LOS ANGELES – As if the Los Angeles Lakers nightmarish season needed any more drama, Monday provided perhaps the most twists and turns since the Lakers’ coaching search ended with a faxed contract to Mike D’Antoni and a now infamous phone call to Phil Jackson in the middle of the night.
In one 169-word press release the Lakers announced that Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill were all injured in Sunday night’s loss to the Denver Nuggets. Howard suffered a torn labrum, Gasol suffered a concussion and Hill suffered an injury to his right hip. Each of them is out indefinitely.
If you’re keeping track at home, that’s basically everyone on the team taller than 6-foot-9. That’s not exactly the kind of news that a 15-18 team looking to turn around its season needs to hear.
So where do the Lakers go from here?
Here are five pressing questions facing this team.
1. What if Dwight Howard is never fully healthy this season, what does that mean for the Lakers and for his future in L.A.?
Howard says he doesn’t need surgery on his torn labrum. He’s no doctor, but if we take him at his word, that’s great news for the Lakers because surgery could very well knock him out for the season. If he doesn’t need surgery and simply needs time to heal, that would be fine, if the Lakers hadn't recently spent two months waiting for Steve Nash to return from a small fracture to his fibula. The Lakers are not a team that has much time to spare at this point. Even though it’s early January, if they’re going to turn their season around it has to be now. If Howard is out for an extended period of time, as Nash was, that could completely derail their season. Remember, Howard wasn't really fully healthy to begin with, as he continued to play while still recovering from offseason back surgery. At this point, it doesn't look like the Lakers will ever get to see a fully healthy Howard this season. If the Lakers fail to make the playoffs and Howard isn’t happy with his role in Mike D’Antoni’s system or with playing alongside Kobe Bryant, suddenly the chances of him signing a contract extension in the offseason look slimmer.
2. Can the Lakers win any one of their next three games without Howard, Gasol and Hill?
Sure. There’s always a chance they could win but they certainly won’t be favored in any one of those games. At full strength the Lakers were going to be underdogs on the road in San Antonio on the second night of a back-to-back in Texas, and they were going to be big underdogs against Oklahoma City Friday night at home. It seemed a 1-2 stretch was likely before the injury news came down. Now, it looks like 0-3 is a likely outcome if they drop Tuesday night's road game at Houston. If that happens, the Lakers would drop to 15-21 on the season.
3. How critical is this month for the Lakers? If they continue to lose, will they blow things up?
This is the Lakers’ make-or-break month. If they aren’t hovering around .500 come February, they will likely look to yet again make some significant changes. The Lakers have a $100 million payroll this season, and if it looks like they are a mathematical long shot to make the playoffs with this roster, they will look to unload the contracts of Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. There might even be rumors of Howard being dealt if he hints he doesn’t want to stay in Los Angeles. That might sound crazy, but crazy things happen when a team as talented as this -- on paper anyway -- plays itself out of the playoffs. Consider this: If the Lakers are 15-21 by the end of the week, they will have to go 31-15 just to finish the season at 46-36. That wouldn’t necessarily guarantee the Lakers a playoff spot, but it would put them in the running for the No. 8 seed. Regardless, does this team even look like it has a 31-15 run in them? Exactly.
4. How did the Lakers get here?
It wasn’t any one thing that put the Lakers in this hole. As Kobe Bryant said Monday after hearing the recent injury news, “When it rains, it pours, man. It's like the old Mr. Magoo thing. You just try to get through it.” Let’s begin with former Lakers coach Mike Brown trying to implement that ridiculous Princeton-style offense that even he admitted was so complex the Lakers likely wouldn’t master it until January. After an 0-8 preseason and 1-4 start to the season, Jim Buss, like most Lakers fans, got tired of waiting and fired Brown. Buss and Mitch Kupchak then went against the wishes of most Lakers' fans by hiring Mike D’Antoni instead of Phil Jackson to turn the season around. The biggest thing D’Antoni had going for him was his familiarity with Steve Nash during their time together in Phoenix, but Nash was out for the first 17 games of D’Antoni’s tenure and just recently returned to the team. Add in the injuries to Gasol, Howard and Hill and this Lakers team is not only old and slow, as Bryant said recently, but has been banged up and never fully healthy.
5. Is there at least a silver lining in what’s happening with the Lakers right now?
For a team in desperate need of some chemistry, perhaps hitting rock bottom and living through a crisis together will actually help them become a closer team. Interestingly enough, the most team chemistry this team has exhibited publicly came in the form of a picture Kobe Bryant tweeted after a New York Daily News story reported Bryant and Howard had a “heated exchange following a New Year's Day loss to Philadelphia. In the photo Bryant and Howard are squaring off, fists up, as D’Antoni is laying on a trainer’s table with a shocked look on his face. It was the first time they were able to laugh at their current predicament and have fun with it. Who knows, maybe that might be exactly what they need to help turn their season around.