Red Auerbach had a saying when he was building championship-caliber Celtics teams as a coach and executive for 29 years:
“Never trust any plan that hinges on Jordan Hill.”
It was a remarkably forward-thinking slogan, considering Hill was not born when Auerbach gave up his general managing duties. Knowing Auerbach’s legendary foresight, though, it is not impossible to think he may have envisioned the 6-foot-10 forward out of Arizona, and the ill that would befall any team that bet too heavily on him.
If any team were going to break this totally made-up commandment, Auerbach would be happy it was the Lakers. With last week’s news that Hill will miss the rest of the season with a serious hip injury, the fundamental flaws present in this team’s roster construction from the very beginning were on full display.
Do not misunderstand. Losing Hill by itself does not doom the Lakers’ season, nor was he a drain on the team when healthy. This has less to do with Hill himself and everything to do with the absurd gamble taken by Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the Lakers’ front office from the get-go.
That Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash would miss time due to injuries is no surprise. Steve Blake being sidelined for up to three months is no shock, either. Building around aging or ailing stars is always risky, but there are ways to do it right. The Knicks, for instance, did not just sign a point guard in his late 30s to bolster their second unit — they went out and got two of them. They did not acquire a defensive-minded big man pushing 40 to back up Tyson Chandler — they picked up two of them. The Celtics, similarly, hedged their bets on Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett by building the best bench Boston has had in years. These teams recognized the reality inherent in their rosters’ construction: Players, particularly old guys, get hurt.
By contrast, the Lakers did none of this hedging. They traded for a center coming off major back surgery and, to back him up, they re-signed Hill, who had appeared in roughly 68 percent of all possible games in his three-year career. Adding to their negligence, the Lakers protected against any serious injury to Howard or Hill by signing … nobody of consequence.
So, even before Howard’s back started acting up or his shoulder went out of whack, the Lakers were on shaky ground. One significant injury, and their backup “big” was going to be 2012 second-round draft pick Robert Sacre or trade throw-in Earl Clark. (Antawn Jamison is not, and never has been, a “big.”) The Lakers did not get blindsided by the injury bug, as Jim Buss and others have tried to convince us. Their predicament is the predictable result of a plan that centered on unrealistic expectations for the ability of the human body to hold up under stress.
The plan was not only reliant upon the stars never getting hurt. The whole kit and caboodle depended on Hill — OK, the rest of the Lakers’ reserves, too — never getting hurt. The plan was built on hope.
There is already spin coming out of Los Angeles that Hill’s injury might end up working out. Heck, it opens the door for the Lakers to sign Kenyon Martin! Another 30-something guy to keep the athletic training staff busy! What could go wrong?
These sorts of roster realities are what make people so loathe to expect things to get better in Lakerland. Normally, no matter how dire matters looked, a team with Nash, Gasol, Howard and Kobe Bryant would inspire enough faith to keep everybody optimistic that things would be worked out.
This is not NBA Jam, though. In the real world, substitutions need to be made. Injuries happen. Eventually, those big names need some backup, and in most cases, the backups are going to need backup at some point, too. The Lakers apparently figured they would be immune to such realities, but they are finding out that they are not. Somewhere, Auerbach is lighting a cigar and smiling smugly.
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