TrueHoop: Los Angeles Lakers

Pau Gasol's final scene in Lakerland?

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
Adande By J.A. Adande
LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol looked out onto the court, where the team from his past played the team of his present, then looked up to the scoreboard, where the clock ticked down toward the start of his future.

The Memphis Grizzlies, Gasol’s team from draft night in 2001 until the 2008 trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers, were finalizing the Lakers’ 55th loss of the season. Same old story for the Lakers: hang tight for a half, lose by double digits. And a frustratingly frequent tale for Gasol: sidelined by injury, missing his 20th game and counting, with a bout of vertigo guaranteed to keep him sidelined for the Lakers’ two remaining games on the road.

He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.
[+] EnlargeMarc Gasol
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsMarc and Pau Gasol, the brothers who were traded for each other in 2008, greet each other Sunday.

He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and -- just when he was ready to cut things off -- a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.

Finally he said no mas.

“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers' locker room.

“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.

“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”

The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar -- something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It's also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.

But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market -- or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.

That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.

“You’ve got to put heart and emotions aside a little bit and think what’s going to be the best position for me to succeed, not just individually but collectively,” Gasol said. “And hopefully help put myself in a position where I can win a championship. That will be the goal. Where can I win and where can I be a key piece to help a team win, whether it’s here or another team? I don’t know exactly what’s going to be the structure or the roster [with the Lakers], so there’s going to be a lot of question marks here. But I’m open to listen. I’m a good listener. I will listen to what’s offered.”

Then there’s the possibility of playing with his brother in Memphis.

“It’s appealing,” Gasol said. “We have a lof of fun always in the summers [playing together with the Spanish national team]. But I don’t know if it’s going to be completely 100 percent up to me, because there’s going to be a lot of teams that are going to be probably limited or conditioned to a trade, and the Lakers will probably have some say in that. We’ll see. It’ll be an interesting process. I don’t know if the Grizzlies are one of the teams that are most interested.

“I’d love to play with Kobe more, because he’s a friend, he’s a winner and he’s a guy that I’ve been through a lot and won championships with. I would love to play with my brother, but you can’t have everything. Just try to think where is the best position for me to succeed collectively and individually.”

Time passes so quickly in the NBA, turning from ally to enemy. Gasol made the Lakers championships contenders when he arrived in February of 2008, and they were on their way to three consecutive NBA Finals. In April of 2014, the only player in uniform who was around for that heyday was Farmar. It’s no accident that he was sitting next to Gasol.

“[The bond is] even sweeter for us because we lost one [NBA Finals] first,” Farmar said. “ We got all the way there, we lost, and then we learned as a group and came back to win back-to-backs. So we’re a little closer. It’s a little more special. It’s experiences you can’t really teach. You just have to go through it and know what it takes. It’s hard to pass that knowledge on to young guys. There’s just no way they can understand the dynamics of a championship team unless you’re on that caliber of a team.”

You can see why playing for another team consisting primarily of those young players wouldn’t appeal to Gasol at age 33. You also can see how a 33-year-old who has missed 53 games over the past two seasons with injuries stretching literally from his feet (plantar fasciitis) to his head (vertigo) might not have GMs filling his voicemail inbox this summer. But he’s still an experienced big man who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds this season.

“In this league, no one person can do it by themselves,” Farmar said. “You need to put a team together of guys that understand the importance of winning,
that are committed to it and fit well together. I think that’s what it comes down to. The front office knows that. I think Pau, whether it’s here or someplace else, will be on a team like that.”

For the past three seasons we’ve wondered if the Lakers would send him someplace else before the trade deadline. Now it could be of his own volition. That’s why this wasn’t just another night in Staples Center, the building where the two most recent Lakers championship banners hang as a result of his handiwork.

Nice Guy Pau Gasol

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
Verrier By Justin Verrier
Pau Gasol AP Photo/Damian DovarganesPau Gasol's tenure in L.A. appears all but over. Will we remember much beyond the cheery tweets?
Nobody lives in a perfect world, but Pau Gasol’s Twitter account sure tries to. The “social” sector of the Interwebs can be twisted fairy tale, a day-to-day life inhabited by trolls and court jesters. But virtually every day Gasol gallantly blasts out 140 characters of sunshine, both in Spanish and in English, with the preciousness of texts from mom:

• "Tonight against the Orlando Magic. We're ready to compete at our best effort and rack up a victory on our home floor! #GoLakers"

• "Today is #WorldWaterDay. Let's all take care of this vital natural resource for all of us."

• "The new trailer of the 4th season of @GameOfThrones is already out! Not long now for the season’s release! "

And that’s just a sampling from one week in March.

Gasol is one of the nice guys. All of his on-court kvetching amounts to nothing more than a rubbed head or two. He credits Magic Johnson's HIV diagnosis for inspiring him to become a doctor. In his “Lakers profile” -- one of the midgame entertainment reels broadcast on the Staples Center big board, in which guys like Nick Young talk about things like “spaghetti cake” -- Gasol describes himself in one word as “multifaceted.” Most superstar athletes become conditioned to look right through people; Kobe Bryant, for example, strides with purpose as if Aloe Blacc is his internal monologue. Gasol remains observant. On a recent trip to Staples Center my eyes happened to cross paths with Gasol’s, and to my surprise, he smiled back at me, a total stranger sort of creepily gawking at him. Dude is nice.

We yearn for any morsel of information on these guys’ personal lives, especially when the subject is something of an enigma uninterested in opening up. When some odd detail does trickle out, it tends to serve mostly as fodder to further the myth we’ve pieced together in our heads. Rajon Rondo is this great checkers player? He's a mad genius!

There’s no mystery to Gasol. He’s the oversharing Facebook friend you can’t bring yourself to cut out, posting pictures of that darling landscape and recommending a new goodread whether you like it or not. Gasol is willing to give up more of himself than virtually any other NBA player of his caliber, and that accessibility tramples all over the whole superstar-worshipping dynamic. It’s hard to create a legend around someone so human. And that’s a large part of what’s making it so hard to muster up anything beyond indifference as Gasol approaches what figures to be the end of his six-plus years with the Lakers.

