LeBron James is playing like a man possessed and the Miami Heat have now won an incredible 22 games in a row. King James is building what could end up being the most impressive regular season stat line and overall performance in NBA history and the Heat are achieving a level of dominance that has pollsters pitting them against the entire field when it comes to predicting who will win the NBA title. Who do you got, Miami, or any other team in the NBA?
South Beach is figuratively on fire with all this damn Heat.
And yet, another team, and another star player, continue to be the real topic of conversation league-wide. The Los Angeles Lakers, the current eight seed in the Western Conference playoff picture, have been the topic du jour ever since Dwight Howard and Steve Nash both joined Kobe Bryant in the City of Angels this past off season. While I spoke on Dwight’s move to LA and what it meant for him and the league, I’ve been biding my time when it comes to letting out words on the Lakers as a whole.
There are a few reasons for this–I’ve been busy, writing about the Super Bowl seemed more important, I tend to take my time ranting and raving on the dominant sports story–but the biggest factor in my decision to stay quiet is that first and foremost, I’m a Lakers fan. Now I don’t get paid to do what I do here at Bo Jackson’s Hip, so I’m allowed to stay a fan first and writer second, but that can sure blur the line between objective reasoning and analysis and a rooting interest in my team’s success. I love Kobe, love LA, and behind Ohio State athletics and the Detroit Tigers, the Lakers are the most important team in sports for this writer. They’re one of my “we” teams and just like for the Lakers themselves, the 2012-2013 NBA season has been tough for me to handle and a lesson in managing expectations.
With all of the pre-season hype surrounding their big acquisitions and the ever-dominant presence of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers seemed poised to make a run at an NBA title this season. With Bryant, Howard, Gasol, and Nash, the team has at least three and perhaps four future hall-of-famers on its roster. Add in the man formerly known as Ron Artest, Metta World Peace, no slouch in his own right, and you’ve got what looked at the onset of the season like a team prepared to compete with the Spurs, Thunder, and Heat for the NBA crown. But then of course, the season actually started, and the Lakers began to crumble almost from the word “go”.
First things first, Dwight Howard’s back was still healing, so he wasn’t even close to 100%. Then, head coach Mike Brown decided to implement the if not obscure, certainly unexpected Princeton Offense, to the surprise of analysts, fans, and Laker players as well. The offense didn’t work, plain and simple, and the Lakers sent Mike Brown packing before his second season with the team even had a chance to get going. Next, the Lakers flirted with Zen Master Phil Jackson, perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history to replace Brown, only to spurn him at the last moment and sign Mike D’Antoni instead. The change was followed by a broken leg for Steve Nash, an abdominal injury for his back-up Steve Blake, and another key bench player, Jordan Hill being lost for the season.
Not to mention that when Dwight Howard’s back eventually started to look healthier, he suffered a torn labrum that coincided with Pau Gasol tearing his plantar fascia and landing on the injury report for 6 to 8 weeks. Gasol still isn’t back, but just as the Lakers seemed to be pulling things together and playing a bit more as a cohesive unit, Dahntay Jones decided to make a dirty play on Kobe Bryant, stepping underneath the Laker legend as he lifted up for a game-winning shot against the Atlanta Hawks. Reports were that Bryant would be out “indefinitely” with a “severely sprained” ankle and the one constant in LA would no longer be Bryant, but indeed, change.
Just look at all of that nonsense for a moment, will you? I know that excuses may be the refuge of cowards, but I do not feel like a callow apologist or craven Laker homer as I lay out the destabilizing run of vicissitudes that the men in purple and gold have had to endure this year. Did I mention that their owner died a couple weeks back as well? The owner who had been the heartbeat of the franchise since he arrived at the job and led the team to an NBA championship in his first year in the owner’s box? Dr. Buss’ departure from this mortal coil isn’t an on-court mishap like the others I’ve mentioned, it’s just another in the long line of bummers that my SoCal kids have had to battle through on their way to a playoff spot.
And that’s the other thing! Everyone is deriding the Lakers because they are barely in the playoff picture as of the date of this writing, but a lesser team, in other words, a team without Kobe Bean Bryant, would not even be sniffing the playoffs with this many injuries, this much instability on the coaching staff, and with the death of a front-office cornerstone (who I will admit, was ceding more and more control as his health failed him, but still...). I think it’s damn near heroic that the Lakers are in the playoff hunt in an incredibly competitive Western Conference where the top five teams, not to mention teams six through nine, are head and shoulders above their Eastern Conference counterparts (outside of Miami), considering the fact that the Staples Center has resembled a Korean War infirmary for most of the 2012-2013 season.
