The 2012--13 NBA season has offered lessons in the art of diminished expectations, fungible goal-setting and, most of all, humility for a Lakers franchise that has won 16 championships and carries itself with a purple-and-gold pomp that suggests it should have won 16 more. Before the season it was all about Taking the Court with One of the Greatest Starting Lineups in History. Now it's about If We Make the Playoffs, We're Going to Be a Tough Out.
This is an article from the Feb. 25, 2013 issue
Los Angeles being the land of perpetual rewrite, the Lakers (25--29 at the All-Star break) still seemingly have the talent to flip the script and pen a smiley-face denouement. But a soul-searing 125--101 loss to the Clippers last Thursday left them to ponder a cruel calculus: Despite improvement over the last few weeks, the Lakers have only lifted themselves from the quicksand of 12th place to the muck of 10th, 3½ games out of a postseason spot with 28 to go.
Whatever happens, it has been a memorable—or forgettable, depending on your perspective—season of sooner-than-expected firings and unexpected hirings, injuries, finger-pointing, second-guessing, trenchant tweets, the invisible yet palpable presence of a former coach with more championship rings than fingers, and the passing of the man who shepherded the franchise to its place atop the NBA mountain.
Herewith, the main story lines and characters.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Phil Jackson, who last worked an NBA sideline on May 8, 2011, lunched with Mitch Kupchak before the start of this season and told the Lakers' general manager that he wasn't interested in returning to coaching—which, in Phil Speak, means, "I might be interested in coaching." Then, on Nov. 10, the morning after Mike Brown was fired as L.A.'s coach, Kupchak and Jim Buss, who runs the Lakers' basketball operations, met with the 67-year-old Jackson, who told them he was interested but "needed a couple of days to think about it." Laker Nation was abuzz imagining the return of their 11-ringed Obi-Wan.
However, late on the evening of Nov. 11, around midnight, Jackson received a call from Kupchak informing him that the Lakers had hired Mike D'Antoni. Jackson was stunned.
"I just didn't understand the timing," he said last week over breakfast at his favorite spot in El Segundo. "Even if I had come in that Monday and said, 'Hey, I'm really interested in this thing,' and they had told me, 'We're going in a different direction,' I would've said, 'O.K., that's cool.' But why call me at midnight? Were they worried I was going to take the job?"
Jackson swears that at that point he hadn't yet made up his mind about whether to come back. "I have my process that I go through, and I was going to need a couple of days, that's all," he says. "I'm a big part of the Buss family, and I want to see them right this thing. I came back in 2005 because I was asked to by the family. And we got it back on track."
Even in a personality-plus town like L.A., there has never been anyone quite like Jerry Buss, whose deep pockets and canny business sense turned the Lakers into one of the model franchises in all sports, one valued last month at $1 billion by Forbes. Buss, who had a Ph.D in both physical chemistry and Living Life Large, brought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, as well as celebrity coaches Pat Riley and Jackson, to L.A., and the franchise earned 10 of its 16 titles under his watch.
The 80-year-old Buss died at Cedars-Sinai hospital on Monday morning (page 20) following a monthslong battle with cancer. Until the end, he was at the head of a strange architecture that formed the Lakers' hierarchy: Son Jim Buss is in charge of the basketball operation and sister Jeanie runs the business side, along with being, not incidentally, Jackson's fiancée. Dr. Buss, who made his fortune in real estate, had been sick for a while, but he reportedly played a part in the major off-season decisions to trade for center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash, and he also favored hiring D'Antoni over his (presumably) future son-in-law, with whom he has won five championships.
And what now? What will happen without Jerry's guiding hand?
The Buss family has said in the past that it will not sell. But things change, and it will be hard not to read every Lakers misfortune through the prism of the patriarch's absence.
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
Imagine it's 1970. You're at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and the announcer walks onstage to tell you that, contrary to billing, the Grateful Dead will not be playing tonight—but please put your hands together for Weather Report!
It would not have gone over well, and that's what it was like for D'Antoni, who walked into the Staples Center with "We Want Phil" still echoing off the walls, the chant that had greeted interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff after he took over for Brown. Meanwhile, in Twitter Land, Magic Johnson and others criticized the D'Antoni hiring, expressing disbelief that the franchise would pass on Jackson. "Everyone thought Phil was coming back," says Bryant. "That's not a knock on Mike. It's just a fact."
But some portion of the brain trust had tired of Jackson's triangle offense and saw D'Antoni as the coach who'd restore a semblance of the glorious run-and-gun Showtime style of Magic.
Inside the team, however, no one expected that the Lakers could replicate the caffeinated, seven-seconds-or-less Suns who, under D'Antoni, had energized the NBA during the mid-2000s—not even D'Antoni. The presence alone of Bryant, who will enter the Hall of Fame on the basis of his relentless one-on-one style, assured that.
