It’s another Monday morning which means the NBA Power Rankings are rolling out in a state of infinite arbitrariness, but deep down in the western corner of the country, Kobe-colored confetti is raining from the skies celebrating the Lakers fourth win in 17 games this year. We’re about 20% of the way through the 2014-15 season and the Lakers are probably near the bottom of the aforementioned power rankings, but we don’t care because this post is celebrating the weird accomplishment of Kobe last night. No, it’s not becoming the first player in NBA history with 30,000 points and 6,000 assists, although that’s mostly an incomprehensible achievement that speaks to the highly irregular elite play which he’s sustained for so long. But instead of looking at macro-Kobe, we’re going micro-Kobe and exploring his individual performance against power ranking darlings, the Toronto Raptors.
In 42 minutes, Kobe triple doubled with 31 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and repeatedly finding good looks for his teammates while tallying 12 assists – a Lakers individual high this season. If we want to get semi-nitty gritty, Bryant had just two turnovers and attempted only one three while putting up his highest game score of the season at 27. It was a gem of a throwback game from a player putting up one of the best individual seasons we’ve ever seen from a 36-year-old.
[It’s taking a thorough amount of self-restraint to not go full on research mode and dig into that Larry Bird game from 1992 when a 35-year-old Larry Legend executed a 49-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist game on Portland, but we’ll save that for a rainy day.]
In what otherwise feels like a lost season without meaning for LA’s first basketball franchise, Kobe and his MASH unit continue to find ways to make games interesting and add meaning through effort. Kobe’s me-first game and me-first personality have a polarizing effect on fans and people who don’t know diddly about basketball, but all the same, a 36-year-old Bryant is still revealing himself as a professional fully committed winning every night – even if those wins are coming at the most infrequent pace of his career. Sunday night while languishing at the bottom of power rankings, Kobe’s game came together and he willed the Lakers to a victory over a shorthanded, but superior Raptors team. It took a herculean effort from Kobe and quality performances from his mates, but in a season without spoils, even the scraps are easy to savor.
You can lose all sorts of things. There’s Nas’s “Lost Tapes,” the Lost Boys and the Lost Boyz. People lose themselves, lose their keys, lose games. Lost lives, lost loves. You can lose anything tangible or intangible. Then there’s the four-plus seasons Magic Johnson lost to a lack of understanding around the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Losing a few seasons wasn’t life or death, it exceeded basketball in the sense that it challenged misconceptions around HIV/AIDS and continues to do so today – over 22 years later. When I write about “lost years” here, I’m referring specifically to an on-court context as Magic’s contracting HIV had a broader, further reach than anything he could’ve done a on basketball court. To that point, the power of Magic’s very public relationship with HIV has been covered more in depth and with more consideration than I can hope to, but what I remain curious about is what would’ve happened from 1991 to 1996 when a post-prime Magic still would’ve been gliding up the court, knees braced, fingers wrapped in tape, freezing indecisive defenders will telegenic lookaways, gold jersey with big purple 3-2 shadowed in white, pumping out stats so rare that he has no statistical comparison. What would’ve been?
It was last week I stumbled across a piece on Deadspin titled “The Beautiful Infographics of Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting.” I emailed the story to a couple friends and we exchanged a few back and forths about Teddy Ballgame and the three seasons he lost in his prime to WWII service. Williams somehow won the Triple Crown both before and after his military sabbatical and, like Magic, doesn’t need any extra stats to pad his legendary résumé, but you still wonder about those three seasons and 450+ games he missed out on.
After referencing Magic in one of my email exchanges, I meandered over to Magic’s basketball-reference page and took a look at his outputs during his short return to the Lakers as a 36-year-old PF/PG: 14.6ppg, 5.7rpg and 6.9apg. The numbers on their own aren’t eye-poppingly revolutionary. 67 other times, NBA players have accomplished this line or better, but no player 36 or older has ever done it and no one else who’s posted these numbers did it while playing under 30-minutes/game like Magic did. It took most players at least 36-minutes/night to generate these well-balanced numbers.