Gasol is back to playing above-average ball amid the Lakers’ telenovela season. Though limited to 65 games or fewer for the fourth time in five seasons, he has capitalized on often being the lone adult watching over the Lakers’ day care, bouncing back from the worst season of his career with a mild yet respectable player efficiency rating of 19.5. Maybe it’s not the horn-grabbing, prove-the-doubters-wrong, Ewing Theory-ish performance some might have hoped for with Bryant sidelined -- he’s shooting under 50 percent from the field for just the third time in his 13-year career -- but it does suggest that Gasol can still be pretty damn good, even after 32,000 NBA minutes and thousands more in international competition.

But what should we make of pretty good? It’s the question it feels like we’ve been asking about Gasol, indirectly or otherwise, since he became prominent enough to ask it. He’s among the most skilled 7-footers ever, and the stretchy, finesse game he and others imported helped usher in pretty significant changes in the way NBA teams utilize their big men. But he’s no offensive juggernaut like Dirk Nowitzki. He’s the older, more popular, more successful Gasol brother, but he’s no defensive monster like Marc. He’s got those two titles, but, I mean, Kobe. Stuck in a sports world defined by greatness, and paired with a certain teammate more obsessed with it than anyone, “pretty good” basically reads as “also-ran.” And so we latch onto the only thing we have that makes him extraordinary among the ultra-competitive, ultra-athletic, ultra-stylish superhumans that dominate the game’s storyline: He’s super nice. But Future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol just isn’t as interesting as Nice Guy Pau Gasol.

This isn’t new, either. More of an update. The bulk of Gasol’s career has been defined by the idea that -- or at least the debate over whether -- his game is “soft.” When Gasol rose to prominence, NBA fans, and Lakers fans in particular, had grown accustomed to the big man as just that, both in physical stature and personality. But Gasol is more likely to baby hook or be in the right place for an offensive rebound than bash skulls and break out into rap. His deft touch from 10 feet out was misinterpreted as some phobia of MIXIN’ IT UP, his guard-like vision underappreciated in a world of Godzillas and Gameras. He was one of the five most efficient big men in the NBA in each of his first three full seasons with the Lakers, but it’s harder to appreciate those masterful drop steps to easy dunks when they don’t leave the basket stanchion shaking.

Since that fortuitous midseason deal that sent him to Los Angeles, Gasol has existed in a fishbowl where everything is filtered through the lens of Bryant -- his standards, his behavior -- and not showing the same public ferocity, outside of arguing calls, has always colored Gasol as lesser than. But those differences are ultimately what's made Gasol and Bryant such a good fit. Shaq’s dominance helped Kobe to that extra ring, and that matters, but Gasol's deference, both in personality and style of play, fit Bryant better than O’Neal ever did. Said Bryant about O’Neal in a recent profile in The New Yorker: “It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy. You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through s---.” If O’Neal was an attention-seeking “clown,” as described in that profile, then Gasol was the efficient assistant Bryant's one-man act always needed. The relationship has incurred its bumps -- which involving Bryant hasn’t? -- but we’re now at the point where Bryant says things like, “If I could choose my brother,” it would be Gasol.

[+] EnlargePau Gasol
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiPau Gasol won two titles in L.A., but his Lakers run could end amid one of the franchise's worst seasons.
It’s that acceptance from Bryant that ultimately seems to have quelled concerns that often obscure Gasol's brilliance. Guys like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love stepping out to the 3-point line helped, and winning a title or two seems to have given him some Skull and Bones-type privileges in L.A., but Gasol now operates with the official Bryant seal of approval, which effectively works as a giant force field against derision from a certain swath of the public. Being likened to a swan isn't cool unless it’s Bryant making the comparison.

And so we’re left with ... what, exactly? Now that the context in which we've viewed him for so long doesn't really exist, we can see Gasol for what he really is. But at 33 and on the wrong side of his peak, what’s there to see isn’t much, relative to what was. Pretty good can’t carry a team of mercenaries and borderline pros into contention, clearly, or make all of those national TV games compelling, and so those 29, 12 and four nights just sink to the bottom of the news stack, his dust-ups with Mike D’Antoni become clouds of smoke in the most forgettable Lakers season in about a decade. The Celtics holding on to Rondo at the February trade deadline opened up a whole mess of new questions about his and the franchise’s future. The Lakers’ inability to move Gasol seemed to signal an end for which all parties had long since been prepared.

Now, after this recent spate of vertigo, it appears likely that his finale has, appropriately, already come and gone. Maybe Gasol will receive some sort of curtain call from his bench seat at one of the remaining four home games as the Lakers, with their loss total creeping closer and closer to 60, play out the string. Otherwise, all that appears to be left is that inevitable last thank-you tweet to fans, and maybe one more this summer to say goodbye.

What a nice guy, we’ll say. And that’ll be that.

Lakers fans' civil war

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
Special to
LakersAP Photo/Alex GallardoWin now or play for later? Kobe Bryant's extension has turned the Lakers fan divide into a chasm.
It’s been a difficult two years for a typically well-rewarded Lakers fan base. For the first time since 2005 and just the fifth since the 1960 relocation to Los Angeles, the Lakers will miss the postseason. This team is historically bad, and solutions for a fast makeover are few and far between. Uncertainty is a foreign, unsettling concept for this franchise. But through the adversity, fans have been able to cope by raging with solidarity against their grievances.

Mike D’Antoni. Jim Buss. Dwight Howard. David Stern. The Clippers.

All targets of distrust and disgust, all forces of evil blamed for the downward spiral. Misery loves company, and in this regard, Lakers fans have remained largely unified company.

Next season, however, could throw that brotherhood for a loop, as two very distinctly different sects of Lakers fans may find themselves uncomfortably pitted against each other.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
David McNew/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant's long legacy in Los Angeles has transformed a sector of Lakers fans into Kobe-ites.
Lakers fans vs. Kobe Bryant fans.

The independence of these two cliques has never been secret. There are fans who care first and foremost about the franchise, and there are fans who see the franchise first and foremost as a vehicle for Kobe’s greatness.

By and large, these factions have coexisted comfortably through the years, but their priorities are more mutually exclusive than one would rationally expect.