Nash on what he expected under D'Antoni: "I saw us as a hybrid of Mike's offense with maybe a more conservative approach. But we'd definitely want movement. Transition drags. More pick-and-rolls. Picking. Driving."
Bryant on what he expected: "I saw us as a team that had to mix it up. We have the talent to do a lot of different things. Find out what that is on any given night, and it would come from penetration and reading the defense."
D'Antoni on what he expected: "I saw Steve and Dwight in a lot of pick-and-rolls. That would be the basis of our offense. That also gets Kobe open shots—shots he doesn't have to work so hard for."
But Nash suffered a small fracture to his left fibula before D'Antoni even arrived, and he didn't return until Dec. 22. While he was out, D'Antoni struggled to find an answer.
Critics of his hiring postulated that D'Antoni would not be a good fit with an aging team that resembled, in some respects, a post office—Howard, Bryant, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison all like to play with their backs to the basket. Those critics included the Looming Legend.
"The players don't match well with Mike's system," Jackson said last week. "I like Mike as a coach, just not with the personnel the Lakers have. But that's a choice management made: to emphasize Steve Nash. I love Steve. Who doesn't? But he's 39. Dwight Howard is 27. You have a chance to extend your future with this young ballplayer who can come back and lead your team, but that's not what they did. They emphasized the older player."
THE TAO OF STEVE
There is some truth in Jackson's assessment, but the success of the Lakers' offense, at the end of any day, is going to depend mostly on Bryant. Age aside, Nash has played well, shooting 51.2% from the floor and 40.5% from three-point range. True, his assists are down—7.4 per game, compared with 10.7 last season with Phoenix—but that is a huge number for a Lakers point guard teamed with Bryant, who is averaging 5.6 dimes. Over Kobe's last 14 seasons starting at shooting guard, only in 2003--04 (Gary Payton) and in lockout-shortened '11--12 (Ramon Sessions) has a backcourt mate averaged more assists than Bryant.
"In terms of adjustments that had to be made by individual players," says Kupchak, "Steve may have had the biggest of anyone."
Nash will almost always defer when Kobe wants to isolate, but if he has his way over the final 28 games, Nash will be directing a different offense. "More pick-and-rolls, and more pick-and-rolls after that," Nash insisted last Thursday night as he hustled out of the locker room to catch a late-night plane to Phoenix. "As bad as we were tonight [against the Clippers], we looked good when we ran pick-and-roll."
That message was clearly directed at one person. Howard's inability—or unwillingness—to embrace a pick-and-roll offense has been a major subplot of the Lakers' season.
13 GOING ON 30
Howard sees himself as a post-up player, but D'Antoni feels that when Howard gets it on the low block the offense often dies, stymied by his not-so-soft jump hooks and his inability to pass out of double teams. And those strategic questions have gotten bundled up with the belief in some quarters that Howard is immature, doesn't play hard enough and lets his mind drift. On the court both Bryant and Nash have gone at Howard; off the court they've gone at him harder. But does Howard deserve those criticisms, which he also heard in Orlando?
To a degree, yes. At times his flakiness gives the impression that he's playing some version of a Sesame Street character—Mr. Smiley Long Legs one day, Mr. Mopey Pants another. It can be painful to witness the interactions between the 27-year-old and a small portion of the L.A. media that seems determined (with the player's complicity) to treat him like a child.
"Are you smiling again after this one, Dwight?" he was asked after he had 19 points and 18 rebounds in a 91--85 victory over Phoenix on Feb. 12. "Is the smile back?" And Dwight dutifully smiled wide.
Can that act, please. Both sides.
On the other hand, to blame Howard for everything that has gone wrong is patently unfair because he is not close to being 100% physically. And it's not just the torn labrum in his right shoulder that he suffered in early January—the injury that prompted Bryant to suggest that Howard's return must have more "urgency." (Kobe later said that his quote was misinterpreted as a callout.) There is every indication that Howard has not recovered fully from the back surgery he underwent last April. He has mentioned occasionally the "tingling" in his legs, but there was some eye rolling on the team about that, and his mantra these days is, "I don't want to talk about my back."
But the fact remains, Howard sometimes winces, appears fatigued and displays trouble holding on to balls thrown low, all relatable to his back surgery (never mind the labrum). That fatigue could also have something to do with his reluctance to embrace the pick-and-roll, since that forces him to be perpetually on the move. In the debacle last Thursday, Howard went up for a rebound and was outjumped by 6'5" Jamal Crawford of the Clippers, not because he was surprised or didn't hustle or didn't box out, but because he had no spring in his legs.
The situation couldn't be much worse for the Lakers: a player heading into free agency (Howard had only this year remaining on his contract when he was acquired last August from the Magic in a four-team deal) while being suspected, overtly or obliquely, of malingering.