I reached out to some of the stat guys at Hickory-High and chatted with Jacob Frankel about age-based regression statistics. Jacob explained to me that “players generally decline in everything except shooting and rebounding after 28,” but also cautioned that Magic might be a completely different animal. He offered to crunch the numbers for me using his own methodology and I was kind of excited when I heard back from Jacob a day later with the following: “I think Magic breaks the system … the system is based on similar players and Magic was so unique that it’s misfiring.”
I’m tempted to write something silly like “Magic breaks math,” but he’s just so much different from any other player that it’s difficult to systematically project his impact during those lost years. Where just a handful of players have been able to put up at least 14, 5 and 6.5 over the course of a season, Magic did it in every one of his 13 NBA seasons and the last one in 1995-96 was done after spending four full seasons away from the game and playing a career-low in minutes. His per-36 minutes that final season showed a slight decline against his career averages which is to be expected when comparing a 36-year-old with rust to a 31-year-old All-NBA first teamer who carried his team to the finals in 1991. Some other things to keep in mind: Magic split time between power forward and point guard on Del Harris’s 95-96 team. Despite playing in an unfamiliar position, he still exceeded his career average usage rate with 22.7%.
When I finally arrived at some oddball projections that wouldn’t pass muster in an elementary stats class, I found myself sort of empty. The numbers decline uniformly because my regressions are unimaginative, but the sum of what we missed out on amounts to a couple thousand rebounds, a few thousand more assists (he’d still be behind John Stockton), almost 5,000 points and a little over 10,000 more minutes. There would’ve been more memories and intrigues, battles with MJ and playoff triple doubles, but the extra codas these years would’ve added to his narrative are so significantly outweighed by his response to his own reality that I walk away from this piece with both a sense of failure at articulating any statistical intrigue and a greater sense of appreciation for the impact of the post-HIV Magic.
[POSTSCRIPT: It was eye-opening that as I sat down to write this, what is intentionally a piece focused on stats, I quickly became aware of how miniscule these thoughts are in relation to the impact of Magic’s announcement 22 years ago. What happened since then has been nothing short of world changing. In terms of bringing HIV/AIDS awareness to a mass audience and challenging stereotypes, Magic’s story is profoundly positive. In addition, his bottomless vaults of money and resources, his access to the best doctors and drugs, have cast a different-shaded light on what should be a problematic question of access and affordability of life-saving drugs. What I will continue to take away from Magic Johnson and HIV is that basketball created a platform with a massive, but relatively (on a global scale) limited audience. HIV offered a direct connection to millions of people in the same way cancer allowed Lance Armstrong to connect with people who never gave a damn about the Tour de France.
No matter how big they are, Magic’s trophy cases are overflowing with the awards and accomplishments from a life on the court. He’s on imaginary Mount Rushmores, is considered the greatest point guard to ever play the game, has the stats and hardware to back it all up. And no matter how great he was on the court, his impact off it has been infinitely more valuable to our species. Everything above, as curiosity-piquing as it may sometimes seem, is little droplets of salt water in the sprawling ocean of Magic’s life.]
Back in September, the odds makers in Vegas or Jersey City or Macau or wherever it is they reside set the odds of a Lakers championship at 9-4. For the sake of comparison, the defending champion Miami Heat also had 9-4 odds; which makes the Heat and the Lakers the odds-on-favorite to win the NBA crown … as of September. As I sat down to write this, the Lakers were 9-12 and a full two games outside of playoffs in the Western Conference. They were in the middle of a strange slap fight in Cleveland against the Cavs—a team that no doubt scraps and scrapes, but in terms of today’s talent, they’re many rungs lower than the Lakers on any imaginary talent ladder.