Then again, Kobe Bryant is anything but an ordinary superstar, and Kobe zealots are a breed different than I’ve seen in my entire life watching and covering sports.

The Mamba is regarded by this contingency as half basketball god, half political prisoner. An indestructible force of nature, yet encased in bubble wrap to protect him from the slings and arrows of jealous haters consumed with denying the Mamba’s greatness. True Kobe-ites will gladly step into traffic to protect him from an oncoming car, but feel disappointment it wasn’t actually a bus.

In fairness to Kobe’s vigilantes, getting his back has often felt like getting hit by a Greyhound. Bryant’s career has been shaped by persistent PR turbulence. Feuds with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. Getting (too much) blame for the three-peat core’s dissolution. Colorado. The 2007 offseason, in which he demanded a trade to Pluto. His relentlessly demanding relationship with teammates. An-court persona that would raise Hannibal Lecter’s eyebrows. Throw in the reductive -- and idiotic -- idea that Kobe’s first three titles on “Shaq’s teams” somehow counted less, and the guy has spent considerable time between the crosshairs. Bryant may be more popular than polarizing these days, but likability will never be his calling card.

Of course, Kobe Bryant is also an indisputable icon, an athlete destined to go down as one of basketball’s all-time greats, and a lifer for one of sports’ most storied franchises. The fervent didn’t choose him by accident. Even Lakers fans who don’t worship at the altar take considerable pride knowing Kobe is one of their own.

However, that sect pledges its loyalty to the franchise first, and these fans are hyper-aware of where life currently stands for the Lakers. The future has been mortgaged bone-dry after surrendering multiple picks to acquire Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and to jettison the contracts of Derek Fisher and Luke Walton. The new CBA was designed to prevent teams like the Lakers from reloading through economic superiority.

Painful as these losses have been, another underwhelming season might be necessary to create a sustainable, bright future. For the first time in eons, the Lakers are in position to build from the ground up, and whatever critical designs are in place can’t be altered to placate a 36-year-old player who has more than 54,000 career minutes played (playoffs included) and is coming off consecutive significant injuries. Even if that player happens to be Kobe Bryant.

And that’s where the situation gets sticky. During Kobe’s March news conference to confirm his knee injury was season-ending, he expressed “not a lick” of patience for a slow rebuild. Some interpreted this as Kobe putting pressure on the organization, but I question his leverage. Under (a very expensive) contract through 2016, if Bryant demanded a trade, his salary, age, injury history and complicating no-trade clause make the request borderline impossible. This isn’t like when he wanted out as arguably the league’s best player in his prime. All 29 other teams would have bent over backward to get him. I have to imagine even Kobe recognizes the present-day contextual difference.

In my opinion, Kobe wasn’t speaking so much to the front office as to the fans. He even cited them while explaining the premium placed on winning: “A lot of times it's hard to understand that message if you're not a die-hard Laker fan." Bryant, himself a Lakers fan growing up, is too smart and calculated for this phrasing to be incidental. It felt like a call to arms for fans to voice mutual displeasure over operating at anything less than “Championship or bust.” And for every Kobe-first fan who’ll stump on his behalf, who shares his impatience, who feels the organization “owes” him better than a swan song of mediocrity, there’s a Lakers-first fan who feels rebuilding the roster twice around Kobe between 2008 and 2013 equals a “debt” paid, especially after he wasn’t inclined to take an extension sacrificing “highest paid player in the NBA” status for increased cap flexibility so that ASAP rebuild would be easier. Frankly, there are Lakers fans who will blame Kobe if the rebuild takes an extended period of time.

And therein lies the schism.

So what would a purple-and-gold civil war look like, beyond incessant arguments throughout the Twittersphere and in comment sections? Ultimately, a sobering reexamination by both parties of (eventually) 20 years of Lakers basketball.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesHow grand will Kobe Bryant's finale be in L.A.?
Were Kobe catered to any further, or were it to become clear his presence (for a variety of potential reasons) has stuck the team in neutral, Lakers-first fans could develop a sour taste for arguably the greatest player in franchise history, a wholly unique career filled with riches and rare basketball artistry. Life with Kobe is never easy, but the good has easily outweighed the bad. Scales tipped in the opposite direction on his way out would be unfortunate.

Conversely, ignoring Bryant’s wishes could prompt bitterness from Kobe-first fans toward a franchise ultimately still close to their heart. However, that loyalty line has long been drawn in the sand, and Kobe twisting in the wind for two years (or milked for the financial windfall of a farewell tour) could be viewed as an unforgivable act. The transition to post-Mamba life will be tough for this crowd under the best of circumstances, much less messy ones.

Los Angeles is inherently something of a divided city. The geography is sprawling, with traffic snarls creating even more buffers. Good neighborhoods turn bad on a dime. Its ethnicities reflect more or less the globe, and some pockets keep to themselves. L.A.’s image is equally shaped by the Hollywood jet set and street gangs. But as someone who spent years bartending in Santa Monica, Pasadena and several places in between, I can attest to the bonding powers of a Lakers broadcast. Perhaps nothing in L.A. bridges more racial and socio-economic differences. Lakers fans may reek of entitlement, but despite popular belief, they aren’t flaky bandwagon riders. This is a rabid, passionate base, slavishly devoted to the franchise and its considerable list of icons, with Kobe Bryant the latest in line.

Will it be the name on the front or the back of the jersey that matters most moving forward?

Andy Kamenetzky has covered the Lakers and the NBA for and the Los Angeles Times, and can be heard regularly on ESPNLA 710. Follow the Kamenetzky Brothers @kambrothers, and download their podcast on iTunes.

Is Carmelo a superstar?

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
Amin Elhassan debates whether the Lakers or Knicks are closer to returning to contention and if Carmelo Anthony should still be considered a superstar.


In their dreams

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Who do the Sixers dream of drafting? What about the Bucks, Magic and Celtics? And have the Lakers already identified their man? We ask Chad Ford.


Phil Jackson doesn't know everything

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Phil JacksonJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesIt's hard to argue with Phil Jackson's results, but does his Phil-first process fit the modern NBA?
Phil Jackson is the Winston Churchill of the NBA. He won the biggest wars with a combination of old-school toughness and new-school guile.

Victory in hand, the dominant equation for both became: Big mouth + bigger ego = the verbal victory lap. Any quote book is loaded with Churchill’s high-testosterone patter. Jackson’s latest book, ostensibly about teamwork, has a title that has only to do with Jackson. Michael Jordan didn't win "Eleven Rings." Neither did Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal or Scottie Pippen. Only Phil did.

Jackson is expected to return to the NBA, as a New York Knicks executive, packing not just a lot of the NBA’s gravitas, but the majority of it. Add up all your other coaches, players and experts. If Phil says they’re full of it ... his voice is even money to carry the day.

That has to be a big part of why Jackson could mean so much to a team like the Knicks. The common denominator of their dominant commonness has been bad front-office decision-making, specifically one high-profile overspend after another. There's no arguing James Dolan is an owner without a clue, determined to bludgeon the competition not with his insight, but with his wallet -- a method that, for a bundle of league-wide cap reasons, always makes teams difficult to improve and almost never ends in titles.

[+] EnlargePhil Jackson
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesPhil Jackson's resume alone isn't going to erase the Knicks' woes
If Jackson arrives in New York packing the stature to silence the Knicks’ most foolish impulses, he’ll be a titan. Dolan’s piles of gold -- as a businessman, Dolan is no laughingstock; the Knicks make money -- would be so much shinier with the polish of wisdom.

The Knicks might already be the world’s most over-loved team. New York hoops fans, those hopeless romantics, have been dashing their hearts on the rocks of false optimism since the days of Patrick Ewing. Remember when Zach Randolph was the revolution? Amar’e Stoudemire? Carmelo Anthony?

Time and again, Dolan has gotten his man. Time and again, like Charlie Brown, the fans have believed. Time and again, the only thing needed to prove Dolan got the wrong man has been time.

Will this time be different?

I’m convinced the answer is no, and not because Jackson’s the wrong guy, but because this is the wrong time.

It’s too late. The league is changing too fast, learning too much, and Jackson, for all the open-mindedness that once led him to the novel and wonderful triangle offense, has been telegraphing his incuriousness for more than a decade.

This is not just basketball’s boom time for analytics, it’s also, as Nate Silver wrote recently in ESPN The Magazine, when analytics become basketball necessities, as opposed to niceties. From the stew of SportVu, Catapult and Vantage comes things that really matter: which pick-and-roll defenses stops which ball handlers, which offenses generate the best-quality looks, who plays good defense, the right number of hours to sleep before a big game and, increasingly, which players need to come out of the game right now before their fatigue-induced injury risk skyrockets.

It’s not that any one person knows ALL the right answers. It’s that no ONE person knows all the right answers. Much of this new stuff will prove to science bunk, but the best of it is exponentially better by the day. The only right answer is to be curious.

And at that, the league has passed Jackson by. All his books, all those interviews, all that insight into his thinking, and has he ever even once told of finding value in insight from a younger generation? Or, indeed, from anyone beyond his chosen short list of apostles?

Jackson spoke at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. As he did, I took notes, but I soon stopped. There was no point. Other than a rude joke about needing a “grain elevator” to weigh Shaq, these were all things told previously. The oft-recited Gospel According to St. Phil. His conversation was a museum piece, the recurring soup of the words “Michael Jordan,” “Kobe Bryant” and “Scottie Pippen” that Jackson has been ladling out forever.

More importantly, Jackson was not at Sloan to learn. Never has been. Tuning people out, and discrediting them even, is also a mainstay of Jackson’s game -- just ask Jerry West, or Jerry Krause.

Jackson’s Lakers never bothered to attend the stat-geek confab, and the Lakers were famously the only NBA team not to have a representative there last year. Jackson’s generic public take on basketball innovation has long been, essentially, that Red Holzman and Tex Winter knew all that stuff.

At Sloan, Jackson bragged of once playing O’Neal 48 minutes per game -- on the same day sport scientist Michael Regan, of Catapult Sports, explained how resting after stints of just eight minutes dramatically improved performance in Australian Rules Football, a league that’s enjoying massive injury reductions league-wide thanks to science-based things we've learned only in the past decade.

It’s not that Jackson can’t make the Knicks winners. He might. Indeed, as the argument goes, at least he has won, unlike everyone else in the building. But he’s sending all the wrong signals if the task is to outclass 29 other teams in a race starting in 2014. That prize will, almost certainly, go to whoever best masters new ideas, about which Phil says, basically: Who needs ‘em?

The cautionary tale here of course is in Charlotte. Michael Jordan also filled the staff with like-minded friends. But, of course, a great executive is far more than a great player who lost his spring or a great coach who tired of travel. Without piling one good decision on top of another, the team is lost. The Bobcats did everything Jordan’s way for a while, until the competitive forces humbled even Jordan, who now listens not just to his gut and his friends, but also to people such as new executive Rich Cho, who is effectively the team’s ambassador from the post-Jordan, Sloan-infused world of hoops insight.

Jackson and the Knicks aren't playing the exact same tune as MJ and the Bobcats -- they have deeper pockets and more intricate team-building experience -- but they’re sounding a lot of the same notes.

Thunder fall out of first as Clippers close in

March, 9, 2014
Mar 9
Adande By J.A. Adande
LOS ANGELES -- Big win for the Los Angeles Clippers in Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s not a mistake. Even though the scoreboard said it was the Lakers that beat the Thunder, 114-110, the Clippers were the biggest beneficiary.

When the Clippers beat the Lakers by 48 points last week the accomplishment was lost amid nationwide scuba diving to determine just how low the Lakers had sunk. Maybe now the Clippers’ accomplishments in that landmark victory and their seven-game winning streak can bob to the surface. People can realize that the Lakers didn’t simply roll over, the Clippers did plenty of kicking. The Clippers turned a 15-point lead against the Lakers into a 52-point lead. The Thunder turned an 18-point lead into an 18-point deficit, and then an L. “You can’t play the score, you have to play the game,” Oklahoma City’s Derek Fisher said, in one of those veteran-y quotes.

Oh, and the Clippers are now within 2½ games of Oklahoma City’s second spot in the Western Conference standings. So, yeah, Sunday was a good day for the Clippers.
[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant had 27 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists but OKC fell to the Lakers.

The one thing you haven’t heard the Clippers do lately is lament. As in: “We did not come with the defensive intensity that we needed in the third quarter,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks lamented.

That’s a verb used only when you don’t get what you want. The Clippers have gotten the W in their past seven games, making them the hottest team in the league at the moment. They’re beginning to grasp the defensive concepts Doc Rivers is preaching, and held four of seven opponents to less than 100 points during the streak, a standard they failed to meet in nine of their previous 10 games.

While they’re reaching a crescendo, the Thunder have fallen into what Coach Brooks called “a defensive valley,” allowing opponents to score 110 points per game and shoot 47 percent while losing five of their past eight games. They dropped into second place in the Western Conference, a half game behind the San Antonio Spurs, who’ve won six straight and have to be feeling good about themselves as well.

Brooks was as critical as he gets about his team, saying, “It comes down to taking pride in guarding your man and we had trouble staying in front of the basketball tonight” as well as “In the third quarter we did not come out with the defensive toughness it takes to win in this league.”

The Thunder aren’t making excuses about the absence of the injured Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, but it’s clearly an issue.

“Thabo is a defensive player,” Brooks said. “Perk is one of our best defensive players. He’s not only good on the post, he’s good on the pick-and-roll coverage and he’s good at communicating.”

Perkins communicates not only on the court but in the locker room and through the media, quick to call out insufficient efforts from his team. He wasn’t around Sunday, so that left it to Fisher.

Yes, Kevin Durant, a 40 percent 3-point shooter on the season, has shot 33 percent on 3-pointers in February and is 9-for-32 (28 percent) in four games in March. And just when it seemed Russell Westbrook had regained his shooting touch by making 58 percent of his shots in the previous five games, he cratered to a 7-for-23 (30 percent) shooting performance Sunday afternoon.

Those aren’t the type of things that have Fisher concerned.

“It’s a larger perspective in terms of just where we are as a team, our mentality, our mindset, our ability to bring the right type of focus to the game,” Fisher said.

“As a team we have to decide what’s most important to us. And if it’s the team’s success, then you’ll start to see offensively and defensively things tighten up the way they need to tighten up. … Just in terms of respecting the game, respecting each other, bringing the right sense of urgency to our jobs.

“I don’t question guys’ commitment to the team, I’m just saying we’re not right now putting it out there on the court."

The Thunder left the arena muttering to themselves, the Lakers were granted a temporary reprieve from their miserable season, and Jodie Meeks had a career-high 42 points to savor. Nobody had it better than the Clippers, though. They had a day off to enjoy a beautiful afternoon in L.A., and their status improved at the same time.

Moving up without moving on

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
By Brendan I. Koerner
Special to
Michael Olowokandi and Blake GriffinGetty ImagesAfter decades at the bottom, the Clippers' sudden rise is still tough to grasp for longtime devotees.
When I swore fealty to the Los Angeles Clippers in fall 1984, at the start of the team’s inaugural season in my sun-kissed hometown, I assumed that I wouldn’t have to wait more than a few years to attend my first championship parade. My concept of the ebb and flow of basketball fortunes had been warped by the Los Angeles Times sports section, which had conditioned me to expect Lakers titles on a biennial basis.

By my naive third-grade logic, any franchise that alighted in L.A. had to be the Lakers’ equal in terms of talent and organizational prowess; otherwise, why would they have the temerity to challenge the city's most cherished team for the population’s hearts and minds? Surely the Clippers would have their turn atop the NBA's summit, perhaps once Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finally called it a career. And when the team inevitably earned its first ring, I would be the only kid at school who could claim to have been a true acolyte since Day 1. All those smug, conformist Lakers fans would marvel at my prescience -- including my dad, who once declared that the sweetest sound in the world was the snap of the net after a James Worthy jumper.

I didn't fully awaken to the folly of my plan until 4 1/2 years later, after poor Danny Manning's right ACL turned into mincemeat on a grim Milwaukee night. By the time that cataclysm occurred, I was already more than a bit bewildered by the Clippers’ obvious deficiencies on the court. In sharp contrast to the Showtime Lakers, who ran the break with such balletic grace, the Clippers played an ugly brand of basketball that featured lots of errant passes and boneheaded fourth-quarter fouls, punctuated by the more-than-occasional Lancaster Gordon air ball. The roster teemed with over-the-hill veterans who gasped for breath after every missed rebound, plus a smattering of overhyped greenhorns who seemingly lost all heart upon first setting foot inside the squalid Sports Arena. When Manning’s knee gave way just 26 games into what was supposed to be a Hall of Fame career, I knew for certain that I had mistakenly opted for a life of misery by casting my lot with the Clippers.

Yet I never came close to abandoning my ill-starred team, even though I understood that decades’ worth of heartache lay ahead. After a boyhood spent obsessing over sports, I understood that there are few archetypes more justly despised than the fair-weather fan. We must suffer the consequences of our bad choices, even when those choices were made before we understood all of the variables involved. To reject the Clippers just because they were a tragic punch line would be tantamount to begging the cosmos for special treatment. And no one respects the guy who’s always asking for mulligans when things don't go exactly according to plan.

Instead of turning my back on the Clippers, I learned to appreciate their minor regular-season triumphs and, more important, to take a peculiar pride in the absurdity of their tribulations. When owner-cum-supervillain Donald Sterling raised the possibility of making the players buy their own socks, for example, or allegedly asked a prostitute whether he should hire Alvin Gentry, I felt strangely elated. With such an odious character atop the hierarchy, the fact the Clippers actually managed to make the playoffs every once in a blue moon was arguably quite a feat. Or when questionable first-round picks such as Michael Olowokandi and Bo Kimble proved the conventional wisdom correct by flaming out, I could only congratulate myself for sticking by a team whose college scouting department was evidently staffed by utter dolts.

Having developed these coping mechanisms during 30 years of Clippers fandom, I now find it difficult to believe that Lob City is anything more than a mirage. We’ve been teased before, of course, notably during those few brief days when it seemed that free-agent signing Baron Davis might get the chance to feed Elton Brand in the post. When Brand opted to break our hearts by signing with the Sixers, no bona fide Clippers fan was surprised -- we accept that our lot in life is to have contentment snatched away from us at the last moment, much like Tantalus never quite being able to grasp that fruit branch in hell.

And so I fear that a sudden stroke of misfortune will doom this winning Clippers team that has brought me so much joy. Perhaps Chris Paul’s oft-repaired legs will permanently turn to Jell-O. Or Blake Griffin will suddenly forget all he's learned about playing with his back to the basket. Or Sterling will scare away a crucial free agent by once again saying something shockingly boorish or racist.

[+] EnlargeDanny Manning
AP Photo/Lennox McLendonThe current-day Clippers' success and high-wire act can't heal all old wounds, for better and for worse.
Yet a small part of me also feels nostalgic for the darkest of Clippers days, when there was a perverse sense of honor in adoring such an infamously dreadful team. It is easy to feel a special kinship with fellow Clippers fans who can recite chapter and verse about the frustrations of the Benoit Benjamin era; suffering unites in a way that success never can.

Once, while traveling through Slovakia, I bumped into a fellow Clippers aficionado with whom I shared a long exchange about our infamous 1987 draft, when we somehow managed to convert three of the first 19 picks into Reggie Williams, Joe Wolf and Ken Norman -- in other words, nada. I daresay the connection we made that day, as we commiserated over 30-cent glasses of red wine, was an order of magnitude richer than anything two Lakers fans could forge while discussing the glorious Pat Riley years.

The legions of new Clippers fans, who have flocked to the team as its style has evolved from plodding to dynamic, are a bunch that I regard with both suspicion and pity. I have no quibble with folks who will one day tell their kids that their Clippers love was sparked by the artistry of Paul -- I accept that most origin stories of fandom are less narcissistic than my own. But I suspect that a fair chunk of the new fan base will not see their commitment through to the grave, but rather just until the day that Griffin takes his talents elsewhere. Anyone who stops supporting my Clippers at that moment will miss out on plenty of emotional tumult, for better and for worse.

Alas, I needn't even bother worrying about whether my son will be a Clippers lifer. Though I made sure to dress him in a Brand onesie during his toddler phase, the boy has opted to pour his heart and soul into pulling for the Knicks. At least he’ll develop a deep understanding of how teams can be ruined by capricious owners.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of "The Skies Belong to Us." Follow him @brendankoerner.

Collins' extraordinary day, ordinary game

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Not 10 seconds into Jason Collins’ pregame news conference inside Staples Center, it was clear he was distinctly uninterested in answering questions about the historic and cultural import of the night. Collins had spent a good part of the day playing catch-up with the Brooklyn Nets’ coverage schemes and play calls, and the self-portrait he sketched sitting behind the low table inside the visitor’s hockey locker room was of a guy on a 10-day contract, and little more.

Collins made mention of his quality of life since he came out publicly last April -- Life is so much better for me -- but for the better part of 10 minutes, Collins spoke in largely clinical terms about learning the Nets’ playbook and his conditioning. He’s well aware that his game subsists on a diet of sturdy screens, pick-and-roll defense, guarding the post and issuing fouls as necessary. That’s stuff that requires mastery and 12 hours isn’t a lot of time to process.
[+] EnlargeJason Collins
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesKeeping Chris Kaman off the boards? All is back to normal in one sense for Jason Collins.

On the surface, Collins’ reluctance to acknowledge the symbolism of the evening seemed not so much disingenuous as a little distorted. But the thing you have to appreciate is that most well-adjusted gay people rarely think about their sexual identity in the confines of their job. Collins understood from the outset that the best way to service the cause was to play quality minutes as a backup big. He wants to prove that the NBA’s first openly gay player is on the court because he still has something left to contribute.

Collins’ pregame message turned out to be prophetic, because when he took the floor with 10:28 remaining in the second quarter, it was all about the basketball.

It was difficult to handicap going in how the Staples Center would react when Collins checked in. The Lakers crowd is composed of a lot of westside money and show biz pros, among the bluest voting audiences in the NBA. These are image-conscious people and it was easy to imagine that they’d shower a hometown guy who’d broken a barrier with a rousing standing ovation.

But those who wanted a sentimental, politically satisfying Aaron Sorkin screenplay instead got a grainy Frederick Wiseman documentary utterly devoid of drama. There was a smattering of supportive applause and a few standers, but many couldn’t be bothered to look up from their phones.

Collins then went to work and it was vintage unvarnished Collins. Nets coach Jason Kidd wanted a backup center who talked on defense, and that’s what Collins proceeded to do, calling out directions from the back line like a veteran big man. He fouled like crazy -- five in 11 minutes of court time. On the offensive end, he appeared rusty and his timing was off. He missed his only shot and fumbled a pass from Deron Williams while rolling to the bucket.

On the positive side of the ledger, Collins also plastered defenders with screens. After the game, he recounted with a broad smile his favorite moment of the night -- witnessing Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar kvetch to the officials that Collins was setting moving picks. For guys like Collins who perform janitorial duties, this is among the highest compliments.

How did it feel for Collins? It felt like I’ve done this thousands of times before. This doesn’t discount an enormous milestone for one of the last realms of American life where a gay man has to think twice about being himself. But if it seemed prosaic, that’s because it was.

And this is how we make sense of it: The context of Collins’ appearance tonight was a huge deal, even if the event wasn’t.

To live and vie in L.A.

February, 22, 2014
Feb 22
By Jordan Heimer
Special to
Pau Gasol, DeAndre JordanKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe Lakers have long been Staples' glamour tenant, but the court belongs to the Clippers now.
It’s been an hour since the final buzzer sounded on another Lakers loss, a 17-point, home-court drubbing at the hands of the lowly Utah Jazz that dropped the Lakers into dead last in the Western Conference. On "Lakers Line," ESPNLA 710's postgame call-in show, host A. Martinez sounds dispirited. "Laker fans, here’s what I want to know. Does it matter to you that the Lakers avoid finishing last? Does it even make a difference at this point?"

The phones light up, and A. puts a caller through: Robert, calling from Hollywood. It’s clear that Robert considers Martinez cretinous simply for raising such an obviously stupid question. "I can’t believe you’d even ask that, A. Of course, it matters."


In the mornings, Martinez co-hosts "Take Two," a current-affairs show on NPR's Pasadena, Calif., affiliate. He’s a die-hard, but his loyalties aren’t blind. "This team isn’t making the playoffs. What’s the difference?"

Robert sounds belligerent, maybe drunk. "We’re the Lakers," he says. "We don’t finish last."
[+] EnlargeChris Paul and Blake Griffin
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesChris Paul and Blake Griffin are grasping a real breakthrough in the L.A. basketball dynamic.

Something weird and metaphysical is happening in the world of L.A. basketball, and to understand it, you have to fully appreciate the distance separating its franchises. It’s not just that the Lakers have been better than the Clippers. The Yankees are usually better than the Mets. Alabama is usually better than Auburn. What needs to be understood is that the Lakers are always better than the Clippers, to such an extent and with such regularity that it’s hard to convey without resorting to analogue. The Lakers are the Road Runner, and the Clippers are Wile E. Coyote. The Lakers are award-show invitees, the Clippers are seat-fillers. It’s so basic it might seem banal, but it’s pretty extraordinary when you think about it: The most consistently relevant and consistently irrelevant teams in NBA history share not just a city but a building.

If you don’t live in Los Angeles, this might all seem, oh, about 2½ belated. You follow basketball. You’re familiar with the Chris Paul trade -- and isn’t that when the fortunes of these teams truly changed?

Well … kind of.

Two distinct strains of Clippers skeptics emerged after the Paul trade. The first were the sports reductionists, who espoused what might be called the Desecrated Graveyard theory of continued Clipper putrescence -- they never have won, so they never can win, QED.

The second line of skepticism, much harder to dismiss, conceded that the present was bright, but that perhaps Lob City was a boomtown built on an active fault line. Yes, the pairing of Paul and Blake Griffin was unlike anything in the franchise’s history, but there was something eerily familiar about certain front-office decisions. For instance, in 2012, team architect Neil Olshey was allowed to leave for Portland, while haircut Vinny Del Negro was retained. It wasn’t just the whiff of cheapness emanating from the penthouse at Sterling Towers, it was the self-defeating illogic of pairing a championship core with a suspect coach on a one-year deal.

If, as Joe E. Louis quipped, rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for US Steel, then rooting for the Lakers is like rooting for the Fed -- problems tend to seem manageable when you print money. The Clippers excelled only in failure. There’s a reason Bill Simmons wrote Griffin an open letter when he was drafted advising him to "run like the star of a horror movie." Worst ownership, worst record, worst luck, a history of (ahem) frugality with regards to free agents and facilities. There was the occasional moment, like the 2006 season, when a relative Lakers down season might coincide with a relative Clippers upswing, but it was always understood to be temporary. The Clippers might pull up a chair now and then to the adult table, but only until the Lakers returned from the bathroom.

According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures." Every business is the accumulation of its decisions. New gestures, new man.

In other words, what if Wile E. Coyote woke up one day and thought, "Enough of these Acme Products," and immediately went out and hired J.P.L. to redesign his rockets?

With a series of successful gestures, the Clippers have quietly crafted a new personality. Those gestures have been both large and small. Doc Rivers was hired. The Paul re-signing was a dignified nonevent despite the best efforts of Donald Sterling.

Over the past few seasons, the Clippers’ player development staff has increased from a one-man shop to four full-time coaches and a shooting guru. The scouting budget has increased. The training staff now includes a nutritionist, a chiropractor and a deep-tissue masseuse. Giant likenesses of current Clippers were hung during games to cover the Lakers championship banners. Their two stars are among the most marketable in the league, three if you count Cliff Paul.

In a weird, fractal way, Doc is in charge of channeling those "gestures" on a nightly basis while also being one of those gestures himself. His messages are simple and consistent. Preseason, he talked about his plans to maximize Griffin’s playmaking skills, then installed an offense that did just that. Questions about DeAndre Jordan’s free throw shooting are answered with comparisons to Bill Russell. At a recent postgame news conference, Doc was asked if he knew that Jared Dudley, who had made the go-ahead shot on a set play late in the game, had been 0-for-6 to that point. Doc said that he never looked at the box score during the game. "We draw up plays because we know they work," he said.

Meanwhile, since the passing of legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss, there has been a definite sense of drift, a feeling of not-quite-rightness that comes through in the voices of the anxious "Lakers Line" callers. A feeling that this time maybe there’s no guarantee things will come out right. Purple and gold has always been superstar catnip, only Dwight Howard chose deep red and a low state income tax.

There have been three coaches in two seasons (Hi, Bernie Bickerstaff), one Princeton offense and a revised printing of Jeanie Buss’ memoir released midseason referred to the hiring of Mike D’Antoni over her fiancé, Phil Jackson, as a "betrayal" and a "stab in the back."

Kobe Bryant signed a deal so massive it suggests the Lakers’ brass might in fact know that the team won’t compete seriously again for years and is doing what it can to shore up ticket sales. And even with all that cash, Kobe still hasn’t been deterred from public sniping over recent moves, calling last week’s Steve Blake trade "not cool."

Over on "Lakers Line’s" Clippers equivalent, "Clipper Talk," everything’s cool -- even after a tough Clippers loss against Golden State. Manny from Highland Park calls in and tells Isaac Lowenkron, the show’s host, "I know I’ve called before and said I thought the Clippers could win, but this year I actually mean it."

I’ve listened to Isaac for years. If "Clipper Talk" has historically been a dive bar where down-and-outters can gather and commiserate, then Lowenkron is the friendly bartender, the one who knows his job is to listen and sympathize. But tonight, there’s no empathy in his voice, only something that sounds more like giddy anticipation. "You know what the best part is?" he asks. "This is just the beginning."

Epic trade deadline

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN Insider Chad Ford predicts an "epic trade deadline" because of this NBA season's strange set of circumstances where many teams are tanking, and thus are willing to part with talented players.

