- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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Despite their 21-27 record, they were right in the thick of the race for a playoff spot in the dreadful Eastern Conference.
Leading scorer Al Jefferson wasn't named to the All-Star team on Thursday, but he's certainly been playing like one. And with every effort like the 40 points he hung on the Lakers on Friday, he's making the Bobcats' management feel good about the three-year, $40.5 million contract they gave him this summer.
First-year coach Steve Clifford already feels like a winner.
The Bobcats might not be setting the league on fire, but they've won six of their past 10 games and seem to be trending in the right direction.
The Lakers on the other hand ... well, how do you say this without rubbing it in? The Lakers have very little to feel good about because the Lakers aren't playing for much at all anymore.
The playoffs are long gone. The door is closed, the lights are out, the Jell-O is ... nah, I can't waste that classic Chick Hearn line on this woebegone team.
How about the joy of the game? Hard to argue that point when coach Mike D'Antoni admitted his team looked "lifeless" in a 110-100 loss that wasn't as close as the score indicated.
Pride? That much you can give them. They are competing and giving a good effort. They're just not making any of the adjustments or doing any of the things they need to do to win games on a consistent basis.
To prove they belong in the league or to audition for a spot in the Lakers' future plans? Yeah, but name me a winning team that lists those as goals.
No, there's really nothing left to play for. And therein lies the problem:
It simply doesn't matter anymore if they win or lose games. It's nicer when they win, but it doesn't actually feel like it matters. And when you lose that, now you really are lost.
"Mostly pride and our fans and the name that we have on our chests, more than anything," Pau Gasol said when asked what this team had left to play for.
"You always have to stay professional and do your job regardless of the circumstances. It's not looking and feeling good right now, but you've got to play through it and do your very best."
It was about the only thing he could say. The guy has won two championships; he knows when a team simply doesn't have it.
To his credit, Gasol has soldiered on through the worst of this with professionalism and a passion for which he doesn't get enough credit. The 33-year-old Spaniard has enough injuries right now -- he expects to have an MRI on his injured right groin Saturday -- to have raised his hand long ago and asked out, but he has refused to abandon his teammates.
Still, his comments underscore why the Lakers find themselves mired in a historically bad month. After Friday's loss -- their sixth in a row, by the way -- the Lakers have lost 12 games in a calendar month for the first time since 1964. Their 31 losses are the most before Feb. 1 by a Laker team since the 1966-67 season.
There are more ugly statistics to describe just how ugly this run has been, but it all comes back to a very simple point: When a team feels like there are no consequences to losing, that's just what they'll keep doing.
This isn't the same thing as a team that quits. This Lakers team hasn't quit. It gives energy and effort most every night. It has just stopped believing that it was playing for anything as a team anymore. The Lakers' goals are effort-based now, not results-based. Individual player development matters more than the way the team develops. It's only natural for a team in this position, but it's still problematic.
Look no further than the Bobcats to understand why.
In their 10-year history as the Bobcats, the franchise has made the playoffs just one time (2009-10), when they won 44 games. This year they got tired of it. They dropped $40 million on Jefferson, hired Clifford away from the Lakers and set their sights on the playoffs, despite the historically deep 2014 draft.
"I knew when they signed me that they weren't going for the lottery," Jefferson said. "I've never known anyone to sign a guy and pay him a lot of money to lose. So I knew when they showed interest in me, they really wanted to start turning this thing around."
For Clifford, that's important for several reasons.
"It makes a big difference to the players," Clifford said. "But just having a team where there's no expectations for them to play well or work well, win or lose, to me that's never healthy for a young player.
"To me, there has to be an accountability when they're young."
Meanwhile, the Lakers had every intention of contending this season. They spent money they didn't have to (see the $3.2 million they gave Chris Kaman) in order to give this roster a chance to compete in the deep Western Conference. They gave Kobe Bryant $48.5 million over the next two seasons to signal they want to remain competitive, even as they rebuild.
It just hasn't worked out. Too many things have gone wrong. Too many key players have gotten hurt and missed too many games.
And now they're so deep in a hole, they can't even see the sun anymore. Losses are blending together. Players now seem more numb than hurt after each one.
Everybody's trying. What they're trying to accomplish just isn't clear anymore.