Kupchak, who has insisted that he will not trade Howard, is on the big man's side. "I honestly thought there was a good chance Dwight wouldn't be coming back [from his back injury] until the first of the year," says Kupchak, who had surgery for a back injury when he was a Lakers player. "People don't understand how long it takes to recover from something like that."
Of course, Howard's not being at full strength wouldn't be so bad for L.A. if not for another post problem.
In keeping with the theme of a star-crossed season, Gasol, Bryant's mate on two championship Lakers teams, tore the plantar fascia in his right foot on Feb. 5 and is not expected back until mid-March at the earliest.
But even before Gasol went down, he and D'Antoni had been having a rocky season, which is the biggest surprise of the coach's short L.A. tenure. D'Antoni had been looking forward to coaching the versatile 7-foot Spaniard since, as an assistant at both the 2008 and '12 Olympics, he had grown to respect Gasol's abilities as the star of his national team.
But the coach couldn't avoid what one Laker calls the D'Antoni Dilemma. Which is this: He doesn't like playing Howard and Gasol together for long stretches and, given his druthers, he prefers Gasol's game. But he has to give more minutes—and even more end-of-the-game minutes—to Howard, a monster center with monster numbers (except for his free throw percentage, which is 49.5%) and a monster $19.3 million contract. And so the coach ends up angering the other guy, who's also a $19 million player, albeit one with one more year on his contract.
"I don't want to go anywhere near that [issue]," says D'Antoni. "Just be clear, it's not me calling it a dilemma."
In a perfect world the coach would have found an offense that provided both Howard and Gasol enough interior touches while also allowing Bryant to roam far and wide and Nash to execute pick-and-rolls.
Perhaps that world doesn't exist. But D'Antoni considers both of his big stars to be centers, and he is not a center-oriented offensive coach. Further, he feels that having Gasol defend power forwards—particularly "stretch" fours, who shoot from outside—sometimes puts the Lakers at a disadvantage.
D'Antoni and Gasol had several sit-downs, including a dinner in Manhattan Beach. They are smart men who can talk to each other. But neither is happy with how things have turned out. Maybe the time apart—Gasol has been around while he's recovering, but it's not the same as being in uniform—will bring them closer together when he returns.
THE ITALIAN JOB
Bryant led the league in scoring for the first couple of months, and he did it by shooting close to 50%. But as the losses piled up, he consciously cut down his shots, either because coaches suggested it or because he concluded it was necessary. (Probably some combination of the two.) Everyone wondered whether this would be a passing fancy (literally), but he has kept it up, sometimes going to extremes, as he did in that win over Phoenix, when he didn't take a shot in the first half.
"The way this team is, we need another facilitator, another passer," says Bryant. "I also think that some of our guys, maybe because they're young, were worried about their scoring opportunities"—attention, Dwight Howard—"so I think seeing me sacrifice the way I have, maybe they will think, 'I shouldn't be concerning myself with touches and shots. If he's averaging 30 and he's willing to drop, I'm willing to sacrifice too.' That was the more important message." That is truly optimistic thinking, but Kobe is sticking with it.
In his 17th season the 34-year-old Bryant remains the resolute loner-warrior: aggressive, impatient, tougher than a slab of diner pot roast. He has blown his top at teammates, particularly Howard; at other times, when an explosion was expected, he's turned into Conciliatory Kobe. You can never be sure what you'll get, and he likes it that way.
At practice following his 1-for-8 shooting night in that win over the Suns, Bryant stayed on the court for an extra 45 minutes hoisting face-up and turnaround jumpers, sometimes getting a pass from an assistant coach, sometimes tossing the ball in the air, catching it himself, pivoting and shooting, his form precise every time. "I could just reach out and block one of those," a reporter told Bryant as he neared the baseline where the media horde awaited him.
"I got 30,000 reasons you'd never get close to blocking that s---," Bryant said, referring to his 30,000-plus NBA points, which rank fifth on the alltime list. He smiled quickly and kept moving, never missing a beat.
Later, as he toweled down and sat for an interview, he was asked if he had a certain shooting routine.
"Absolutely," he said. "I go from spot to spot. Today I quit when I made 400 shots."
How do you know?
"What do you mean, How do I know? I know because I counted them."
He no longer stands on the top rung of the NBA ladder, a place held by LeBron James, with Kevin Durant right behind him. Bryant probably knows that, but whether he could admit it is another question. Self-awareness and self-confidence wage war within high achievers, as they do in the complex package that is Kobe. But he is still awfully damn good, probably the third-best player in the league, blessed with a body that can absorb punishment, a will that enables him to play through that pain, and a background that prepared him to dominate not only athletically but also fundamentally.