Just look at the numbers if you don’t believe me. Here are the games played for some of the key Laker players:
Pau Gasol: 36
Steve Nash: 42
Jordan Hill: 29 (won’t play another in 2012-2013 season)
Steve Blake: 29
Dwight Howard: 60
Kobe Bryant: 66
Metta World Peace: 65
That’s out of a possible 66 up until this point. So the only two starters that have been in the line-up all season are World Peace and Bryant, while the remainder of those players have all missed large chunks of games, and more importantly minutes on the court together with the other pieces of the Laker puzzle. Those injuries have overlapped in bad ways for the Lakers as well, and it seems like whenever one player returns, another goes down with injury. The impending return of Gasol coinciding with the injury to Bryant is only the latest example in this trend. And don’t be fooled by the “60” next to D-Howard’s name. Not one of those games has been played in perfect health, with that previously mentioned torn labrum only adding to his ailing back, rendering one of the league’s most impressive athletes and explosive talents a shell of his former self. It is only recently that Howard has begun to look more like the Superman of his days in Orlando, but he still plays through pain on a nightly basis.
My point is, as Onyx would say, “Bacdafucup”. If you want to say the criticism of the Lakers is warranted, that’s your prerogative and I wouldn’t completely disagree with you. But this notion that the Lakers are a disappointment because of some sort of lack of effort or refusal to play team basketball is downright offensive to me as a Laker fan first, but also as a fan with a fairly high basketball IQ second. I’m not Hubie Brown or Dr. Jack Ramsay over here, but I can certainly see why the Lakers have struggled, and am not only comfortable with where they are in the Western Conference playoff picture considering, but impressed that they haven’t slipped further down the western totem pole. And of course, there really is only one person to thank for all of this, and that’s the man that has been carrying the torch in LA for the last 17 seasons.
The Black Mamba, Vino, the ageless wonder. Call him whatever you or he likes, Kobe Bryant is putting together one of his most impressive individual performances in his long and illustrious career, 17 years into that amazing tenure in the NBA. He has not only met or surpassed career averages in nearly every statistical category, but has carried a team that wanted to fall of his back at every turn, and when defeat seemed likely, or a playoff spot beyond reach, has performed at a level that can only be called transcendent. I tweeted it a few games back, when Kobe single-handedly beat the Toronto Raptors down the stretch in Los Angeles with a dizzying array of impossible three-point shots, emphatic slam dunks and jaw-dropping offensive moves: LeBron James may well be the best player in the NBA, but Kobe Bryant is the greatest player in the league.
That might seem like a murky distinction, but it isn’t. The truth is that no one on planet earth, including LBJ, could have done what Bryant did that evening against the Raptors. He willed his team to victory in a way that blasts that cliché back to the stone age and hit pressure-packed shot after pressure-packed shot when a miss would have almost certainly meant a loss. Watch the highlight and tell me you aren’t impressed.
I’ve been watching Kobe for years now, just like any NBA fan, but with a closer if not keener eye as a Laker fan. Does that make me biased? Maybe, but what it really does is help me put into perspective what exactly he has done this season. The man has played better than I have ever seen him play. His shot is as consistent as it’s ever been, he is spreading the ball around at a clip that is among his career-best, and has physically looked better than he has in years. While the basketball gods seemed determined to poison this season for the Lakers, the Black Mamba ironically doesn’t seem to believe in a snake-bitten 2012-2013 campaign. He plays basketball better than anyone I have ever watched outside of a certain man by the name of Jordan–another shooting guard you may have heard of–and is proving this season more than any other in his incredible career that he is among the best to ever dribble a basketball on an NBA court.
Right now, we have no idea how much time Kobe is going to miss with his ankle sprain (though that “little black box” thing doesn’t bode well...), but given his super-human ability to slough off injuries that would sideline a man with a lesser commitment to excellence, it won’t take anything away from what he has done thus far. He has kept a team together that seems destined to fall apart, and refuses to believe in the idea of a wasted season. The main reason being, he knows he doesn’t have very many seasons left. It would be easy for KB and the Lakers to admit that this is a train wreck of a season, put their effort on cruise control, and take the off-season to heal and regroup for 2013-2014. But we all know he won’t do that. He’ll come back, and in all likelihood lead a team that, despite their myriad talents, wouldn’t make it to the playoffs without his efforts. Beyond that, who really knows what will happen. A low seed in the Western Conference doesn’t seem like any way to make it to the conference finals, let alone the NBA Finals, but as I have said before, a man who doubts greatness does so at his own peril.
The Lakers may seem like a disappointment, but to this fan, they are anything but. They are an example of what a team, and more impressively so, a single player, can do when faced with an unreasonable level of hype and expectation is compounded by a slew of season-changing injuries, yet still finds a way to win. The near future seems uncertain for the Lakers but I do know one thing for sure: nobody, not the Spurs, the Clippers, Grizzlies, Thunder, et al want LA to pull things together out west before the playoffs start. They’re too talented a team to overlook if they actually can get healthy and finally play defense as a unit, and they have the greatest player in the league leading their unlikely charge into the post-season.
Nothing about this year has been ideal for the Lakers, but that’s a life lesson we’ve all learned by now. You can’t wait for the perfect set of circumstances to try and get things done, you just have to play the hand dealt you and push your chips into the pot when it’s all on the line. I’m just glad I’ve got the steady hand of Kobe Bryant and the high-card Laker line-up to ride into the playoffs with. The rest of the league might not be worried just yet, but when it comes time to ante up, we’ll see who folds and who makes the big call up against the purple and gold.