The group that the Los Angeles Lakers’ brass envisions lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy come June has only played five games for its head coach, has yet to play a meaningful game with its Hall of Fame point guard in the lineup and is hovering around .500 as December begins.
That’s the reality for the Lakers.
For the franchise that hangs 16 championship banners from its rafters and employs a payroll close to $100 million, nothing less than a title will be tolerated -- regardless of the reality.
“You can’t be one to make excuses,” Kobe Bryant told me this week.. “You have to figure out how we’re going to get there. Our destination is to win a championship and it’s to get there by any means necessary. So, whatever it is we have to solve, we just have to solve it."
The tight rope the Lakers are teetering on these days makes them have to master the delicate shift between taking care of today while still keeping in mind that the ultimate test is tomorrow.
It has created enormous pressure around every game the Lakers play. A solid win on the road against Dallas is forgotten after a letdown home loss to Indiana. The chart tracking L.A.’s championship stock this season already has more peaks and valleys than John Travolta’s career.
Of course, the outside noise shouldn’t matter. What the fans and media say about the troubling trends the Lakers have shown -- take your pick between a weak bench, a turnover-prone roster, an aversion to making free throws, a major question mark at point guard because of injuries, a power forward that looks like a fish out of water in an up-and-down, jump shooting system -- is rendered moot if the Lakers band together as a group to minimize their downfalls and maximize their strengths.
Which brings us back to Bryant’s “by any means necessary” quote.
There is no set route for making the trek up the NBA’s mountain to be the last team out of 30 to be still standing at the end of the year. Rather than conventional wisdom, it’s situational.
San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich rested four of his top scorers – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green – for what the league was touting as a marquee matchup with the Miami Heat on Thursday. Pop didn’t even have his guys come to Miami, instead sending them home to maximize their opportunity for rest. Meanwhile the Spurs substitutes almost upset the Heat, falling 105-100, in a game that surely boosted the confidence of Popvich’s bench while making his whole roster buy into his way of thinking even more.
So even though it was officially a loss in the ledger, Popovich accomplished something with his team and he can certainly appreciate that sometimes a round-about route is what a team ultimately needs, having won four championships while coaching the Spurs already.
Mike D’Antoni doesn’t have the same leeway as Popovich does. He never quite got to the mountain top in Phoenix and never came close in New York, so he can’t just wiggle his fingers and blind the critics with the glare of his rings. But D’Antoni is going to have to make the same type of tough calls amid the scrutiny, and just believe his system is best.
As D’Antoni has stressed to the press already, there is plenty of basketball left to be played this season. Early-season struggles will be quickly forgotten if the Lakers go 10-5 over their next 15.
D’Antoni will get Steve Nash back one of these days -- maybe in a week, maybe in a month -- and a new set of challenges will arise. Will Nash be able to defend as well as Darius Morris and Chris Duhon did? Will Bryant bristle if he doesn’t get the same amount of touches as he got when Nash was out? Will Nash’s presence make things click for Pau Gasol? And if Nash doesn’t cure the Spaniard’s slouch, does Gasol have to go?
The questions will come all season and become even louder in the playoffs.
No use in running from it. Embrace the challenge. Conquer it by any means necessary.
That’s the reality for these Lakers today.