Los Angeles Lakers: Mitch Kupchak
No, he wasn’t joking. He said that with a straight face on more than one occasion.
“I think a big degree of our success will be if those three guys can stay healthy,” Kupchak said. “For me, a lot of our success this year is going to rely on Steve and Kobe and Carlos. They will have to stay healthy and play their best for us to be the best team we can be.”
Kupchak might as well have said the Lakers' championship hopes rely on Lakers coach Byron Scott coming out of retirement and playing as well as he did 25 years ago.
After all, the chances of Nash staying healthy this season are probably on par with Scott's chances of suddenly reclaiming his “Showtime” form and helping this team out.
Kupchak and the Lakers came into this year’s training camp wanting to believe they could rely on Nash. They wanted to believe Nash, who turns 41 in February, could be a reliable starter and end his career on a high note after his first two injury-riddled seasons with the Lakers.
As much as they wanted to believe it, they knew it wouldn’t happen. After watching Nash spend most of the past two seasons in the trainer’s room, they knew expecting him to suddenly find the fountain of youth and reclaim his old form at 40 was unrealistic. It’s a reality they have finally come to grips with a little more than a week before the regular season starts.
“I don’t have any expectations right now, to be honest with you,” Scott said Sunday when asked about Nash. “When Steve and I talk, and I talk to [Lakers trainer] Gary Vitti, it’s all about day-to-day right now. You just kind of pencil him out until you know he can play, and then you pencil him back in. Right now, we just have to assume that he’s not going to play every game, obviously, and the ones that he can go, we’ll go with him on those nights.”
Any false hope the Lakers had about Nash being a regular starter and regaining his old form can finally stop before the season starts and Jeremy Lin, who missed the past three games with a sprained left ankle, can be named the starting point guard. Anything they get from Nash this season should be viewed as a bonus. He should be an extension of the coaching staff and a part-time player who suits up on the days he wakes up without his back hurting while getting dressed.
The larger issue for the Lakers isn’t Nash’s health. Any reasonable person, including Nash, didn’t expect him to be healthy the entire season. But Nash isn’t the only player who can’t stay healthy on the team. Scott said earlier this week that he’s just looking for eight guys to play hard every night. At this point, he’ll be lucky to find eight healthy players every night.
On Sunday, the Lakers were without eight players -- Nash, Nick Young, Jeremy Lin, Xavier Henry, Ryan Kelly, Jordan Clarkson, Keith Appling and Jeremy Tyler -- for a variety of reasons and ailments. Scott was a studio analyst for the Lakers the past season, when Lakers players missed a league-high 319 games. It is a league-leading ranking he knows the Lakers can’t duplicate if they hope to be at least respectable this season.
“You have to be a little concerned, especially with the guys we have out being players that we expected to depend on," Scott said when asked about the injuries. “It’s a little concerning, but we have a little less than a week and half or so to go, and hopefully a couple of those guys will get healthy and be ready to play. We know Nick is not going to be healthy for another three or four weeks, but if we can get a couple of guys back healthy, we’ll be OK.”
It’s hard to say what will pass for “OK” for the Lakers this season. They are a far cry from the championship team Kupchak is hoping for, and when they get healthy, they might not be as bad as they have looked at times during the preseason. The biggest concern early on this season might not be Bryant’s health, but rather, Bryant trying to carry the team by himself with so many players out.
“You do want to avoid that as much as possible,” Scott said. “But obviously with the guys that we have hurt, Kobe will want to take that upon himself as much as possible, but you want to try to keep that to as little as possible. You don’t want him trying to take all of the scoring load and put it on his back. We just have to get other guys healthy.”
Waiting for guys to get healthy has been a seemingly never-ending waiting game for the Lakers over the past two seasons. When it comes to certain players on this team, it’s probably time for them to stop waiting and finally move on.
It was a solid Plan A. Or it technically still is a solid Plan A until James and Anthony officially inform the Lakers they have plans to the contrary. And even if James should choose to head back to Cleveland or stay in Miami or go elsewhere, and even if Anthony opts to stay in New York or entertain one of the other offers out there from Chicago, Houston or Dallas instead, it's a strategy that Bryant fully supports.
Of course, if the Lakers don't land their top targets this summer, they have a contingency plan in place.
The philosophy behind the Lakers' Plan B is twofold: find a way to be competitive next season to get back on track after a disastrous 27-55 campaign in 2013-14 yet at the same time, protect their cap space flexibility to be able to pursue the biggest names in the summers of 2015 (Kevin Love), 2016 (Kevin Durant) and 2017 (Russell Westbrook).
"It's a good class, but in terms of today who might be at the very top, maybe it's not as large as it might be next year or the year after," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said on draft night when asked about the free-agency market this summer. "And keeping that in mind, we structured our salary knowing that, hey, you might not get two or three guys, but we have enough room to get at least one. And if we don't have one and we choose to, we can go down the road and have flexibility next year and the year after that."
The Lakers' desire to maintain a star-based system is pretty understandable. When you are in one of the media capitals of the world and are charging $3,000 per courtside seat, there needs to be a draw on the court to expect those prices. When you are being paid upward of $200 million per season from your regional sports network television partner, Time Warner Cable SportsNet, there's a certain obligation to have not only a competitive team, but compelling characters to get people to want to tune in and watch.
The specific machinations of the Lakers' Plan B remain a mystery, however. There are many different directions in which they can head, depending on how other pieces fall into place around the league.
"We have several options," Bryant said. "Obviously depending on the timing of this process, it affects some of those. You have a plan that's flexible, but you have a Plan A and a Plan B. But some of the Plan B is affected by the timing of Plan A. So, you just kind of plan it out and wait and see what happens and respond from there."
Here's a look at several ways L.A. could end up responding if it loses out on its top choice:
The way Gasol's season came to a premature end thanks to a bizarre bout of vertigo, it seemed as if his time in L.A. would finish with a whimper after 7½ seasons. Gasol posted on his personal website in February that, "My decision will be based purely on sporting considerations." Meaning, he wants to win. But how much money is he willing to sacrifice to do so? If the Lakers don't end up using max money on Anthony, they could try offering Gasol a big-money, short-term, two-year deal that coincides with the end of Bryant's contract. Think $10 million-$12 million range and even give Gasol a player option for the second year allowing him to skip town for greener pastures should he not feel as if the Lakers were heading in the right direction.
Not only would this allow Gasol to stay in the city he loves for its culture and community -- he has several charities in Los Angeles with which he is very involved -- but it would also keep him from having to suddenly uproot his life at 34 and settle someplace else. Not to mention, just like Gasol is being used as a potential selling point to try to bring in Anthony this summer, he'd be an intriguing potential teammate for the other big names that the Lakers go after in the coming years.
Yes, Oklahoma City and San Antonio -- two of the handful of teams vying for Gasol -- are much more equipped to win right now, but they can offer him far less money. Same goes for Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks. Putting Gasol alongside a healthy Bryant and a promising rookie in Julius Randle next season would not only get the Lakers back on track in the short term, but could help them get one of those other stars they covet in the future.
Rookie Julius Randle, medically cleared by a foot specialist last week to play on his right foot without any further surgical procedures, is waiting to sign his contract before he can participate in the summer league games.
“We’ll see,” Randle said when asked if he would be suiting up for the Lakers first game against the Toronto Raptors on Friday. “It’s kind of really out of my hands right now. I’m ready to play whenever, but it’s not really in my hands right now.”
The Lakers, of course, are waiting to actually ink Randle to his rookie deal as long as they are pursuing Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, because they want to keep as much cap space open as possible to facilitate the deals.
ESPN writer and salary cap expert Larry Coon explained the Lakers’ reasoning in an email to ESPNLosAngles.com:
“Free agents, first round draft picks and exceptions have ‘cap holds’ which are used to account for the money that is expected to be spent, reducing the amount the team can spend on other teams’ free agents. As the Lakers’ first round draft pick (and number seven overall), Julius Randle has a cap hold on the Lakers’ books for $2.497,800. If the Lakers were to make a free agent offer to, say, Carmelo Anthony, they can’t offer him any of the money that’s in Randle’s cap hold -- it’s set aside for Randle.
“The amount of Randle’s cap hold is determined by the league salary scale, however teams can sign their first round picks for up to 120 percent of the scale amount, which means Randle will be eligible to sign for up to $2,997,360. High draft picks almost always sign for the full amount for which they are eligible. As soon as Randle signs his contract, his cap hold goes away and is replaced with his actual salary -- so instead of counting approximately $2.5 million on the Lakers’ books, he will count nearly $3 million.
"So when a team like the Lakers is chasing free agents, it makes sense to delay the signing of their first round draft picks. If the Lakers were to sign Randle first (assuming he will get the full 120%, which is a near certainty), they would have approximately $500,000 less to offer a free agent.”
Lakers point guard Kendall Marshall has also had his patience tested. He’s on a non-guaranteed contract for next season worth approximately $915,000. Despite starting 45 games last season for L.A. after being plucked from the D-League, he will be playing on the Lakers’ summer league team.
“I feel like I still have a lot to prove,” Marshall said of the summer league assignment. “For some reason, there’s always a reason why I’m successful or why I’m not successful. So I kind of need to put that doubt to rest and just go out there and prove I can play.”
But what is to follow?
The Lakers, like several other teams around the league with major cap space and daring dreams (Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Cleveland, etc.), are putting everything else on hold while they go big-game hunting.
When the James and Anthony dominoes eventual fall where they may, however, there will be other smaller pieces to fill, especially for a team like L.A., which has only six players penciled in for roster spots next season in Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre, Kendall Marshall and rookies Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson.
As much as the Lakers have centered their initial focus on those big-ticket players, general manager Mitch Kupchak has been sure to cast a wide net to let a host of players know that he would potentially like to see them wearing purple and gold next season.
This included Kupchak's reaching out to representatives to every single one of the players who were on the roster last season and are currently free agents, save for MarShon Brooks, who will play for the Sacramento Kings' summer league team, a league source told ESPNLosAngeles.com.
Some of those players have greater interest around the league than others, of course.
Kent Bazemore appears to be the most popular of the group. The 25-year-old swingman has also already been contacted by Dallas, Atlanta, Boston, Phoenix and San Antonio. The Celtics' initial contact included a personal call from coach Brad Stevens to Bazemore. He will sit down with representatives from both the Celtics and the Spurs next week, if not more teams. Helping his cause, no doubt, is the fact that his right foot is fully healed from the surgery he underwent in April to repair a torn tendon and he will be ready for full-contact drills by the end of July, according to a league source.
Jordan Hill was also on the minds of plenty of teams, with Boston, Dallas and Houston all inquiring about the big man coming off a season in which he averaged career highs in points (9.7) and rebounds (7.4) per game despite playing only 20.8 minutes a game in Mike D'Antoni's system that didn't necessarily fit his skill set.
Nick Young heard from Atlanta along with the Lakers, as well as "several other teams registering interest," according to his agent, Mark Bartelstein.
For others, they are still waiting to see what the market bears. Chris Kaman will wait to see which teams need a backup center once they spend their big dollars on starters. Jordan Farmar has already prioritized staying in L.A., but if the Lakers feel they're set with three point guards in Nash, Marshall and Clarkson already, maybe he gets a look from his former Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt, who is now manning the sidelines in Cleveland. Wesley Johnson, still searching to fully establish himself in the league after showing some bright spots last season, will search for the team with the greatest opportunity for playing time so he can continue that development. Xavier Henry, still recovering from left wrist and right knee surgeries from back in April, will have an on-court workout to prove himself with the Lakers once he's recovered, according to a league source, before he will look elsewhere.
And those are just the free agents who were actually on the team last season.
Don't forget that Kupchak has been canvassing the remaining free agents around the league -- both restricted and unrestricted -- as he awaits the chance to obtain Anthony and others.
While it might seem that it has been a relatively quiet start to free agency for the normally splashy Lake Show, there has been a lot going on beneath the surface.
The Lakers were able to buy the Washington Wizards' No. 46 pick in the second round, according to general manager Mitch Kupchak. The Wizards selected Missouri point guard Jordan Clarkson on behalf of the Lakers. The Lakers spent $1.8 million on the pick, according to a team source. NBA teams are allowed to spend up to $3 million per season on cash deals to buy a pick, sweeten a trade, buy a player out of a foreign contract, etc.
"A ball-handling guard that we're excited about drafting," Kupchak said. "We're looking forward to getting him in Los Angeles as soon as possible. Hopefully he'll participate in summer league, which starts in Las Vegas in about two weeks."
Clarkson averaged 17.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in his lone season with the Tigers after transferring from Tulsa after his sophomore season.
"It's a blessing, man," Clarkson told reporters on a conference call, reacting to being acquired by L.A. "I feel like I'm in a good situation. It was a long process, a long draft process. I worked real hard. And I feel like I'm in the right situation. I just have to make the best out of my opportunity."
Clarkson, 22, is a big guard, measuring 6-foot-5, 186 pounds.
"He's got great size," Kupchak said. "Good athlete. Really good size. Good defender. Excels probably at attacking the rim. Maybe not as good of a shooter, probably, as he will be when he works on it. He left school a year early. He transferred. So, I'm sure he was thinking that maybe he would get drafted higher and maybe he has a chip on his shoulder -- an expression you've heard today -- to come out and prove something. But we liked his size and we liked his skill at that position."
He was rated as a late first-round pick on several draft boards and was rated even higher before struggling with his shot for Missouri, shooting just 28.1 percent from 3-point range last season. Kupchak said the Lakers believed Clarkson could have gone as high as the middle of the first round.
"To get a guy like that at 46, we're pleased," Kupchak said.
Clarkson described what it was like to drop on draft night.
"My agent was telling me early on that I may go in the late first round but be prepared for anything to happen," Clarkson said. "So I was, and I just took it in stride. Now all I can do is use it as motivation to really push me in this next level."
The upside to suffering through a 27-55 season for the Lakers is the chance they'll find a franchise-changing talent in the draft come June 26. L.A. holds the No. 7 selection and brought in 12 players to basically audition for the part.
"I still think we'll get a good player," said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who observed the workouts along with vice president of player personnel Jim Buss and the Lakers' scouting staff. "I do. Hopefully we pick the right player. There's a lot of talent."
And the Lakers have many needs.
With only Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and Nick Young (who is expected to opt out by June 30) currently under contract for next season, the Lakers purposely put together a wide-ranging workout group.
It was headlined by forward Aaron Gordon from Arizona, big man Noah Vonleh from Indiana and combo guard Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State, but included three other point guards (Syracuse's Tyler Ennis, UCLA's Zach LaVine and Louisiana-Lafayette's Elfrid Payton), four shooting guards (Michigan State's Gary Harris, Kentucky's James Young, Weber State's Davion Berry and Nevada's Jerry Evans), and a pair of senior forwards (Creighton's Doug McDermott and Pepperdine's Brendan Lane).
"You can argue, because we've only got four players on the roster, we're not really limited to looking at a position," Kupchak said. "We need help everywhere. So, I think we'll be in position to take the best player at almost any position. And even the position we do have covered, he's been around 18 years. So we have to look for beyond that position too. So, that is a good thing. Sometimes you get put in a position where, 'Well, we need a point guard. Let's focus on point guards.' And you may overlook a player that's going to be a better player down the road."
“I wouldn’t say it was bad luck; we were hoping to get lucky,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said. “We could have dropped down to No. 9 too, so we were hoping to get lucky and worst case, stay where we were, but it could have been worse. We think drafting at No. 7, there’s going to be a good player available there.”
When Kupchak was asked if the Lakers’ draft pick figures to be a starter next season, he joked, “Right now, we only have four guys under contract right now.”
The Lakers currently have Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and Kendall Marshall under contract for next season. Kupchak said the Lakers will invite the top 15-20 prospects on their board in for workouts.
“We started last night calling and trying to set up workouts with everybody in the top 15-20 on our board,” Kupchak said. “Some of those guys don’t think they’re going to be there at seven, so they’re not going to come in. There’s nothing we can do about that. You may say, ‘Why bring in a guy who may go 20?’ Well, you never know, No. 1, and No. 2, you have the opportunity to develop a relationship with a player. Why not do it? That started last night.”
There is a possibility the Lakers could trade their pick in a deal for a veteran player or addition draft picks, which Kupchak said is always an option.
“It stands to reason that the higher the pick, the more value it has, but a sixth pick or a seventh pick certainly has value,” Kupchak said. “We’ll evaluate that between now and the draft.”
Mitch Kupchak gets a contract extension:
Hardly anything went right for the Lakers this season. The only thing worse than losing is losing without a plan in place. The Lakers took care of the latter by inking general manager Kupchak to a contract extension, as first reported by ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne last week. While the terms of the deal were undisclosed, the Lakers confirmed that Kupchak will be back calling the shots on a multiyear agreement. Kupchak, who has been with the Lakers organization since retiring as a player in 1986, was called the best GM in the league by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey earlier this season. He should give L.A. a steady voice up top as the team navigates a difficult period of upheaval.
Steve Nash moves into third on the career assists list:
Nash would be the first to admit his time in L.A. hasn’t gone at all according to plan, but he was able to reach a major achievement as a member of the purple and gold nonetheless. With his fifth assist against the Rockets on Tuesday -- an outlet pass leading to a Jodie Meeks dunk on the break -- Nash notched assist No. 10,335 of his career, passing Mark Jackson for No. 3 on the all-time list. He now trails only John Stockton (15,806 assists) and Jason Kidd (12,091) in the history books. Unfortunately, Nash aggravated his hamstring against Houston and said he “probably” will not play again this season after setting the record.
Jodie Meeks keeps on scoring:
Before a clunker of a 2-for-12 night against the Golden State Warriors on Friday, Meeks was having one of his best weeks of the season on the offensive end. The fifth-year shooting guard scored 25 points against the Dallas Mavericks, 17 against the Los Angeles Clippers and 30 against the Rockets, shooting a combined 28-for-53 (52.8 percent) in the three games. Meeks is a lock when considering which player on the Lakers roster is most improved from last season and could very well receive some votes for the most improved player award for the league at large.
Clippers embarrass the Lakers for the third straight time:
That 116-103 win by the Lakers over the Clippers on opening night seems like a distant memory after the Clippers beat the Lakers 120-97 last Sunday to take the season series 3-1. As bad as the 23-point loss was -- with the Lakers allowing the Clips to shoot 56.6 percent from the field and 52.6 percent from 3 -- it was actually an improvement from the Lakers’ past two losses to the Clippers -- by 48 points in March and by 36 points in January.
Lakers get trounced by Dwight Howard-less Rockets:
When you score 130 points in a game, you’re supposed to win. The Lakers somehow managed to do that and still get blown out, losing 145-130 to Houston last week. The game was terrible for L.A. for a lot of reasons -- getting outscored 49-29 in the third quarter, allowing James Harden and Terrence Jones to score 33 points apiece and getting walloped 80-46 in points in the paint -- but perhaps the toughest pill to swallow for Lakers fans was seeing Howard rocking magenta pants on the Rockets bench as he laughed along and enjoyed the victory.
That’s what it felt like for the fans during the worst loss in Los Angeles Lakers history Thursday night.
It was pretty bad for the players, too.
Embarrassing, for sure.
But to reach that level of dejection, you have to be deeply invested in something, and the guys currently wearing the purple and gold really don’t have much connection to the franchise.
Most won’t be here long. Some just got here. The rest are trying to figure out what category they fall into.
