- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- After another lackluster loss for the Los Angeles Lakers -- the second of their four defeats in this infant season in which they were in striking distance in the fourth quarter only to be blitzed in the end -- Chris Kaman was the team's truth teller.
"We need Kobe Bryant to come back, sooner than later," Kaman said following L.A.'s 96-85 loss to New Orleans. "That happens when it happens, but that's a huge piece that we're missing."
Kaman, taking a break from his Captain Caveman nickname to try a hand as Captain Obvious, was not offering up groundbreaking sentiment.
Yes, the Lakers need Bryant on the court in the fourth quarter of close games, not sitting behind the bench dressed in black with sunglasses and looking like a member of Saturday Night Live's "Sprockets" sketch, as he was on Friday.
Yes, the five-time champion will be able to organize things in winning time. He'll give a pecking order to a Lakers team whose 10-man rotation is starting to look more like a mile wide and an inch deep.
"It's putting guys in the right slots when I'm out there on the floor," Bryant said Thursday when asked how the team is missing him most. "I'm able to kind of put them in the right positions to take advantage of the defense because I'm able to read things a lot more and communicate things a lot better when I'm out there actually playing."
His omission was obvious against San Antonio, when L.A. had a two-point lead with 3:55 to go and lost by six; against Houston when it led by four headed into the fourth and fell down by six before rallying to win by one; and against New Orleans when the Lakers trailed by just three with 3:30 to go and saw that hole reach 15 less than three minutes later.
"Especially with late-game situations, you need some guy that can just have the ball and get you buckets and score," Kaman said. "That's kind of what Kobe is known for and what he's good at. He's a killer at the end."
Added coach Mike D'Antoni: "Going down the stretch you kind of have to know what you want to go with. We're not there yet. We don't know exactly how we need to finish the game yet."
Which brings us to Pau Gasol, who has almost assuredly never been referred to as a killer. In fact, with all of his philanthropic pursuits, he's more likely to be called a healer.
Regardless of his personality type, with Bryant out, he is undoubtedly the leader of his team right now. You don't need any more evidence than to see the way rookie Elias Harris stood in front of his locker transfixed after Friday's game, watching the veteran Gasol intently as he dealt with difficult questions from the media on a night he played terrible.
The Lakers believe in Gasol. "We know how great he is and he'll get back on track no problem," said Steve Blake. "Without a doubt."
They care about Gasol.
But the Lakers, quite simply, cannot sustain any type of success in the interim until Bryant gets back with Gasol playing the way he has so far this season, particularly in the past two games, when he shot 4-for-22 from the field.
"Man, I've been really off," Gasol said. "I just didn't play very smart against a good defensive player that uses his length and his athleticism to contest your shots. I just kept going to the same move without making adjustments and that's something that a player with my experience shouldn't do."
The good defensive player he was referring to is Anthony Davis, who completely dominated the game with 32 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks Friday.
Seeing the contrast in Gasol, who is still often bestowed with the "most skilled big man in the game" (Kaman even used the line postgame Friday), and Davis, who is fast becoming a top-five forward in the game -- trailing only the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony -- was sobering.
Gasol might not belong in that conversation anymore. After the Lakers' superstar plate was cleared this year with Bryant out because of the Achilles injury, Dwight Howard going to Houston and Steve Nash's minutes being cut nightly and his workload being cut all together on the second night of back-to-backs, it was Gasol's time to take over again.
Only here's the problem: Gasol averaged 13.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting last season with bad knees, an ill-fitting system and a reduced role. This season, with the spotlight squarely back on him and the ball in his hands, he's averaging 12 points on 35.2 percent shooting through the first seven games. Sure, his rebounds are up from 8.6 to 10.7, but his assists are down from 4.1 to 2.6. And if you want a really depressing stat, consider that Gasol is the seventh highest paid player in the league, making $19.3 million -- or about $14 million more than Davis.
"It's pretty obvious," Gasol said. "I have got to be sharper. I just got to play a little smarter. I might not have all the speed and the explosiveness that I used to have years ago, but I still have to use my experience and my fundamentals to be able to be effective every single night, regardless of who we're playing."
Maybe Gasol won't, or worse yet can't, get back to being a true No. 1 guy on a playoff-type team, but he can and must be better than he has been so far.
"Obviously Pau is a major key on this team," said Nick Young. "Right now when he's not going, it's kind of tough to get us going.
"We need him. We need Pau to do what he do down there. If Pau got it going, that's going to help us out. They're going to have to key in on him and that's going to leave me with open shots and Jodie [Meeks] and it goes on."
And the Lakers' hopes of being a team to be reckoned with while Bryant is out fade if Gasol can't get it done.
"It just didn't seem like he had it tonight," D'Antoni said of Gasol, before casting a net over his entire team's performance. "They just settle into kind of mediocrity and that's where we are right now."
At 3-4, the Lakers are worse off than mediocre so far. But they're not that far off from where they need to be to still have a chance if Bryant returns at a reasonable date.
"We have to hold the fort down while [Bryant] is gone and get us to an above .500 position before he gets back," Kaman said. "It will help set us up for the end of the season."
It's not asking a lot.