Lakers fell far below expectations
Injuries and chemistry issues derailed the season early and often
The San Diego Sports Arena is called something else these days. A casino bought the naming rights to the old place, put a few new signs up and repackaged it as a modern concert and entertainment venue. Never mind that the seats inside hadn't been changed out in a decade or two. Or that the locker rooms were so small, only half a 12-man basketball team could comfortably get dressed at the same time.
Its best days are clearly behind it. But when the shows are good, people generally forgive the flaws in a place.
Back in October, the Los Angeles Lakers ended a winless preseason with a listless 94-82 loss to the Sacramento Kings in that arena. Other than the shot clock malfunctioning for most of the second half, it was an unremarkable night.
And Mike Brown, remember him? He was trying to diffuse some of the pressure building from his team's 0-8 preseason with a joke. "I would've loved to get one, at least one, but there's nothing we can do now," Brown joked after the game. "The worst thing about it, honestly, is that my preseason record with the Lakers is 0-10. Hopefully next year, I'll get a win."
There are a hundred quotes like this from this season that look silly in retrospect. A thousand assumptions we all made then, that need to be questioned now. Flaws everyone ignored.
The old, injury-prone roster, the ill-fitting offensive schemes, the lack of chemistry and athleticism. They were all there from the jump. And yet the Lakers' talent was so great, their destiny was rarely questioned until it was far too late.
The question, now that the season has ended so embarrassingly short of where it was supposed to end, isn't why they were missed, but why they were ignored.[+] EnlargeRichard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsDwight Howard's season, which began with such high hopes, ended in frustration.
Like the patrons of the old San Diego Sports Arena, did we all get distracted by the flashy new names and signs? Perhaps it's just easier to go along with the crowd and all be wrong together.
There's a fine line between faith and fanaticism. Trust is the foundation of both, but offered blindly and for too long it can lead down the wrong path.
But on that warm fall night down in San Diego, the Lakers still had good reason to believe. In themselves and their talent. That it would eventually come together. That all that faith would be rewarded in the end.
Dwight Howard was among the last Lakers to get dressed after the game that night. He had to get treatment on his back. Then he had to get fully dressed for the TV cameras. The people of L.A. were just getting to know him back then, and he was diligent about putting himself together. The crowded locker room in the old arena was musty by the time Howard emerged. Used athletic tape littered the floor. Even with most of his teammates gone and waiting on the team bus, there were far too many people in the room and not enough fresh air. Everyone was sweating.
Howard tried to keep the mood light.
"Are you guys going to be this fun once the season starts?" he joked. "What about when we lose a couple games?"
Howard was among the first players to emerge from the locker room when the game was over on Sunday night. Wisely, he'd stuck around after he was ejected midway through the third quarter of the Lakers' season-ending loss to the San Antonio Spurs for arguing with a referee.
He didn't miss much. The game was settled early on. The Spurs went on a 21-9 run in the second quarter, took an 18-point lead into halftime, and that was pretty much it.
There was no reason to believe any more. There hadn't been for a while. Too much had gone wrong. This series, like the season, never really got started. All there was left to do now was move on to an uncertain future and try to regroup somehow.
This wasn't what anyone had planned when the Lakers acquired Howard and Steve Nash in a series of blockbuster trades last summer. Miami was supposed to be their stiffest competition. An NBA Finals date seemed assured.
Until recently, Howard still talked like all that was still possible. He kept the faith. He tried to lead. He played on.
By Sunday though, enough was enough. The Spurs surrounded him every time he touched the ball near the basket. They gave no ground. There would be no mercy.
Pau Gasol tried to plead with the referee who ejected Howard for arguing when he got tied up with San Antonio rookie Aron Baynes. Gasol asked that he give Howard a warning, not a second technical foul.
"It's an emotional game and we had been through a lot of frustration," Gasol said afterward. "What's the point of throwing him out now?"
The referee ignored Gasol's pleas.
Perhaps there was some mercy after all.
Little things feel like they matter a lot just before something ends. A last word. A final hug. A wave to the fans.
But this kind of ending has been coming for a while now. Only the details had to be worked out. The rest was theater.
The Lakers flew purple and gold balloons outside Staples Center for Sunday's game as a nod to the fans who'd stood by them this season.
Lakers vice president Jeanie Buss sat in her usual seat in the second row, across from the Lakers bench, to show she was still around and in charge.
Kobe Bryant came out of the locker room midway through the third quarter, with his left foot in a boot to protect his injured Achilles, to show he wasn't going anywhere, either.
This season will soon become a memory. A bad one. But people need to see and hear certain things before they move on. Apologies. Explanations. Regrets.
Everyone has a few after this season.
"I don't understand how it never got fixed," forward Antawn Jamison said. "To not be able to figure things out with the talent we had.
"We had the firepower We just never did it."
The Spurs pulled their starters midway through the final quarter when the lead had swelled to 25 points. All they needed was a win to close out the series, not revenge.
If they took any delight in kicking the Lakers while they were mortally wounded, they didn't show it.
Finally, with Tim Duncan out of the game, Gasol had a little room to work. With 4:17 to go, he made a graceful left-handed hook shot to cut the lead to 19.
As the crowd roared, Gasol lost himself in the moment a little. He pumped his fist. That one felt good.
There has been talk all season that there is no room for Gasol here anymore. He doesn't fit the system Mike D'Antoni was hired to install. He makes too much money for a third or fourth option on a team. His body seems to be breaking down on him.
But Gasol is still a prideful man. This franchise means something to him. He won two championships here. He forged deep bonds with his teammates and in the community.
D'Antoni came to appreciate Gasol as the season went on. His professionalism, his skill, his character.
The coach is not the type to admit he regrets anything about the way he handled Gasol earlier in the season. It's not his style. And besides, he was hired to try and install the type of offense he ran in Phoenix and New York and Gasol simply didn't fit that system. Management knew that when it hired him. But as the final minutes ticked off the clock Sunday afternoon, D'Antoni tapped rookie Robert Sacre on the shoulder and told him to check into the game for Gasol.[+] EnlargeAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesPau Gasol played hard to the end, never wanting to give up on the season.
At first Gasol seemed a little annoyed to be coming out of the game. It was important to fight until the bitter end. But when he looked over at Bryant standing up with the aid of his crutches and clapping his hands for him on the bench, he understood.
D'Antoni was giving the fans a chance to show their appreciation for Gasol.
If this was his last game as a Laker, if he's the major change the Lakers make, he should go out hearing some cheers.
Gasol clapped his hands for the fans, returning their appreciation, then sat down on the bench. Bryant whispered something in his ear as he rubbed his shoulders.
Over the years their bond has deepened. Bryant has defended Gasol publicly and privately. Gasol has done the same for Bryant. They understand each other. They trust each other.
When the Lakers rallied to get back into playoff contention this season, it was because Bryant and Gasol started playing together as they did during the 2009-10 championship runs. System be damned.
Later on, I asked Gasol what Bryant said to him.
"He just thanked me for competing all season," Gasol said. "For competing with him to the end."
The locker room cleared out pretty quickly after the last game. Not much was left to be said.
Assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who guided the team to a 4-1 record in his short interim stint, walked briskly in a smart grey suit, stopping only to say goodbye to a few reporters and staffers on his way out.
Bryant rode off in a golf cart with his leg elevated and did not brake to offer any last words. He'd done all he could until his Achilles ruptured under the weight of this wretched season.
This Lakers team, with its four future Hall of Famers and $100 million payroll, had been a spectacular failure. Perhaps even the biggest flop in modern sports history. But that's nothing new. That reality has been staring at the guys inside the locker room for months now.
Sunday was just the denouement.
"I really thought we'd be a good team," point guard Chris Duhon said. "But we never had an identity. We never had a direction we were going.
"You have to have something you work on constantly so that when you come out in the games, you know who you are and what you're trying to do."
Duhon is an easygoing sort. He went to Duke, and not just for basketball. When he finishes playing, he'll have a career in whatever he wants. Coaching, broadcasting, the front office. It'll be his choice.
Coming to Los Angeles was not his choice, however. He was added into the trade for Howard last summer to help make the math work, which makes him one of a few people who have lived with Howard on his awkward odyssey over the past two seasons.