“I’ve never been in a game where a team won by 50,” veteran center Chris Kaman said.
Never mind that the Los Angeles Clippers actually beat the Lakers by 48 points. The part of that statement that’s actually in doubt is the use of the word “team.”
The Lakers are a team because that’s what you call a group of guys who wear the same jersey and compete in games together. But this is no team. It’s a group of nice guys trying to make the best of an awful situation.
The Lakers aren’t building a culture or molding a young core group of guys. In a way, they’re auditioning whoever is left standing for next year. But even a good showing in this last quarter of the season doesn’t guarantee anyone anything.
“You have a lot of guys on one-year deals,” Kaman said. “There’s a lot of guys who are worried about that. It’s definitely on the back of everybody’s mind. And if it’s not, they’re not telling the truth. It’s hard.”
To their credit, the Lakers have been giving a good effort most nights and competing well enough to give the fans a good show.
But every so often there are nights like this, where they absolutely get worked and the best thing for all involved is for it to end quickly.
That’s what happened against the Clippers.
The Lakers live and die by the 3-pointer and one-on-one play. All of D’Antoni’s offensive concepts have been watered down while they try and fit in newcomers Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks. When those shots don’t fall, it creates long rebounds and fast breaks for the other team. A game can get out of hand very quickly.
The Clippers led 29-27 after the first quarter, then the floodgates opened. By halftime it was 73-40. That’s right, the Clippers scored 44 points in the second quarter; the Lakers scored 40 in the first half.
It was ugly. Fans didn’t even wait for the second half to start before leaving. The teams played the second half, but even the Clippers started taking pity on the Lakers and lifted their starters midway through the third quarter when the margin got to 48.
“This was the worst loss I’ve been a part of at any level,” Lakers guard Jodie Meeks said. “Even if it wasn’t the Lakers, nobody wants to lose by that much. It’s embarrassing. There’s not much to say. We didn’t, for whatever reason, come to play, and they did.”
Ah, but it is the Lakers.
That means something to their millions of fans.
That means something to all the longtime staffers who have seen far, far better days.
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak looked to be in all states of agony just watching. D’Antoni was enraged for most of the game, then sad.
“They’re trying. It’s not like they’re not trying,” D’Antoni said, protective of his players to the end. “When you’re a little bit slower than the other team and a lot less athletic, they just carved us up.
“We’ll do a lot of things, but just going in and yelling and screaming is not going to help a whole lot.”
This loss was so bad, it felt like it could be the one that ends D’Antoni’s star-crossed Lakers career. Initially at least, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Kobe Bryant has been increasingly silent as this awful season winds its way to its eventual end, but even he knew this was a night the people needed to hear something -- anything -- to make them feel like this will all be over someday.
“Misery = Motivation #thanku #urwelcome,” Bryant tweeted after the game.
He’s not coming back anytime soon to help. Mostly likely, he’s not coming back at all this season.
That’s a sobering thought. But sometimes you get to the point where you just want it to stop. End and be over. End and never be like this again.
No matter how miserable games get, they do eventually end. So do seasons.
But how do the Lakers make sure the rest of it stops, too? The losing? The frustration? The lack of direction?
They won’t be a team again until those questions are answered.
"It would be nice to be in that position," Gasol said Thursday. "At least for a few days. And then I'll be back in somebody else's hands."
"No grudges. No hard feelings," Gasol said of hearing his name mentioned in rumors right up until Thursday's noon PT deadline passed. "It is what it is. I'm just glad there are a lot of teams interested in me. That's a good sign. When a lot of teams knock on the door and ask for you, that means you're valuable."
Gasol, whose $19.3 million contract expires at the end of the season, said all the hubbub around him leading up to the trade deadline is an indication there will be suitors knocking on his door when free agency begins after the season.
"I'm pretty confident there will be," Gasol said.
L.A. engaged in talks with the Phoenix Suns about trading Gasol for Emeka Okafor's expiring contract but could not get the Suns to include a future first-round draft pick in the deal. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said the team was pursuing trades at the deadline only that made basketball sense, not arrangements based on dollars and cents.
"Quite frankly, we had an opportunity to go below the [luxury] tax threshold, but there were no basketball components," Kupchak said without offering specifics if that opportunity would have involved Gasol or other players such as Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman, who were also being shopped. "That's unacceptable with this organization. I think the expression would be a salary dump. That's not what this organization will do. If we could've gotten picks or players we feel good about going forward, then we would've done that. But we did have opportunities to go below the threshold and we wouldn't do it."
The Lakers, who extended Kobe Bryant on a two-year, $48.5 million deal earlier this season months before his contract was to expire, have not had any talks thus far with Gasol about extending him.
No matter what happens in the final 29 games of 2013-14 for the Lakers, this group already set a franchise record for futility with Thursday's 107-103 defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was their seventh straight loss at home, the worst home stretch in team history.
Even the good news on the horizon -- the prospect of Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks and Pau Gasol all being available for the Lakers' first game after the break Wednesday at home against the Houston Rockets -- can be just as easily construed as a discouraging development.
The Lakers, at 18-35, are 13 games behind the Golden State Warriors for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. They're only nine games behind the 9-43 Milwaukee Bucks for the worst record in the league and the best shot at the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Losses will do more good for the future of the franchise than current wins will.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak declared again Thursday that the team will not actively engage in tanking down the stretch run of the season.
"Winning is never a bad thing," Kupchak said. "If you try to manipulate the draft, my experience -- I'm not a karma guy -- but if you try to manipulate this thing, it never works out the way you think it's going to work out. You're better off doing what you know is the right thing to do and whatever happens, happens for the right reason. And that's our approach."
But stripping down the roster even further -- trading Gasol to Phoenix for an injured Emeka Okafor and a future draft pick, for instance -- would be a way to aid the tank's path without the karmic repercussions.
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Los Angeles Lakers fans may never forgive David Stern for vetoing the December 2011 trade that would have put Chris Paul in purple and gold. But as the final days of Stern's 30-year run as NBA commissioner count down, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak made it clear how much Stern has meant to the Lakers over the years.
"He's done so much more good for this organization and in this city than people could ever measure, in the long run," Kupchak told ESPNLosAngeles.com in a sit-down interview Thursday, two days before Stern's tenure is set to come to a close Feb. 1, when Adam Silver will officially assume his position as league commissioner. "Anything that's taken place that can be conceived or be construed as not good will be in the rearview mirror and something good is going to happen down the road. And that's how Dr. [Jerry] Buss looked at it."
Of course, those benefits over time mean little to Lakers fans who see Paul suiting up for their city cohabitants in the Los Angeles Clippers. Stern, citing "basketball reasons," nixed a three-team deal at the outset of the lockout-shortened 2010-11 season that would have landed Paul with the Lakers. Stern had final say because the NBA had taken temporary ownership of Paul's former franchise in New Orleans at the time. A week later, the Clippers put together a trade to acquire the All-Star point guard.
"It was kind of like a perfect storm," Kupchak recalled. "The league owned the team, very unusual circumstances, and quickly -- from an organizational point of view -- we just moved on. And to this date, I don't really catch myself looking back and saying, 'What if?'
"You don't have time in this business to do that. That leads nowhere. But it was a unique situation and I don't think it will ever happen again -- when the stars are lined up just like that where something like that can happen again. But quickly, at least from our point of view, and I know from Dr. Buss' point of view, we just moved on as quickly as possible."
Hope springs eternal, right? That next win is just around the river bend? You don't know until you try?
"I would expect them to play hard, as hard as they can possibly play, no matter what our record is," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told ESPNLosAngeles.com on Wednesday when asked to assess the state of the purple and gold these days.
Longtime Lakers special assistant coach Tex Winter liked to say, "Everything turns on a trifle," so maybe there is a bit of healthy belief going on here.
The Lakers' suddenly slumping season started with an opening-night victory over the favored Clippers after all, a 116-103 shellacking of their city cohabitants that was supposed to set the identity of this group as the overachieving underdogs with an all-for-one, one-for-all attitude as the Lakers won by playing five bench players for the entire fourth quarter.
But these days, they've just looked like dogs.
"Man," Nick Young said, asked to think back to that Oct. 29 victory. "What, this is our 35th game or 36th game today? Man. So, time flies. But we should be ready."
It could be lip service, but the Lakers are at least trying to present the appearance that this season isn't a wash already. They even scheduled a practice Thursday in L.A. after originally planning an off day coming off their back-to-back games on the road in Dallas and Houston.
HOUSTON -- Maybe there was a reason the NBA decided to change its national broadcast schedule to yank Wednesday's Los Angeles Lakers versus Houston Rockets game from airways around the country.
After all, Nick Young already said the postgame locker room in Dallas following a 13-point loss Tuesday -- the Lakers' eighth in nine games -- felt like "a funeral."
Appropriate then that Kobe Bryant was wearing all black on the end of the Lakers bench at the Toyota Center. Right?
At some point L.A. will officially mourn the hope it had for success this season.
That day has not come yet, with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak telling ESPNLosAngeles.com before the Rockets game that, "I haven't sensed that players have thrown in the towel, and they won't ... They have too much at stake."
Maybe the Lakers haven't given up hope yet, but the league was right to give up on showcasing the second "reunion" game between the Lakers and Dwight Howard's Rockets this season, especially after a few mind-numbing minutes in the fourth quarter that reduced the game to a parade of Howard missed free throw attempts.
Hack-a-Howard might have worked the first time L.A. beat the Rockets in Houston this season, but when the Lakers started the strategy when they were already down more than a dozen points in the final minutes it seemed more petty than savvy this time around.
How it happened: The Lakers took a five-point lead into halftime thanks to strong starts from Pau Gasol (15 of his 21 points in the first two quarters) and Nick Young (15 of his 25 points), but the wheels came off in the third quarter when L.A. was outscored 33-15 and Houston controlled it from there, even with the Hack-a-Howard spectacle in the fourth.
What it means: The Lakers have now lost nine of their past 10 games by an average of 13.9 points, and eight of their next nine games are on the road. Is there any relief in sight?
Hits: Jodie Meeks scored 21 points.
Jordan Hill had 10 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
Chris Kaman broke a string of four straight DNP-CDs to put in five points and five rebounds off the bench.
Misses: Kendall Marshall had his worst game since joining the starting lineup, shooting just 2-for-13 from the field en route to five points and eight assists.
Howard shot 10-for-24 from the free throw line.
Stat of the game: 18. That's how many turnovers the Lakers had leading to 26 points for the Rockets. Seven of those turnovers came in the decisive third quarter.
Up next: The Lakers will have an off day Thursday coming off the back-to-back in Dallas and Houston and then play a "road" game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday in their first matchup against the Clips since that surprising blowout win on opening night.
Even if Gasol fought through his upper respiratory infection and came close to his 14.7-point and 9.4-rebound averages, L.A. might have still lost with the way it missed 16 of the 23 3-pointers it took against the Jazz and turned the ball over 22 times against the 76ers.
But here is the unwavering truth that makes the outcomes of the games almost irrelevant when considering Gasol's lost contributions, no matter how strong or how meager they would have been: He could have played.
Gasol has not spoken to the media since Christmas Day -- the last game he played in -- when he chose to battle through the respiratory condition he was already dealing with then and finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, a block and a steal. L.A. hung tight with the Miami Heat before losing by six.
After the Utah loss, Gasol tweeted, "Great team effort in Utah last night despite all the injuries #GoLakers."
Before the Philadelphia game, he tweeted, "I hope to recover soon and be back on the floor again. All my support to my team mates tonight vs the Sixers #GoLakers."
With him, the Lakers nearly knocked off the back-to-back defending champions Wednesday. Without him, the Lakers fell to a Philly team that had lost its past 13 road games coming into Sunday.