The Lakers are coming . . .
. . . is a phrase that once carried serious heft, even as recently as 2010.
A modern-day Paul Revere wouldn’t waste his breath warning New Englanders now, though, not with these Lakers, who face the Celtics Thursday at TD Garden, on track to become one of the biggest disappointments in the modern sports era.
Consider Sports Illustrated’s 2012-13 NBA preview issue, which featured Lakers additions Dwight Howard and Steve Nash splashed across the cover with a banner headline screaming, “Now, this is going to be FUN.”
That has proven to be as accurate as “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Howard, Nash, Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant haven’t steamrolled through the league and their supposed “superteam” has never truly formed.
Instead, crippling injuries and more drama than a dozen daytime soaps have the Lakers in danger of missing the playoffs for just the second time in Bryant’s 17-year NBA career.
As historic as this train wreck is, it’s only becoming more spectacular by the day, which, even for a squad from Hollywood, speaks volumes.
For instance, the Lakers have won six of seven, but all that momentum evaporated Wednesday when it was revealed that Gasol will be out indefinitely with a right foot injury.
Gasol, who is averaging 13.4 points and 8 rebounds a game, heard a “pop” in that foot during his team’s win at Brooklyn Tuesday. An MRI in Boston brought bad news.
So down goes another key player, a sentiment Boston fans can relate to with Rajon Rondo (and Jared Sullinger) out.
But Gasol will have lots of company in the Lakers training room.
Howard has missed three straight games because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and he isn’t expected to play against the Celtics. Emerging forward Jordan Hill is out for the season with a hip injury.
Then there is Bryant, whose 34-year-old legs have logged more than 44,000 minutes in 1,200-plus NBA games, and who is almost single-handedly keeping his team competitive.
Bryant revealed after the win at Brooklyn that he has tendinitis in his right (shooting) elbow.
Nothing short of two broken legs is likely to keep Bryant, who’s third in the NBA in scoring (27.6 points a game), on the sideline, but considering his already heavy workload, any injury isn’t to be taken lightly.
The damage has gotten so rampant in Lakerland that Earl Clark, a throw-in forward from the Howard trade with Orlando, has become an indispensable cog.
Without Clark, where would the 23-26 Lakers be?
“We’d be in deep crap,” Bryant told reporters Tuesday in New York.
They’re already there, in 10th place in the Western Conference standings.
Sports talk radio in Los Angeles is at DEFCON 1, as are Lakers fans. It’s been that way since their team got off to a 1-4 start, after which management fired coach Mike Brown.
Brown’s plodding Princeton offense took the blame, but it appeared that 11-time champion coach Phil Jackson was in place to rescue the team he coached to five titles.
That story line was scrapped, though, when Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss hired Mike D’Antoni over Jackson, who was prepared to come out of retirement.
(Background: Buss and Jackson aren’t exactly best friends; that Buss shunned Jackson wasn’t considered all that surprising by insiders.)
The chants of “We want Phil!” started to rain down at Staples Center as the losses started to build. D’Antoni’s schemes, especially on defense, were dissected and doubted.
Making matters worse, D’Antoni alienated Gasol, a four-time All-Star who helped the Lakers win two titles, by benching him in the fourth quarter of an early game at Memphis. D’Antoni then told reporters, “I was thinking, ‘I’d like to win this game.’ ”
The two haven’t been on the same page since. Gasol told the Los Angeles Times this week that they had a sit-down but, “I don’t think it translated to an understanding. Nothing has happened; it’s probably even gone a little backwards.”
In late January, again in Memphis, the Times reported that the Lakers held a clear-the-air meeting and that “guys went at each other a little bit.”
Bryant asked Howard, who had previously complained about taking a low number of shots in a game, if he disliked playing alongside him, and D’Antonio told the team to stop worrying about offense and start playing better defense, the Times reported.
“Have you ever watched an All-Star Game? It’s god-awful,” D’Antonio said after that game. “Everybody gets the ball and goes one-on-one and then they play no defense. That’s our team. That’s us. We’re an All-Star team.”
The Lakers want to keep Howard happy so that he’ll re-sign after this season, when he can become a restricted free agent. Will Howard stay or go? The player tapped to take the reins of the franchise in the post-Kobe era won’t say.
The frustrated Gasol might be on his way out soon. And Bryant is under contract only through the 2013-14 season.
The promise this season once held for the Lakers has faded. The land of milk and sunny is now filled with angst, its hopes of a parade and banner No. 17 all but gone.
The Lakers are coming . . . but they’re not the team that was expected.
They’re a disaster in sneakers, fighting injuries, chemistry issues, and, most important, time. Which, for these Lakers, is quickly running out.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes