Lakers make case to stick together
If losses keep adding up, however, the argument to retain the core weakens
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Along with Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol is generally considered the Los Angeles Lakers' most eloquent, intelligent spokesman. Win or lose, his observations on the team's play or mindset are always thoughtful and sharp.
But Tuesday night after the Lakers' 88-85 overtime loss to the formerly hapless Detroit Pistons, Gasol said it best with three little words as he emerged from the training room: "Damn, damn, damn."
This wasn't the Lakers' worst loss of the season, nor their most damaging. But it was absolutely not the way the team wanted to start a three-game road trip that could greatly influence the franchise's thinking before the trade deadline on March 15, and their place in the Western Conference standings come playoff time.
"Wins are wins and we have to value every one of them, especially with how tight the standings are and how big of a difference a game can make in a shortened season," Gasol said after the team fell to 6-13 on the road this season.
Asked whether he was indeed looking at the tightly bunched Western Conference standings, Gasol not only admitted as such, but let on just how closely the Lakers (23-15) are paying attention to where they stand.
"I'm looking. I think we all should be looking. Today was a missed opportunity for us to continue to move in the right direction," he said. "I see a team that leads the conference and has a nice record in Oklahoma (City, at 30-8). I see San Antonio (25-12) three losses away from us and now the Clippers (22-14) are one ahead of us and now we're tied with Memphis (22-15), I think. We're 15 losses. We have Dallas (23-17) right behind. Denver (22-17) is right behind. Utah and Portland are very close. Houston (21-18) is also right there. That's what I see.
"One win, one loss makes a huge difference. You can go from third to fifth or from fifth to eighth. So it's important to win the games that you're supposed to win. to take care of those games and not overlook anybody because every win is valuable."
Aside from how impressive Gasol's attention to detail is, it's a little shocking to hear a team like the Lakers admit just how closely it is paying attention to where it is in the standings. In the past the Lakers had such an edge in talent over everyone else in the conference they really only needed to worry about themselves and whether they could flip the proverbial switch at the right time.
But this is the team's reality now: Good enough to be dangerous, but not good enough to overcome some of their individual failings.
It is this question that has to be on general manager Mitch Kupchak's mind as the team approaches the trade deadline. Can this team, as currently assembled, win an NBA title? Can it even compete for one?
The Lakers' 8-2 record coming into Tuesday's game had started to create the impression that maybe they could, especially after their 93-83 win over the Miami Heat on Sunday.
"I truly believe that we can win it," Lakers coach Mike Brown said before the game. "Obviously we have to have some things go right for us and we have to get lucky and all that, but we can win it and a lot of it has to do with the fact we have that guy [Kobe Bryant] on our team."
After the game, everything the team still lacks was right back in focus. The Lakers got 13 points from everyone not named Bryant (22), Andrew Bynum (30) or Pau Gasol (22).
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They built double-digit leads four times in the first half, but went into halftime trailing 45-41. They rallied in the third quarter to take a 61-54 lead into the fourth quarter, but gave it all back and were lucky to force overtime when Bryant drained a 19-foot jumper over Tayshaun Prince at the buzzer. They allowed Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey to score 34 points.
"We always give up leads," Bynum said. "I think I said that after the Sacramento game that we can't do that on the road. We did it on the road and we lost."
In the end, it was one loss in a season in which the condensed schedule makes losses to bad teams like the Pistons tolerable. If the Lakers close out this trip with wins in Washington and Minnesota, it will likely be forgotten.
But this close to the trade deadline, with Kupchak already pondering whether this team can win as constructed, win with a few minor tweaks or is in need of a major overhaul, it's harder to move on to the next one so easily.
"The team is doing well. We're winning, we're moving on, and now people are starting to talk that we don't need a major trade," Gasol said after shootaround on Tuesday. "We just need a tweak here and there. Or a piece that can make us better for later.
"That's what you hear because we're winning. But if we would've lost three of the last six games instead of winning them, then you'd hear, 'They definitely need a major trade.' So, anyways...
"I guess March 15 is closer. I know it's coming. It's only, what? Nine days. So no matter what, in nine days, we'll have an answer no matter what. That's the good thing. Hopefully after that we can put everything behind us."
Kupchak will obviously be weighing a number of factors as the trade deadline nears. His team has an opportunity to make a case for itself over the next nine days. This wasn't a great opening argument.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.