But for multiple reasons, I enjoy watching this Lakers team and it’s not because of any hatred I harbor for Kobe or the Lakers because I don’t hate the Lakers or Kobe. It’s not even the smoldering dislike I have for Dwight Howard—which I do have. It’s because there’s something beautiful in the struggle and I don’t mean beautiful struggle the way disenfranchised people struggle to find justice and equality in a prejudiced world. I mean it in the sense that there’s an awesome collection of talent on this Lakers team and, to some debatable degree, they’re trying to learn how to successfully coexist with each other. And in that struggle, I find them more intriguing than the team that won over 70% of their games the past five seasons because there are so many strange things going on with this team and their least interesting player is somehow Metta World Peace. And since I think lists are kind of gimmicky, but my brain moves in bullet points, I decided to lay out my feelings and views on the 2012-13 Lakers, an old team that could be hopeless or hopeful … or both:
The Lakers as imagined by a European soccer owner: The Lakers have always loved to make a big splash and collect talent and in that regard, they’re similar to those mega-spending Euro soccer clubs that build football foundations on cash and bricks of gold and hope that’s enough for success. Sometimes it works like Manchester City’s EPL title last year, but other times it ends up like Chelsea or Real Madrid—a pair of accomplished clubs that seem to be influx for perpetuity. Chelsea’s been through eight managers since 2008 and Real Madrid’s backups could compete for a UEFA crown on their own. It’s talent for days, but what’s that matter when it’s assembled without any sense of compatibility, cohesion, personality or style? Sound familiar?
Lakers fans and their strange celebratory customs.
Will Steve Nash even help this team? Mike D’Antoni loves to run the pick and roll, but how’s that going to work with Dwight and Kobe out there? How’s Nash feeling sitting on the bench and witnessing this avalanche of ineptitude? He looks sharp, has a nice new Tom Cruise-approved LA haircut and can be counted on to be a good soldier, but on the insides of the walls of his mind, in places we can’t penetrate; it’s likely a tumor filled with doubt and regret is growing.
Speaking of Steve Nash … how great is the Phoenix training staff? Anyone who follows the NBA is aware of the Suns’ magical powers of resuscitation and now we have the final proof, the absolute truth: Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Each of these aging (by NBA standards) players experienced mostly clean bills of health during their stays in Phoenix, but now that they’ve relocated to opposite ends of the Staples Center, they’ve appeared in a combined two of 42 games this season. Phoenix, we salute you.
How bad does it hurt to let your team down? Hack-a-Shaq has evolved into a hack-a-Dwight and Howard has predictably failed at the free throw line where he’s shooting a career-worst 48%. Too much pressure in LA? Too much pressure having to look Kobe in the eye after you miss another freebie? Eh, I’m not too concerned that Dwight’s missing these shots, but I’m curious about the psychological impact it has on him. Shaq couldn’t shoot throws to save his life and Wilt Chamberlain was worse than Shaq and Dwight. Each of these dominant giants has masked any insecurity they may have with blinding and deafening personas that divert and distract from pain, but somewhere deep in those psyches, behind the conquests, jokes and accomplishments lays shame and embarrassment at having stand in front of the world, naked and vulnerable, and be judged.
I alluded to this a bit in the second paragraph above, but part of the reason I want to keep watching this team is because something is going to happen. If the Lakers keep up like this, then the finger pointing, the blame game, the inability to trust … all of it is going to get to worse and while I don’t wish harm or anguish on these guys, it makes for an entertaining season and future and after all, sports exist for entertainment. The other reason, the preferable reason (depending on your allegiances) is the belief that the Lakers will figure things out, that Nash will come back, Pau will thrive in D’Antoni’s system, Dwight will get his legs and his back healthy and dominate defensively and of course Kobe will have the opportunity to explore the non-scoring facets of his game. This is the hope, but we have to find out if our basketball prayers (for better or worse) are answered.
Is this the longest winter of Mike D’Antoni’s life? That’s kind of tongue in cheek since the experiences life delivers us far exceed the game of basketball, but in professional terms, this has to be painful. And it leads to another question: Can Mike D’Antoni coach at this level? While the Seven Seconds Suns were delightfully pleasing to the eye and the box score, D’Antoni hasn’t proven capable of improving or innovating from that original style. Many fans and analysts saw his apparent disregard of defense as a cardinal sin he could never overcome and sadly he’s done nothing to prove otherwise. Instead, he’s bounced across the country in high profile jobs with his maverick mustache, laid back approach and lukewarm results. I have to give him leeway with this Lakers team that was strangely constructed and the short timeframe he’s had to turn things around, but if the struggles continue, Mike D’s head’s going to be on the chop block (figuratively speaking … I hope).
Phil Jackson can coach. It’s a natural segue from the previous questions about D’Antoni. I’m not saying the Lakers should’ve caved to the allegedly ridiculous demands made by the Zen Master, but to all the fans and anti-Phillipians out there who love to accuse Phil of riding the coattails of Jordan and Kobe, look at the nightly confusion that is the today’s Lakers and tell me that shit would fly with Phil sitting on the bench in that crazy special-made chair he had.
Was a curse attached to this trade and if so, did Rob Hennigan cast the spell? When I first read about the Dwight-Bynum-Iguodala trade this summer, I was least impressed with Orlando’s inability to get back any worthwhile assets (except for Aaron Afflalo, we all appreciate his contributions). But in the true, humbling nature of the universe, everyone in this deal appears to be struggling with their new acquisitions—except Orlando. Andrew Bynum’s combination of knee injuries and hairstyles has resulted in Moses Malone reconsidering his retirement (“for the good of Philadelphia,” he says). I thought Iguodala would blend in brilliantly in George Karl’s intense defensive approach to the game, but instead he’s playing about as poorly as he ever has as a pro. We’ve already discussed a few of the Lakers woes above. And that leaves Orlando; limping along at 8-12, but doing two things extremely well: Playing hard and playing together. And they’re facing some of the same challenges as the Lakers—new coach and new teammates. It’s a relative comparison since the Lakers are living below lofty expectations while the Magic are playing above the lowest expectations (they tied Charlotte with the worst odds to win the title: 1,000 to 1).
Dwightmare revisited? Of the possible dastardly outcomes of a Lakers collapse, the potential for a return of the Dwightmare is most concerning. Nothing gets the media’s attention like a juicy, sensational rumor; especially one that involves one of the league’s best players and signature franchises. And if the Lakers continue the current backslide, only time will stand between us and a litany of quotes from “unnamed sources.”
There’s a reason the sports books in Las Vegas are still accepting sports bets and haven’t gone out of business yet: They know more than we do. And they missed this early-season Lakers conflagration by a country mile and then some … just like the rest of us did. To say there’s anything certain attached to this Lakers team (other than them playing 82 games this season) is to actively participate in self-deception. So when your friends or your favorite bloggers or handicappers approach you with their foolproof theories and analysis of why this Lakers team will either sink into the abyss or triumph over the uncertainty of the day, kindly remind them, like the universe occasionally has to remind us, that we’re all walking through the darkness of today toward the light at the end of the tunnel of a tomorrow we’ll never reach.
I kicked around the idea and got excited about it like it was some kind of realization unique to me, but I have my doubts. I mean, if Greg Anthony and those cats are talking about it, I’m far from original, but I figured since I thought of it independent of Greg Anthony, but possibly in dependence (would agreement be more appropriate, cahoots?) with Jim Buss (oh, the skin crawls just thinking I might agree with this Buss), it was worthy of a developed post here. And so I bring you the question: Is Andrew Bynum on par with Dwight Howard?
Before anyone goes all Stephen A. Smith on me and covers their keyboard with spittle or coffee or whatever’s in your mouth, I request the opportunity to define the terms of the question and answer.