"I feel fortunate that I was over in Italy [from ages six to 13] when AAU basketball [got big] over here," says Bryant. "They stopped teaching kids fundamentals in the United States, but that didn't affect me. Over there, it wasn't about competition and traveling around and being a big deal; it was about fundamentals, footwork, spacing, back cuts—all of those things. Look at Pau Gasol. Look at the skills he has compared to the guys who grew up playing AAU ball."
He might as well have added, Are you listening, Dwight?
One of Bryant's idols growing up in Italy was D'Antoni, then one of the top guards in the Italian League. Before he switched to number 24 in 2006--07, Bryant wore number 8 because that was D'Antoni's number. But Kobe is now about as far from a starry-eyed kid as one can get; he and D'Antoni do not by any means have a tutor-tyro relationship. Bryant earned his spurs, and his rings, under Jackson.
That said, coach and superstar get along fine, and, to a certain extent, Bryant is uncoachable. That's not a knock. He is smart about the game and stubborn about himself, and so a coach had better give him a lot of rope. Which D'Antoni does. Against the Clippers, for example, his plan was to match Bryant up against slippery point guard Chris Paul. But Bryant preferred the conventional matchup against Chauncey Billups, and that's how it was done. (For the record, Kobe didn't do much guarding of Billups—21 points, including five three-pointers—and Nash didn't do much guarding of Paul, who had 24 points and 13 assists.)
D'Antoni has much work ahead of him—finding a way to get through to Howard, opening up the diplomatic door to Gasol, milking something out of Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks, two off-the-bench guards. But figuring out what to do with Kobe isn't D'Antoni's job. Figuring it out with him is a better way to put it.
"What's gone wrong? I can't pinpoint it. The coaching changes? The personnel changes? The injuries? It's frustrating. I don't even know where to start. It's baffling."
Hmm ... Not good news when that comes from Kupchak, whose job it is to figure out what's gone wrong.
But he's only being honest. It is all baffling because no one on the Lakers has played badly—not even the much-maligned Howard, who is averaging 16.3 points and 11.8 rebounds.
D'Antoni claims that the Lakers' collective talent ranks among the top four in the league, which is abnormal for a struggling coach to say, lest he be accused of underachieving. "I know we haven't shown it, but there are reasons," says D'Antoni. "Kobe and Pau played under Phil's system for a long time, so they were used to that. Then Mike Brown came in and changed everything. Then I came in and there's another change. And it's been really hard to establish consistency with all the injuries. It takes time. But we can do it. I firmly believe that."
Around L.A. these days there are more ideas about how to fix the Lakers than there are in-development scripts. Fire D'Antoni. Get Kobe back to shooting more—or, no, have him shoot less. Don't rely on Nash so much—no, turn the offense over to Steve. Play Jamison more than Earl Clark at the four—no, play Clark 30 minutes a game.
Certainly tweaks are necessary. The Lakers' transition defense needs to tighten. (It would be a good idea for Bryant to can those fruitless attempts at backcourt steals and just get back on D.) When Kobe is handling the ball, he has to make it a priority to find Nash, who's a terrific spot-up shooter. World Peace should be talked out of spending time on the blocks unless he's guarding someone down there, and a few of his post-ups could be taken by Jamison, whose off-the-bench offense has been a positive of late. In fact, Jamison may replace Clark in the starting lineup from time to time depending on matchups.
Certainly the Looming Legend, Jackson, deserves a say. "The Lakers just don't put the ball in the post," he says. "They'll use a screen-roll to get the guy in the post, but there's no consistent plan to do it. Yes, Kobe will go in there. But Dwight just doesn't get any touches. They've basically eliminated his assets."
And as far as Gasol and Howard getting in each other's way?
"We won two championships that way," says Jackson. "There shouldn't be a problem with that."
In truth, though, the Lakers' winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and '10 had more to do with Gasol and Lamar Odom playing a frontcourt tandem than it did with Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Odom, a complementary player now with the Clippers, made sure there was room for Gasol. Howard can't (or won't) do that.
So this isn't to suggest that a fix is easy. But this much is clear: Gasol has to return and be reintegrated into the offense. Does that mean a little less PT for Howard? More post-ups for the big men and fewer pick-and-rolls? More two-man game with Kobe and Gasol, which would remove some of Nash's effectiveness? It might mean all those things, because it's hard to imagine that Clark or Jamison can be more important in the long run than the 7-footer who was integral to L.A.'s last two championship teams.
The best news for the Lakers is that Bryant hasn't checked out. He appears to be looking at this quest-for-eighth-place as a challenge, not a disappointment. "It's not a question of if we make the playoffs," he says. "We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone—Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver ... whoever."
It's helpful when your main man carries around a Silver Linings Playbook. But if the Lakers don't start righting their ship immediately following the All-Star break, another movie comes to mind. Anyone remember the end of Thelma & Louise?
For complete analysis of all the NBA trade-deadline moves from Ian Thomsen, Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney, check out SI.com/mag