affect on his teammates, I still think waiving him is an extreme. Of all players on the team, he is the one lock to remain in a Laker uniform.
I know this is never gonna happen, but LA and Orlando should make the first ever head coach trade. I honestly think both teams would be better off.
Ultimately, the Lakers’ failures have been a result of a lack of chemistry – from the front office to the coaches, and to the players as well. The fact that they were a few breaks away from possibly being in a position to make the Conference Finals is nothing short of amazing. I expect a major overhaul over the offseason, with Kobe being the lone guaranteed Laker next season.