What we know (sort of, maybe)
In a season of turmoil, what have we learned about the Lakers?
"Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future" -- Neils Bohr
Sometime around 5 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday, fax machines across America brought grown men to tears. High school football coaches rose while it was still dark outside, drove to their offices at school to meet the teenagers who've been ranked and rated by every measure of recruiting service for the past four years, and together they hit the send button on the future.
Sometime around 8 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday, when the faxes stop whirring, another round of ranking and rating will take place. The winners and losers of national signing day will be declared and it will feel, to those who follow such things closely, as though the future has been charted.
Those of us -- and there were a lot of us -- who thought trading for the best point guard of his generation (Steve Nash) and the best center in the league (Dwight Howard) in one offseason had made the Los Angeles Lakers instant championship contenders, need to take a minute to wipe the egg off our faces so we can laugh at that thought.
Talent as a predictor of success? Clearly there's a lot more to it than that. And depending on how these Lakers end the season, whether they ultimately right the ship or crash it into another iceberg, there will be endless discussion of whether there were things about the Lakers, even in the beginning, that everyone missed.
But for now, with the Lakers at the midpoint of their make-or-break Grammy trip, and just past the midpoint of this 82-game season, there are only thoughts. Things I think I think (tip of the cap to Peter King) about the Lakers about what really went wrong about why it seems to be going right, finally and yes, a tepid prediction about how this will all end up.
I think, I think:
• Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard are like oil and water on and off the court, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. For a while there, I wasn't sure the pairing would ever work. They were just too different. Kobe wouldn't have the patience to put up with Dwight's growing pains and his frustration would destroy whatever relationship they were going to have. Dwight wouldn't have the maturity to put up with Kobe's iron-fist style of rule and would eventually shut down emotionally. But somewhere along the way they found a way to make it work. Or at least way to try to make it work. They just needed to be real with each other. No more hiding frustrations. No more passive-aggressive behavior. Confront issues, don't sit on them.
Bryant has always had a confrontational nature. Howard has always avoided confrontation. So in some respects, this is evidence Bryant is indeed getting through to Howard in the process of readying him for the torch-pass he's seemingly committed to after next season. If he's here for a long while, it's a lesson that should help Howard deal with the responsibility of being the standard-bearer for a franchise such as the Lakers.
• Mike D'Antoni thought he came in to the job with a lot more power than he actually had and probably would have done things very differently had he known better.
It wasn't wrong for D'Antoni to assume so, of course. The Lakers fired Mike Brown as quickly as they did because they already knew they wanted to hire D'Antoni. When it was mentioned that Phil Jackson might be interested enough to come out of retirement, that gave them a moment's pause, but in the end they stuck with the original plan, spurned the coach who won five NBA titles for them, and charged D'Antoni with doing whatever it took to bring Showtime back. Yeah, that's enough to make a coach think he doesn't need to worry about alienating a player like Pau Gasol in the first week if Gasol doesn't immediately conform to running the system the way D'Antoni wanted it run.
Who knows how things would have played out if the Lakers had won a bunch of games at the start of the D'Antoni era. If they'd gone on a run that justified his hiring and enhanced his power within the organization. Would the Lakers have given his system a longer look?
It's impossible to say now because the Lakers didn't win after D'Antoni took over. Things got worse, actually. And it became next to impossible to coerce a veteran team with accomplished players into stepping outside of their comfort zones and trusting a coach and a system that had never gone past the conference finals.
Eventually things got so tense, D'Antoni had to concede on several issues and bend his system and principles to the will -- and skills -- of his players to avoid an all-out revolt.
• Pau Gasol will never really ask for a trade. I know he's frustrated. I know he's hurt. I know he's even said he might. But at his core, Gasol knows he's better off staying with the Lakers. He has long since admitted to himself that he's not an alpha, and doesn't need to be. In fact, I think deep down he knows he's most effective in a yin-yang relationship with an alpha like Bryant.
Plus, he's like Nash in the scope of his world view. Basketball is their passion, not their entire lives. Nash chose the Lakers because being in Los Angeles allowed him to see his children often. That was as important to him as chasing a championship. Gasol has spent his five years in Los Angeles connecting with several influential charities and causes that are dear to his heart. He's well-rounded. He's cultured. He has used the stage here to do more good in the world than he would have been able to do in other towns where the lights aren't as bright. That will be hard to leave behind just so he can start again.
• Steve Nash's could have spared D'Antoni some of this pain.
Have you noticed that Nash never creates drama? His agenda always seems pure. He never rocks the boat. That should be an admirable thing. And it is. But in a season such as this, sometimes the boat needs to be rocked. And because of his unique relationship with D'Antoni, Nash was in a unique position to do so. Instead, he mostly stayed out of it, letting Bryant and Howard force the action that seems finally to have turned the tide.
That's a ridiculous standard to hold someone to. But these have been ridiculous times.
• The Lakers should make the playoffs as long as Gasol and Howard both recover from their injuries. I know they still have to figure out how to play together and the Lakers' resurrection has strangely come while one of them has been out -- and will continue this way now that Gasol is out at least a month with torn fascia in his foot. But the Lakers' advantage over every other team in the league come playoff time is still that they have the two best 7-footers in the league. They need both of them. And the way for them to play together and work together seems to be getting clearer.
If Howard can improve his timing on pick-and-rolls with Nash, he won't need to post up as much and Gasol will have room to operate out of the low post, where he excels. Everybody seems to know that now. The challenge for Howard will be to run a play where he'll be exposed to the type of hard fouls that have created this shoulder problem. If he can't master that this season, the challenge for Gasol --once he returns from injury-- will be the same as it has been: embrace a role that's outside his comfort zone with no promise that sacrifice will be rewarded.