Cary Emondson-US PRESSWIRE
The Lakers are still under .500, and just 1-2 under Mike D'Antoni. What is going on here?
The tome of the 2012-13 L.A. Lakers has not yet been finished, obviously. There's a lot of season left. But if the disastrous start under Mike Brown was a terrible first chapter, the beginning of the long second chapter isn't looking too great either.
On Friday the Lakers fell to 1-2 under Mike D'Antoni with a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, who are quite good. The Lakers had beaten the quite good Brooklyn Nets in D'Antoni's debut, then lost in highly embarrassing and hilarious fashion to the Kings on Wednesday. In that game, Kobe Bryant was absolutely brilliant, making some shots that would floor even avid Kobe observers. But the vaunted Sacramento duo of Jason Thompson and Chuck Hayes shut down Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol completely. For good measure, DeMarcus Cousins -- who'd spent much of the game in foul trouble and was getting nothing on Howard -- incinerated Gasol on three-straight possessions in the closing minutes to ice the game.
On Friday, Kobe was mortal. He scored 30 points on 30 shooting possessions, which is well below his superlative standard this season, but would have been par for the course and relatively non-noteworthy in any of the past couple years. This is Kobe: he shoots a lot. Some nights, he makes half of his shots. Other nights, he does not. But he will always, always shoot a lot.
He didn't kill the Lakers on Friday. Totally crummy performances from Dwight and Pau did. Gasol is getting the post-game publicity for two reasons, and two reasons only: Kobe commented that Gasol's conditioning and urgency were lacking before the game, and Pau is tradable. Dwight isn't. Because the Lakers only know one way to improve in the post-Zen Master era: get better players. Landing Steve Nash and Dwight Howard weren't enough. They need someone like Josh Smith, Ryan Anderson or Chandler Parsons, too. Pau trade rumors are going to dominate the next couple of weeks. Just watch.
Pau's getting the flak, but Dwight's been really underwhelming in L.A., particularly on defense. The Lakers are just No. 19 in the league in defense and rank No. 17 in shooting defense and No. 14 in defensive rebounding, where they should be thriving with a massive front court and a center purported to be the best in the league. Dwight's had two-straight bad offensive games, but he's looked great on defense stunningly infrequently. His instincts seem off. Maybe he remains a half-step slow because of the back surgery recovery, and perhaps that is throwing everything off. But then the question becomes whether he'll get his body back in form during the grind of the NBA season or not.
Time's ticking. Kobe can't play at an MVP level, as he has thus far, forever. Chances are Kobe can't continue playing at an MVP level this season. Bryant's as good as he's been since 2008, and he's on the wrong side of 30. Kobe takes famously good care of his body, so it's not as if this boost in production is due to a recommitment to off-season work. Kobe's always worked. Nash should provide a jolt in the right direction on offense when he returns, but he's still not jogging on his bum leg. And he's older than some NBA assistant coaches. Time's ticking.
Kobe knows it. He was so angry Friday he left the court with eight seconds left in the game. This isn't leaving the court without shaking hands with the opponents: this is ditching your teammates in anger while they are still mopping up. This is something like abandonment. Kobe's embarrassed. He's mad. He knows time is ticking, and he knows he's playing extremely well most nights, and he knows the Lakers are 6-7, and he knows D'Antoni wasn't the instant salvation so many fans hoped he would be, and he knows it wasn't Mike Brown's fault, and he knows that another championship -- Number 6, to tie Michael -- isn't looking as likely as it did in August. Kobe's mad because that old Lakers strategy of snatching the best players and tossing the ball out there still isn't working. If Kobe is still the Kobe we've known all these years, the true blow-up is coming, and Pau's going to be on the business end. And if whatever trade comes down doesn't fix it, Dwight will be next in line.
Blaming everyone else? That's the Kobe System. Ask Shaq, Phil, Smush, Lamar, Andrew and Pau. The only difference this time around is that Kobe is actually right.
Whatever. I'll spend Sunday praying that it all continues to burn.
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.