I arrived at this question way back last week and would’ve asked it on the spot, but DeMarcus Cousins got the best of my limited attention span, so I had to wait until now. After serving his four-game suspension for flattening the smallest man in a Mavs uniform in last year’s playoffs (wrong place, wrong time, JJ), Andy B. returned to the court for the Lakers on New Year’s Eve and imposed his knees and arms all over the faces of the Denver Nuggets. Bynum is listed as a mere 7’0” tall, but I can’t help but second guess this listing as my TV projects the man to be mammothly large and possessed of limbs that stretch and stretch up beyond the heights of your everyday, average NBA seven-footer. It’s these same limbs that make anyone who watches Laker games cringe when he jumps or stretches for a loose ball for a couple reasons: First: His injury history precedes him (over his six-year career, he’s averaged 55 games/season … he misses, on average a third of his team’s games every season) and second: Those legs, as much as they’ve developed in terms of strength and balance, still conjure up images of Bambi or some other four-legged creature with legs that are far too structurally weak for the physique that sits atop. This haunting fear that Andy’s legs aren’t ready for his body may be a thing of the past, but old fears die slow … or they get medicated. Back to New Year’s Eve, the new introduction for Andrew Bynum, his first game being coached by new Laker Coach, Mike Brown. His first night out he shot 13-18 from the field, grabbed 13 rebounds and finished the game with 29 points. Welcome aboard, why yes, the Lakers have plenty of minutes available for a man who can do these things on a regular basis, but therein lies the variation between Dwight and Andy: Can Andy do it every night? Will he stop parking in handicapped spots and cramming his still-growing frame in Porsche 911s and just focus on his core—in the Billy Blanks sense, not the Jabbar sense.
Whatever Andy does off the court is just an expression of sorts, but it’s in part who he thinks he is, who he thinks people want him to be and who he thinks he should be. It’s all a juggling act and sometimes the groceries fall down and big, tall Andy Bynum, a world champion has to reach down in the grocery store and pick up his own vegetables when really, we’d all like to see him focused on the task at hand which is health and consistency as a Los Angeles Laker. So the first game was nice, but let’s see what followed and what we can see ahead, maybe to the future if they’ll even accept our probing inquisitions.
We don’t need the Hubbell telescope to see these stars, we have basketball -reference.com instead, an aggregator of all things black, white and numerical that have occurred in the NBA. Just know how to ask. Well, I asked and it turns out Andy’s first game against those Nuggets of Denver wasn’t no fluke (not no fluke I said). His performances on the young season:
15.7rpg – that’s where it’s at
And over 50% from the field.
He’s less efficient than he has been in the past, but increased opportunities are going to lead to declines in efficiency.
Among the nights that made up the averages you see above was a masterful, fan-fueled evening at the Statples Center where Mr. B achieved his career-first 20-20 game. It was done against Houston on Wednesday night and it has to be noted that the Rockets’ front court isn’t quite mediocre. It’s not from a lack of effort. They tried for trades, but ran into David Stern’s heavy handed gavel. Don’t you think Pau Gasol for Houston would’ve made it more difficult for Andy to achieve 20-20 than Pau Gasol for Los Angeles? Houston couldn’t hold down the 7’2” Bynum and so it was on NBA TV, I believe, I began chewing the fat that not only are the Lakers maybe better with Bynum than Howard, but maybe Bynum’s just better than Dwight.
Better and different are words that walk a fine line and when they’re used together like that it’s usually to dispel a given notion or just to engage in a deeper dissection about Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum.
On that same night when NBA TV was flashing graphics and stats like they’re tuned into the mainframe of NBA statistical databases and can present these informations with just a glance at huge HD screens, that’s when the topic came to Greg Anthony and his partners (Kenny? Webber? Both?). Anyhow, they big upped Andy’s accomplishment and then showed how many 20-20 games Dwight has had in his career (playoffs included): 39. Damn.
This disparity between 20-20 games really got me thinking and slicing the argument in different ways because as great as 20-20 is, you can hide a basket of fundamental flaws beneath the weight of those robust numbers that have the power to shape the ideas and contracts of American sports team owners which clearly isn’t our intent here because we’re just asking a few innocent questions.
Since I like boxing, I felt necessary to introduce the Tail of the Tape to this strange conversation that lost its way a while ago and continues to falter as we take our little steps forward.
Only family members and people who are paid by Dwight or the Orlando Magic should be forced to count his awards. The lists are redundant and bleed into the same award after 15 seconds.
If this were boxing, we’d all be enamored with the physical advantages held by the younger man. We’ be applauding lesser usage and predicting years of Dwight jumping up and down on pogo stick legs would eventually give out in a way that not even WD40 can resolve, but instead we’re looking at two very different basketball players who play the same position but do it so differently and do so for so many reasons.
Beyond the futuristic athleticism that was bestowed on Dwight by a combination of the Gods up on basketball Olympus and the genetic engineers over at Georgia Tech, the man has the Russellian/Rodmandian ability to dominate a game without having to shoot the ball. Whether he realizes it or not, this is a gift. He’s athletic enough to divert oppositions from painted areas out of fear that he’ll take their precious ball and give it to one of his own teammates if he so chooses. Or perhaps he’ll swat it away, into the hands of a paying customer, excited to be part of the game, amazed at the freakish shoulders of the man in front of him.
But beyond this rare gift is a counter-balance that seems contrived which makes it even worse. Dwight wants the ball. He wants to score it, dunk it, make passes to his friends so they too can feel what it’s like to be part of the big moment. It’s odd that this selfish part of his personality (however real it is) demands the ball for points. It’s really just an extension of his desire to be the center of attention and we all know scorers get the most attention. Dwight’s not a natural scorer though. Does he score and score efficiently? Yes, but for all his private workouts with Hakeem, his offense is still in development stages eight years into the league. And to make matters worse, I don’t think Dwight would give two spits about points if it didn’t mean more attention or if it didn’t mean he’d be more accepted by his peers. Dwight gets his fair share of plays drawn up these days, but he’s still at his best when he’s catching lobs or cleaning up the offensive glass. He uses his indomitable physical strength to outwork or outmaneuver the opposition, his presence alone opening up driving lanes and looks from beyond the arc for a supporting cast that’s been built to complement his skills—occupying the paint. Dwight shouldn’t be the focal point of an offense because it’s not best-suited for his game. If he were ever to come to this conclusion, he’d realize that imposing his will in the Russell fashion allows him to shape the outcome of games in ways that he only occasionally realizes. To be completely fair, Dwight’s only led his team in FGAs/game once his career—last season. His willingness to (mostly) accept the role Stan Van Gundy has carved out for him is commendable, but acceptance and embracing are different things altogether.
Then there’s big Andy who fits the traditional center character-type. He’s comfortable with his back to the basket, posting up and creating his own shots out of the post. His high shoulders and aforementioned long limbs allow him to get his shots off with ease and he’s developed a touch that the more-experienced Howard is still fine tuning. He’s able to reach over the opposition for rebounds without actually going over the back; a bizarre skill that few players possess. Removing injuries from the discussion, there’s an unknown that’s accompanied Bynum his entire career: Kobe Bryant. Bynum is paid like the superstar Jim Buss has always seen him as ($31million over next two seasons), but he’s never had the opportunity to explore the ceilings of his talents because he can’t stay on the court and even when he’s there, he’s the second or third option to Kobe and Gasol. This young season is the first time we’ve seen Bynum on the court for extended periods (34mpg is 4 more than his previous career high and his usage rate is 27% compared to his previous career-best of 20.8%) and the early returns are staggeringly better than anything we’ve ever seen from him. Plateaus aren’t part of the Bynum vocabulary today and until he levels off, the statistical possibilities and in-game impacts will be nothing but speculation.
In Andy’s 330+ game career, we’ve seen snippets of his 2011-12 performance, but it’s never been sustainable. Whether Gasol, Kobe or Phil Jackson impeded his progress, injuries got in the way or he just wasn’t ready for the increased role, he’s never been capable of persistent dominance. And it’d be an act of blind faith to believe the injuries are a thing of the past, but for the first time, it’s not a stretch to give Jim Buss the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge he may be onto something with this big kid. Does that mean Andrew Bynum is better than Dwight Howard? Absolutely not. I’m excited about Bynum going for 18 and 15 over a six-game stretch. Dwight’s been doing this regularly for well over 400 straight games and has the individual honors to prove it. Add in Howard’s commitment to fitness and reliability (he’s missed seven of a possible 583 games) and he’s one of the most consistent and productive players in the past 20 years whereas we’re still praying for an injury-free season from Andy.
Given Bynum’s age and the waves of potential flowing from his massive frame, we can at least hit the pause button on the “big man is dead” statements that have been so popular over the past few years. Andrew Bynum is giving hope to the great Pete Newell and seven footers around the world: You too can play with your back to the basket. He’s not on Dwight’s level yet and may never find that regularity, but in the infant stages of a new season, Bynum is injecting his name into conversations reserved for all-stars and future of famers. The immense ability coupled with the always-present questions about durability make Bynum’s career nerve racking. If I have anxieties and worry about Bynum’s injuries as a basketball fan, I can’t imagine the fears lying in the depths of the minds of Jim Buss or Mitch Kupchak. Bynum’s own feelings about his injuries remain a mystery.
It feels odd seeing two NBA juggernauts collapse in the span of a week, but that’s what’s happening. Last week it was the Spurs who were not unable to adapt. They did everything possible (swapped out values, souped up the system, cozied up with the three point line) to keep title hope floating, but the legs can’t always do what the mind demands of them. Now it’s the Lakers turn to take the painful escalator down, but what’s waiting for them at the lower levels is foggy and I assume it’s hot like a cool hell would be.
Expectations absolutely matter, but at the same time, predictions and prognostications don’t. We didn’t expect the Lakers to be down three games to none after Friday, yet here we sit. We could see the Spurs slide coming and we had time to digest it, play with the thoughts, accept it and move along to a Lakers vs. Celtics III or Lakers vs. Heat or something along those lines. This Lakers devastation (for them and their fans at least, devastation seems wholly appropriate) has been sudden even though it’s been in the making for over 1,300 games. This is a team that has been remarkably consistent over this most recent four-year span. They’ve lived in the Finals for the past three years and in three of the past four years, they’ve landed on the same 57-25 mark for the regular season. Statistically speaking, they’ve been a better team in 2010-11 than they were in 09-10.
Then Andrew Bynum was born. After his annual stint on the Lakers sideline with the standard issue Bynum-knee-injury, Andy resumed basketball activities with anger. He’s played better for longer in the past. We’re all familiar with the promise of this deer-legged 23-year-old who the younger Buss preferred to build the team around back in that tornado-ish start to the 2007 season when Kobe-to-Chicago was story du jour. While Bynum over Bryant was laughable in 2007, the hints of greatness are revealing themselves every time Bynum scowls, calls out his teammates or dunks without jumping. Whether Bynum’s tapping into some of that compulsive dark matter that fuels Kobe or just doing what many 23-year-olds do: Becoming Himself, we don’t know. Whatever the case, Bynum is developing which should be a great thing for the Lakers.
Here they sit in a 0-3 shithole, surrounded by their own foul odors in Dallas, Texas of all places. Who shot JR? Who the fuck stole the Lakers’ basketball brains is the more confounding mystery. A better, meaner, nastier Bynum, an improved bench, another year in the triangle for Artest—the Lakers aren’t favorites just because they still hold the crown. Beyond the stats, the players and the stories tell us the Lakers should beat the Mavs. This series hasn’t even been close though. The Mavs have been the better team every game and have deserved each of their three wins.