The NBA's "global money machine"

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
Abbott By Henry Abbott
In Forbes' 2014 ranking of team values, the NBA is said to have become a "global money machine," with almost every team making money and franchises like the Knicks, Lakers and Bulls worth more than a billion dollars each. Editor Kurt Badenhausen explains.

Race to the bottom

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Would an injured Kobe Bryant help or hurt the Lakers' chances of a top pick? Can the Pelicans lose enough games to get into the top five so they won't have to give the 76ers their 2014 draft pick? Chad Ford on tanking.

Clippers and Lakers: L.A.'s odd couple

January, 11, 2014
Jan 11
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

LOS ANGELES -- Novelty acts have expiration dates. Whatever intrigue exists between the Clippers and Lakers in Los Angeles might resurface in the future, but on Friday night at Staples Center, there was little buzz. Like the Magic on Monday and the Celtics on Wednesday, the Lakers were just another in a series of weary teams limping into Staples Center this week to face the Clippers without Chris Paul.

The Clippers’ 123-87 bludgeoning of the Lakers wasn’t without some notable events. With the return of J.J. Redick to the lineup for the first time since Nov. 29, the Clippers' attack resembled the graceful, fluid, top-three offense the team built prior to his injury.

“It was huge,” Blake Griffin said. “It just puts pressure on them. He’s constantly moving. Even if he’s not hitting shots, it’s the movement. You always have to be aware of where he is, so he opens up a lot of things for the rest of us.”

Redick was hitting shots early. The Clippers’ first possession of the game was representative of what the Clippers were running (and succeeding with) the first 17 games of the season: It was a November favorite, a motion set that has Redick run below and Dudley above Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in the midposts. The set has multiple triggers, and after the ball went into Griffin at the elbow, he shuttled a hand-off to Redick, who had never stopped moving since the opening tip. Stop, pop, swish.

“J.J.’s energy to start, he’s one of those guys -- and, again, I didn’t know him, but I always liked him -- but our practices are different when he practices,” Doc Rivers said. “He just plays with that gear and with that intensity. I thought him coming off those screens to start the game really got us going.”

Redick finished with 19 points on 8-for-15 shooting from the field. He owned the game’s first four minutes, draining four of those eight makes before the Lakers called their first in an evening-long series of mercy timeouts on Friday night.

“Today before shootaround, I was talking to J.J. and he was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to come in and play 15 minutes and have, like, one shot and one rebound,'" Griffin said. “So after like four minutes into the game, I looked at him like, ‘Are you happy now?'"

Griffin certainly was on Friday night. He worked the full canvas -- insta-highlight, high-post facilitator, midrange jump shooter (4-for-7 from beyond 15 feet), foul-line ninja (9-for-11 from the stripe) and, more generally, the guy on the floor who ran the show. Griffin’s 33-point, 12-rebound, four-assist, four-steal performance even had Redick apologizing for his diction.

“I'm going to use a cliché,” Redick said. “He’s a man on a mission.”

We’ll invariably hear the usual voices tarring Griffin as ... what is it? One-dimensional? Soft? An unskilled sideshow? But no reasonable observer who took even a slapdash look at his performance over the past week can deny the breadth and depth of Griffin’s game. The vision Griffin and Rivers had at the outset of the season has come to fruition: a player too dynamic for a hulking big man to cover, and too brutish for a stretchy, lanky defender to stop.

Paul’s understudy, Darren Collison, has set out on his own mission. The Clippers’ backup point guard isn’t Paul and, to his credit, doesn’t try to be. Collison’s primary objective with the ball isn’t to distribute, but to find his way to the rim. Collison will have to find Redick, but that’s not a terribly difficult task. It requires some timing, but Collison should be able to hack it. Redick seems optimistic.

“I try to play with a lot of energy, and I try to play with a lot of movement,” Redick said. “If a guy doesn’t find me, he’s going to eventually find me. I’m going to keep moving.”

And so will the Clippers, though they now have four days off before their next game, Dallas at home on Wednesday. Griffin said recovery time is always a nice luxury midseason, while Redick joked sarcastically, “I really need a break.”

For the Lakers, oy. They also have a hiatus -- three days off before they face Cleveland on Tuesday -- but like a pitcher after a terrible outing, they’ll have no recourse but to stew. Mike D’Antoni looks like a coach looking for the side door. General manager Mitch Kupchak could be seen after the game looking like a guy who just got beat up on a witness stand. Pau Gasol resembles someone trying to grit his teeth through an insufferable office meeting.

The Lakers aren’t a franchise that takes solace in draft position. They’re going to have to find their comfort somewhere -- and it doesn’t appear as if it’ll be on the basketball court.

When Derek Fisher won his job

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Phil Jackson came to the Lakers in 1999 with a hard-won reputation for preferring big guards. Meanwhile, the point guard he found in L.A., Derek Fisher, wasn't just little, but he was also, up to that point, not known as a shooter.

Looking back now, on his re-vamped personal website, Fisher -- who now plays for the Thunder -- makes clear he felt he had some serious work to do to keep his job under the legendary new coach. Fisher couldn't help his lack of height, but he could at least increase his value to Jackson by mastering the art of shooting.
Being a smaller, more traditional point guard, I wasn’t supposed to be one of Phil Jackson’s favorite type of guys to have on his team. So shooting was something that I really worked hard at during the offseason, and that moment really catapulted my confidence level in playing for Phil and playing in that new system. It set the stage for my role going forward.

Fisher remembers clearly Jackson's first regular season game as Laker coach. It was in Salt Lake City, it was on national TV and it was close down the stretch. The Jazz had traditionally manhandled those Lakers, Fisher remembers, writing: "They were just so physically strong and mentally tougher than we were at that time in our careers, and they would show it just about every time we matched up against them."

The Lakers led 84-82 with about 45 seconds left when Fisher caught a pass in the deep right corner and fired away. Nothing but net (as you can watch, in grainy YouTube, on Fisher's site). The Lakers won that game 91-84. They also won 67 regular season games that season, and the NBA championship each of the following three years, and twice more besides. Hardly anyone has doubted Fisher's place in that Laker dynasty.

But according to Fisher himself, that shot in Utah was a key moment in securing the role, as title-winning starting Laker point guard, that defined his career.