We do not come to bury the Lakers. We do not quite come to praise them, either.
Now that everyone knows the Lakers are not going to go 82-0,
the most popular NBA parlor game has become dismissing their championship hopes
entirely. To be sure, their start has been awful, both on paper and on the court. Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard entered the season with
injuries concerns and now Steve Nash has joined them. It was not a good start
for the projected title favorites.
How quickly people forget, though. Just as quickly as a team
can be crowned champion in the preseason -- from these Lakers to the 2010 Heat
to the 1996 Rockets and many more teams before that -- a team can just as
quickly be shelved well before a playoff game is ever played. Remember when
everybody absolutely knew that Dirk Nowitzki would never win a ring because he
choked in the clutch? Remember when the Celtics shambled into last year's
All-Star break and fans clamored for a fire sale? We held those truths to be
self-evident, until they weren't.
The Lakers have problems. Anyone who watched them scuffle
through their first two games, getting visibly worse with each aborted
possession, recognizes that. Nash is a defensive liability when healthy and a
bruised left lower leg only compounds the problem. Bryant has no lift off
his strained right foot. Howard is still mostly dominant, but less
dominant than usual. Metta World Peace is a shell of himself. Pau Gasol looks
like a kid who finally got the birthday gift he has sought for so long, only to
realize his new toy is defective.
Skeptics are citing these factors as reasons the Lakers cannot
win a 17th NBA title. If all these things continue, they would indeed derail the
train, but to assume that these problems will continue for the next six months
shows a convenient ignorance of history. There are reasons they say, "It's
a long season."
To keep the examples from getting too obscure, let us limit
the conversation to last season.
The Spurs were unbeatable, storming into the playoffs with
a 26-6 record since the All-Star break. They won their first 10 playoff games
and Tim Duncan would not have been blamed if he had gotten prematurely fitted
for ring No. 5. Then, in the amount of time it takes Russell Westbrook to burst
down the lane for a dunk, Duncan and the Spurs lost four straight to the
LeBron James was a lost cause as of Feb. 26, 2012. Yes, we
know the exact date. We know it because that was the date of the 2012 NBA
All-Star Game, where James had the ball on the final possession with everyone
on both sides imploring him to seize the moment. Instead, he passed. That was
that. He was never going to win a championship, except he did.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were broken men. Fans could
almost hear Garnett's joints creaking and feel the ache in Pierce's heel. Rajon
Rondo was a menace to referees, his team and himself. The Celtics were 15-17 at
the All-Star break, and Pierce and Ray Allen were brought up in trade talks, although
how close each player came to being trade has been disputed. It was the end of
an era, until they went 24-20 down the stretch, pushed the eventual champion
Heat to seven games in the conference finals and re-signed Garnett for another
The Lakers' difficulties are no less debilitating than those
Celtics' and, unlike Boston last year, the Lakers have close to a full 82-game
season remaining in which to save themselves. For starters, Bryant needs to sit
and rest his strained right foot, pride be damned, so that the injury does not
continue to worsen and end up incapacitating him in the playoffs. After that,
it may be as simple as staying healthy, getting passable bench contributions
from Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake, and ultimately scrapping that
ill-applied Princeton offense in favor of one that balances Nash and Howard's
pick-and-roll abilities, Gasol and Howard's high-low post skills and Bryant's
psychological need to go rouge at least a half-dozen times per game.
The Lakers are in trouble, but only if they fail to address
the issues they face. By most indications, they do not deny that there is work
to be done, and one thing fans should know by now is that when Bryant or Nash
sets his mind to something, it gets done. All is not lost for the Lakers, as
long as they use the ample time they have left wisely.
Have a question for
Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.