It's Far Too Soon to Write LA Lakers' Official Autopsy Report

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2013

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 7: Kobe Bryant #24 and Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers look on following a foul against the Boston Celtics during the game on February 7, 2013 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Following the worst loss of a nearly lost season, everybody seems eager to finally write the official autopsy report for Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

That's understandable, considering the way that the Boston Celtics deftly cut the Lakers' hearts out on national television Thursday night. It wasn't just the 21-point margin of L.A.'s 116-95 dismantling that had people ready to write the Lakers off; it was the way it happened.

That's right; despite the fact that the Celtics played the night before, L.A. took a sound beating in the effort department early on. And it didn't get better from there. After the game, Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated summed up the overwhelming public sentiment by quoting a surprisingly mathematically inclined Charles Barkley:

It's true; the big picture doesn't look great.


Problems Abound

Pau Gasol is out for at least six weeks with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot, Dwight Howard's ailing shoulder and still-recovering back are clearly hampering him and Mike D'Antoni seems unable to solve L.A.'s disjointed offensive attack.

And then there's the ongoing feud between Bryant and Howard, with the latest salvos in the war centering on Bryant's dissatisfaction with D12's reluctance to play hurt. The 17-year vet told's Jackie MacMullan, "We don't have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal. We need some urgency."

And later in that same interview, Bryant openly pointed out the flaw that may be at the root of everything that's wrong with his teammate.

Dwight worries too much about what people think. I told him, 'You can't worry about that. It's holding you back.' He says, 'OK, OK, OK, but it's always hovering around him. He just wants people to like him. He doesn't want to let anyone down, and that gets him away from what he should be doing.

A visibly exasperated and irked Howard responded to Bryant's comments before L.A.'s game against Boston. From his demeanor, it's clear that he's fed up with his teammate's constant prodding.

Howard did play in the game against the Celtics, but he certainly didn't have the impact the Lakers needed. Unless maybe you consider fouling out with nine points and nine rebounds particularly "impactful."

And then Alex Kennedy of tweeted something that not only justified Bryant's needling, but also seriously called Howard's commitment to the team into question.

If it's true that Howard was cleared by doctors to play, but sat out the past few games (before Boston) anyway, the Lakers locker room may be in even worse shape than we thought.

Taking all of the injuries, infighting and poor play into account, how could there possibly be any way to argue the Lakers have any life left at all? Easy, here's how.


Clinging to Life

Any case for postponing the Lakers' autopsy starts and ends with Bryant, who is clearly still as fierce of a mental competitor as ever. Just ask Howard if he's got any doubts about Kobe's maniacal devotion to winning. If he's not cowering in a corner, browbeaten half to death by Bryant, he'll certainly tell you that No. 24 will stop at nothing to turn the season around.

And yet it might be Bryant's physical skills that remain most impressive. The Brooklyn Nets know all about those.

At age 34, L.A.'s ageless star can still physically compete (and occasionally dominate) against the league's younger talents.

In addition to Bryant's still-considerable abilities, the Lakers also have a chance to come together without Gasol. It sounds strange to say that losing an All-Star and two-time champion could somehow be a positive thing, but it's not crazy when you give it some thought.

Dwight Howard, assuming he'll fight through the pain of his shoulder, now has the entire lane to himself. He'll be free to operate the way he did in Orlando during his best years.

Not only that, but based on Bryant's assessment, D12 is also obsessively concerned with how people view him. He's got to be worried that he'll be seen as a failure if he can't step up in a system that is now perfectly tailored for him to succeed.

And then there's the money.

If Howard keeps acting like a petulant kid and playing poorly, there's a chance he scares off some suitors this offseason. So he's got to shape up on both counts if he wants to preserve any small piece of his image as a franchise cornerstone. If he can't do that, all of those max offers on the free-agent market could actually dry up.

Don't be mistaken; the L.A. Lakers are plenty close to dead. They're three-and-a-half games out of the eighth spot in the West and seem to be coming apart at every seam.

Yet the competitiveness of their leader and, ironically, the self-interest of their enigmatic big man might combine to keep them alive a little longer.