From Madrid to LA, everyone expected Pau Gasol to be his usual, steady, all-star-ish self. Over the past four seasons, he’s probably been the Lakers most consistent player and shown us that he’s capable of true, honest growth. For Pau, it was never a question of technical expertise. Perhaps it was too easy to slap a Euro label on him and call him soft. When Pau was bullied physically and mentally in the 2008 finals it reinforced the stereotype, but Gasol reinvented himself as a bearded Spaniard who screams, awkwardly initiates confrontation and is willing to do so while still maintaining the grace of technical mastery of game that has made him an all-star. Prior to this playoff matchup, the Lakers were 8-2 against the Mavs since Gasol joined the team in 2008. It’s never been about Pau vs. Dirk (who’s battled his own Euro stereotypes over the years) or Spain vs. Germany or anything even remotely along those lines. But in 2011, these graceful seven footers can be defined by their contrasting performances in this second round series. Dirk is acting as a conduit for greatness for this Mavs team. He’s the center of everything they’re doing whether he’s scoring the ball or attracting double teams that lead to hockey assists and it’s led to renewed appreciation of his game. Meanwhile, Gasol has been a case study in fatigue—likely mental and physical. Something indescribable and indefinable has finally caught up with Pau Gasol. Maybe it was stalking him all these years or maybe he contracted it like a sad disease striking when the Lakers required any and everything in his vast arsenal. You can’t read or listen to anything about the Lakers in this series without hearing “What’s wrong with Pau Gasol?” At the moment, that’s the unanswerable riddle.
By comparison, Kobe’s performance is easy to grasp. We’ve become accustomed to him living on the edge with acrobatic jump shots, triple pivots and old man shot fakes. He’s walked that line and teetered between success and failure, and mostly landed on the positive side. Only now it’s harder. It’s nothing but jump shots for 48 minutes, but that makes perfect sense. The guy has logged over 1,300 games and 48,000 minutes of basketball, consistently at the most meaningful levels of the sport—Christmas day games, games on national TV, playoff games, finals. Like his post peer Tim Duncan, it’s been inevitable. Kobe didn’t take two years off to refresh himself like MJ. Instead, he won titles and played 201 games (not counting USA basketball) over the previous two seasons. He’s still breathing fire and instilling fear in fans and hyperbolic commentators, but he’s not carrying the Lakers like he has. That the team is folding into the playoffs as Kobe’s game becomes less dynamic confirms the obvious (but still taken for granted) value of his on-the-court performances to this Lakers team. For all Kobe’s dramatic shots and game winners, the losses have been equally magnificent beginning with the Pistons demolition in 2004, the blown 3-1 lead against the Suns in 2006, the Celtics record-setting comeback in 2008 and finally the Mavs shock and awe campaign in 2011. When Kobe’s Lakers lose, it’s typically so definitive that it precludes a drastic change.
This isn’t a time for tears or eulogies though. If the end is near, there are a couple of obvious choices you can make: The first is to adapt. Adjust your lifestyle or habits to survive for as long as you possibly can. The other is to get settled into a recliner with a pack of cigarettes and a six-pack and stay committed to your values. For the Spurs, the decline was protracted enough that Pop could make survival-based adjustments. Phil hasn’t had that same luxury, but for all his Zen methods, you get the feeling he’s loyally married to his system. The old, rusty triangle worked long enough and well enough to leave Red Auerbach in the rear view of Phil’s gaudy accomplishments for all of eternity. And with Phil forcing the sun to set on his own watch, there won’t be any re-tooling or Pop-like adjustments. It’s sudden and confusing (mainly the Gasol piece of the puzzle), but Phil’s Lakers are finally on the precipice good-bye.
(Altnerate considerations: Kobe as player-coach, aside from Phil; what drastic changes will defeat bring?)