By Craig Kwasniewski
Another day another Lakers blowout loss to... Memphis??? What's happened to the two-time defending champs? I'll address their problem another day but in the meantime I keep reading all the past Lakers squads people are comparing this team to. Sure they have some 2004 in them with the collection of talent and the mid-season losing streaks plus they also hosted the All-Star game that season. That's a VERY good assessment and right now I'll take a 5-game loss in the Finals. Flat out, the Lakers are terrible.
I'm not even thinking 2004 right now. I'm thinking the Lakers are more like the 2003 squad. The one that was such a disappointment that it forced the Lakers to look to Karl Malone and Gary Payton to save the day.
(While we're here, the biggest farce back in 2004 was Karl Malone taking an 18 million dollar pay cut to sign with LA. Sure he made nearly 20 million in 2003, but there was no way any team was offering close to half that salary, which is why he ditched Utah for the big bad Lakers. It wasn't a sacrifice by a future hall-of-famer but more like a "best option available." Don't get me wrong, I LOVED the Malone era in LA, just don't sell me on the $18 million sacrifice.)
Where was I? Oh yeah, the 2003 team. The one where Shaq missed what seemed to be half the season, the one with Samaki Walker, the one where Devean George was to save the day against San Antonio after Rick Fox had a season ending injury, the one that ended with Kobe and Fisher crying on the bench as the Spurs knocked off the three-time defending champs.
The Lakers carry the same exact stench as that unforgettable 2002-03 season. Just look at the similiarities:
Both teams are coming off threepeat seasons and are showing the wear. Threepeat??? Hey douchebag, the Lakers didn't win three in a row! True, but they did make the Finals three years in a row. And just like the threepeat era before the 2003 season, the Lakers put on a ton of mileage during those years. We're talking an average of 112 games (including pre and post-season) over nine months with practice and travel in between game days. That alone takes a toll.
Both starting centers delays off-season surgeries and missed the first quarter of the season. Back in 2003, always the sensitive one, Shaq felt disrespected with all the focus on Kobe in the offseason and how he may replace Shaq as the best in the NBA. Shaq pulled the grandest version of his "if he's so great let's see how the Lakers do without me in the lineup" moves and delayed offseason surgery until October knowing that recovery would last until late November. He said something about "doing it on company time" but in reality he was forcing his worth on the team. (Shaq was notorious for this, normally he'd take one or two games off literally days after Kobe went on one of his shooting sprees and the Laker always seemed to lose.) The Lakers opened 3-9 and struggled to top .500 by All-Star break.
Bynum delayed his surgery after consulting with both Kobe and Phil Jackson. It wasn't anything personal, they both treated it like a respectable move and felt he earned a break after sacrificing he body against Boston. Unfortunately, Bynum's recovery was delayed until late December and while the Lakers didn't struggle like in 2003, the wear and tear of big minutes for Gasol and Odom is starting to show.
The Lakers going cheap wore down the frontline for both teams. The Lakers frontcourt in 2003 was Shaquille O'Neal, Robert Horry, Samaki Walker and Slava Medvenendko (wow even now it's amazing the balls on the Lakers front office to go literally Shaq, Horry and a pile of shit for their front line). There were several veteran bigs wanting to join LA before the season (Charles Oakley anyone?) and the Lakers turned down everyone. (Jerry Buss wanted to be a team player back then and tried as he could to stick to the salary cap, which means two years of Samaki Walker on the cheap... TWO!!!!!). With Shaq out and with Samaki sucking, Phil Jackson was forced to play Robert Horry 29.3 minutes a game (the highest since 1998!). Sure 29.3 doesn't seem like a lot until you understand what Robert Horry is all about: he glides through the season and picks his moments to shine. He wasn't able to glide in 2003. The Lakers needed big minutes from Horry just to get 50 wins. No glide, no Big Shot Rob in the playoffs. Horry shot a jaw droppingly bad 2 for 38 from three point range in the playoffs including that three that rimmed out in Game 5 at San Antonio, a shot everyone EXPECTED Horry to make. He was gassed.
The Lakers spent all their free agent money on Matt Barnes and Steve Blake in the offseason, which on paper seemed like the right/brilliant move (and still may, I'm just too pissed to like anything the Lakers do these days). They let DJ MBenga and Josh Powell go and filled the roster with two rookies and Theo Ratliff as a back-up center. The Lakers front line is Bynum, Gasol, Odom, Ratliff and rookie Derrick Character, which when healthy this looks like the right mix needed for a championship run. WHEN HEALTHY! In reality, Bynum was out and Ratliff is 37 years old (meaning it wasn't if but when for a knee injury) and both Gasol and Odom logged in career high minutes filling in. Then Character went down with a knee and the Lakers had literally no back-up centers or power forwards on the roster. Instead of replacing Ratliff with a more reliable big, the Lakers chose to save some money and stick with what they have. Right now Gasol is having an Horry-like breakdown.... he looks gassed (if I was witty I'd say Gasol-ed, but see I'm not).
Both teams are veteran-laden squads that can't find the right amount of motivation. Let's face it, the Lakers look bored and unmotivated. With continued success comes the common question: what's next? This especially happens with veteran teams after years of success. With younger teams you can use statistics or mid-season awards such as All-Star appearances as motivation. But the 2003 and 2011 Lakers don't feel the need to prove themselves during the regular season. After all they both were multiple defending champs... the switch can easily be flipped and has been in the past. A January home loss to a mid-level team has no bearing on the final outcome...
Or does it? Because in 2003 and the growing trend this season, the Lakers lost several of those "whatever" games and lost homecourt advantage in the playoffs. The Lakers didn't have homecourt at all in 2003 and risk havng to do it on the road in the conference semifinals this season. It's not easy having to steal homecourt in San Antonio, Dallas, Utah or Oklahoma City. (BTW - they're guaranteed a top four finish because they'll win the crappy Pacific Division by February, yet another reason they're not motiovated.)
The similarities are there but I was too caught up in the Phil Jackson's fourth threepeat thing to notice. I keep trying to convince myself that this is the 2002 squad and that we're due for a ridiculously awesome seven game series against Oklahoma City. But the reality is that I think we'll see Kobe and Fisher crying on the bench as the Spurs knock off the Lakers in six... like 2003.
PS - Just like 2003 Kobe is busy trying to shoot the Lakers back into every game. The difference is that he's no longer capable of carrying them to victory. Now you get 25-30 points and Phil Jackson speaking in code about Kobe shooting too much with Kobe going 2004 and shrugging it off... good times.
PS2 - Back to Kobe's 2003 line, he had a Mamba-like year back then. Secretly one of his best overall years statistically with career highs in minutes (41.5), rebounds (6.9), 3-point field goal percentage (38.3%) and steals (2.2) plus his second best in assists (5.9) and field goal attempts (23.5). Mix in an impressive 32.1 points in the playoffs (remember this is still Shaq at the tail end of his prime). It was a shitty Lakers season but maybe 2003 was the year Jerry Buss told himself, "Hey, I can build a team around this kid... just keep at it this summer and stay out of trouble...."