Two of the proudest organizations in sports, two bitter rivals who have defined the NBA for decades, two teams fiercely attempting to return to respectability, and yet their matchup Friday night is an afterthought.
Rarely in the past would national television pass on Lakers-Celtics, but this time, ESPN chose Clippers-Knicks instead. The only sizzle in this matchup is the expected return of Rajon Rondo, which has been the league’s worst-kept secret for the past week.
And while the Celtics were snapping a nine-game losing streak Wednesday night against the Raptors, the Lakers were extending theirs to six as Nick Young, one of the handful of Lakers on one-year deals, decided to throw a punch at Phoenix guard Goran Dragic.
Young was ejected from the 121-114 loss to the Suns, also the sixth consecutive game the Lakers have allowed at least 110 points, and will serve a one-game suspension Friday night. In many ways, Young exemplifies the Lakers’ difficult season.
General manager Mitch Kupchak decided to bridge the gap to the Lakers’ next run of success by signing a slew of players with checkered pasts to one-year contracts to conserve salary cap space for this summer, when players such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony could become free agents.
“Obviously, we broke ranks to sign Kobe [Bryant] to an extension, but we still feel like we have significant flexibility this summer and next summer,” Kupchak said on the team’s website. “As far as who’s available and who is not available around the league to sign, we still don’t know. Some players will opt out, and some players you think will opt out may not. Some free agents may be extended, and some may not. It would be foolish to plan on somebody for sure not opting out or not extending. You really can’t plan it with certainty that way. Now, we know who’s probably going to be a free agent in the next three seasons, but just not for sure. What we do know is that flexibility is good.”
Because Bryant sustained a torn left Achilles’ tendon last April and Steve Nash hasn’t been 100 percent since joining the Lakers in July 2012, the organization has suffered a lack of star power. Coach Mike D’Antoni, brought in when owner Jim Buss spurned Phil Jackson in a power play, has been relegated to coaching a bunch of journeymen, a disinterested Pau Gasol, and Bryant for a six-game stretch in a season that has lacked direction.
The Lakers are hardly a Western Conference contender, but they aren’t the worst team in the NBA, either. They have players looking to earn contracts from other clubs for next season, so tanking isn’t a possibility. The Lakers are losing because they’re a bunch of ill-fitting pieces hastily assembled by an organization banking on the lure of Hollywood to help resurrect the franchise.
So, the Lakers are here, limping into Boston having lost 12 of their last 13 games, with their most talented healthy scorer (Young) suspended, and playing for an uncertain purpose.
The decision of Dwight Howard to bolt for the Houston Rockets after an unhappy and injury-plagued season crippled a Lakers organization that anticipated him signing a long-term deal. Without Howard and with few attractive free agents, Kupchak decided to conserve the Lakers’ financial assets for a year and merely survive this season.
“I don’t think anybody could have predicted Nash would have been out as much as he has been or Bryant being out as much as he has been,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. “They didn’t have much choice. They didn’t have salary cap flexibility. They didn’t really have tradeable assets other than Gasol, and his salary makes it very difficult to trade.
“Two years ago, they almost had Chris Paul. They would have had Chris Paul but the owner of the [New Orleans] Hornets at that time, David Stern, decided that he was going to nix the trade. They were right there, so that’s the transformational player we’re used to seeing with the Lakers, and things could have been different. They’re going to find their way out of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be quick or easy.”
The Lakers (14-25) are 29th in the NBA in scoring defense and are tied for the league’s fifth-worst point differential, meaning they are getting beaten soundly consistently. They are relying on players such as Xavier Henry, a former lottery pick who was no more than an afterthought in his previous two NBA stops, before playing surprisingly well for the Lakers before a knee injury. Kendall Marshall, disposed of by the Suns and Wizards, has emerged as the starting point guard, averaging 12.1 assists in his last seven games.
Such stories are encouraging for average franchises, but these are the Lakers.
“Aging vets combined with a group of NBA outcasts. None of the outcasts are good enough to start in this league,” an NBA advance scout said in assessing the Lakers. “Every night they play like it’s their last. For some of them, it could be. D’Antoni’s style of play works perfect for that group of guys because they don’t have set positions. [None] of them does anything exceptionally well. They have some length, athleticism, can run, and all of them are streaky shooters, but there’s a reason most of them haven’t lasted on other teams.
“The dangerous thing about them is when they play hard, guard a little bit, and make some shots; their opponents get caught in a trap game. It’s like they don’t know they are a bad team, so it works for them. Obviously, if Kobe and Nash were healthy, their team and their record would be better, but still not good enough to compete for the Western Conference title.”
So the Lakers are here, stumbling into TD Garden in a battle of former heavyweight champions. Times will be better for both sides, but the transformation back to prosperity will be an arduous process.
“The Lakers have always been able to bounce back quickly,” Van Gundy said. “More than anything, this is what happens when you stay great for as long a period of time as they have. Your best players get older. They’ve had injuries to their better players and without a way to really replenish it, and the way they replenished in the past, the trade for Bryant, the free agent signing of [Shaquille] O’Neal and because LA is a destination for many players, most likely it’s going have to be through a trade or free agency.
“I think that anybody that doubts the Lakers and their ability to bounce back just hasn’t looked at their track record. It’s been amazing. They’re going to find their way out of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be quick or easy.”Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe.