No joy in Laker Land these days
If the Lakers are going to turn things around, it will have to be with defense
NEW YORK -- Mitch Kupchak is about as buttoned up as they come. If there was ever some kind of meter fashioned to read the Los Angeles Lakers general manager's homeostasis level, it would surely show Kupchak in a constant state of anywhere from 4 to 6. Never too high. Never too low.
With that in mind, it was almost jarring to hear (by Kupchak's standards) unbridled optimism from the GM a couple weeks ago when the team was mired in a stretch of eight losses in nine games.
"I just expect our players -- and they will -- to play hard and to compete, and they'll be fun to watch if they do that," Kupchak said.
His choice of that particular f-word couldn't help but serve as a reminder of that Sports Illustrated magazine cover from October 2012 featuring a preening Steve Nash and Dwight Howard with the now infamous tagline, "Now this is going to be fun."
Since Kupchak laid out his expectations, the undermanned Lakers have played hard, for the most part. They've competed, for the most part. But they haven't won, with their slump stretching to 15 losses in their past 18 games after a 114-105 defeat to the lowly Orlando Magic on Friday. There's nothing fun about that.
No, there's no joy in Laker Land these days.
Just listen to Nick Young, who is living out his dream as the leading scorer for his hometown purple and gold. Only, that dream, presumably, had Young chasing championships (like Magic Johnson, whose No. 32 jersey Young recently posed for an Instagram photo while wearing), not playing for a cellar dweller.
"It's tough," Young said after picking up his fourth technical foul in his last five games for spiking the ball in the second half against Orlando. "Obviously, I'm frustrated. Everything going around, a lot of buildup, but I'm still fighting for that respect factor out there too and just playing with passion. I can't play no other way."
Or hear Pau Gasol, who has averaged 20.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.8 blocks in the month of January -- outpacing his career numbers in all of those categories -- discuss what those stats mean to him when L.A. has gone 3-9 since the calendar flipped to 2014 in the meantime.
"It's bittersweet," Gasol said before the Miami game. "I'll try to continue to play aggressively. I'll try to continue to do my part. I'm happy that I'm able to produce the way I have been this past month, but obviously it's frustrating when it's not joined by wins."
Or how about Kendall Marshall, a D-League castoff just a couple months ago, dishing out double-digit assists in nine of the Lakers' last 12 games, including an impressive 19-point, 14-assist, one-turnover line against the Magic, not taking any solace in his supposedly superior situation.
"Honestly, it doesn't feel good because losing is still losing," Marshall said. "Obviously I need to find more ways to help my team. If I feel like I'm doing enough offensively, then there's more I need to do defensively. If I'm turning the ball over, then I need to cut that out. It's hard to focus on positives right now when you're going out there losing three times a week."
All the losses have poisoned the punch bowl for the Lakers. Even for a guy like Young who lives for the game of basketball, drinking from the cup of hoops these days is more about the nasty aftertaste of defeat than quenching any desire to play.
Which brings us to Kobe Bryant, a guy who hates to lose more than he loves to win. He looks legitimately pained when he watches the team play, always sitting in the same seat at the very end of the bench, almost as if to distance himself as far as possible from what's going on. Witnessing Bryant birth a bevy of gifs every game as he stares blankly or shakes his head or buries his face in his palms almost makes you wonder if he'll change his stance about going to the All-Star game, if only to guarantee himself seeing some quality basketball again this season.
The Lakers play the Knicks on Sunday to finish out their seven-game road trip against a New York team that was also desperately searching for something to make things fun again when Carmelo Anthony exploded for 62 points on Friday.
"They needed something like that to happen the way they've been losing," Young said, "and I can say for being a player, that could be a great spark."
There most likely isn't a 60-spot coming from any of the Lakers to save the day. Bryant was the last to do it with 61 at Madison Square Garden in Feb. 2009, but not only is he out of the lineup, that game against the Knicks nearly five years ago was the last time he scored 50-plus, let alone 60. Young once scored 60 -- in L.A.'s Drew League, a pro-am summer league. His high in the league is 43, anyway. Gasol's was 44, but that happened eight years ago.
No, if the Lakers are going to turn things around and start winning consistently, it will have to come on the other end, not through a quick-fix, headline-grabbing offensive outburst.
"There's no problems for us offensively," said Marshall. "It's all defensively right now that are our issues."
Can defense be fun? Maybe. If it's a means to an end.
"The only way is doing it together, being on the same page and picking each other up," Gasol said . "That's how you do it, that's how you get it done. You pick each other up."
The Lakers can only play this card so many times where they take a stand and vow to make a change before it's just lip service if the losses keep mounting.
"When you lose against the worst teams in the league you got to ask yourself why and kind of, what does that make you?" asked Gasol.
There's certainly nothing fun about realizing your own limitations.