It's been a ride.
"It gets you to understand even more that this is a business," he said. "Every move is kind of like a chess match between player and organization. And if you let that game mess with you, it can mess with you."
Duhon played a key role during D'Antoni's first month on the job. Steve Nash was out with a broken leg. Steve Blake was out with a groin injury. Third-year man Darius Morris was young and inexperienced.
Duhon knew D'Antoni's offense from their days together in New York. He could teach his teammates, or at least run it the way it was intended to be run. D'Antoni trusted him.
But when Nash and Blake came back, Duhon fell out of the rotation entirely. It was expected, but still difficult.
At the end of the season, when Nash and Blake got hurt again, Duhon was back in there playing meaningful minutes.
"You go from being relevant to irrelevant fast," Duhon said. "But that's just what kind of year it's been. Every day you walked in, it was an unknown."
Johnny Buss was the only one of Jerry Buss' six children to speak at his funeral in February. As the eldest, the honor fell to him.
The other children wrote their remembrances and thoughts in the program passed out to the 3,000 or so folks who came to pay their respects to the great Lakers owner at the Nokia Theater across the way from Staples Center.
But the real tribute they gave their father came in the form of the brilliant "Phantom of the Opera" singer, Davis Gaines.
Dr. Buss loved great singing. He played songs from the musical all the time.
It was this song that brought Jim Buss to tears at his father's funeral.
Jim, who has been groomed to run the Lakers basketball operations, and his father are far closer than people realize. They watched most of the Lakers' games the past two seasons together in Jerry Buss' hospital room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. They consulted on everything.
When Jim started thinking about replacing Brown after the Lakers skidded to that winless preseason and 1-4 start, it was his father who gave him the final nudge after a late-night visit.
It was also Jerry Buss who was the loudest advocate for D'Antoni, according to Lakers sources, although Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak were in agreement.
In many ways, everything the Lakers did this season was for Jerry Buss. His terminal cancer gave them all a sense of urgency. Everyone in the organization wanted him to win that 17th title to tie the hated Boston Celtics.
The Lakers players knew of Buss' condition. So did most of the media close to the team, but it was kept quiet out of respect for him.
When he took a turn for the worse in January, it became clear he would not see the way it ended.
He wouldn't have liked this sweep at the hands of the Spurs. He would've hated that the Celtics beat the Knicks earlier in the day, ensuring they'd play at least one more game than the Lakers this season.
But winning a title isn't the only way to honor the man's legacy.
Gaines sung the national anthem before Sunday's game.
When the game was finally over, Lakers trainer Gary Vitti walked to the middle of the court to shake hands with the Spurs and wish them luck the rest of the way.
Vitti has been with the Lakers longer than just about anyone. He started in 1984 and has been a part of eight Lakers championships.
Everyone trusts Vitti. He is regarded as one of the best trainers in the NBA.
This season has worn on him like few others. It's felt like he's treated 10 seasons' worth of injuries in one season. He does everything he can to help, and then he does some more.
He even gave a memorable speech at the air-it-out team meeting in Memphis in late January that seemed to be the turning point of the season.
Vitti and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich know each other the way men who've been in the NBA a long time do. In 2010, when the Lakers hosted the All-Star Game, Vitti gave him a dry-erase board to draw up a play. Popovich used a permanent marker and they've had good laugh about it ever since.[+] EnlargeJayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsLakers trainer Gary Vitti summed it up best: "The thing about banging your head against the wall It feels better when you stop."
"I told him he could at least autograph it for me since he used a permanent marker," Vitti joked.
Sunday afternoon the two men met for a handshake after the game. Vitti wished him good luck and said he'd be rooting for him to bring the title home to the Western Conference.
Popovich shook his head and said he felt bad the Lakers were in such a pitiful state during this series.
Then they parted ways. Popovich and his Spurs would go on to the next round of the playoffs. Vitti headed back to the Lakers locker room to schedule surgeries and treatment plans.
It was time to start healing.
"You know, the thing about banging your head against the wall," he said. "It feels better when you stop."
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