How did a Los Angeles Lakers season that started off with such high hopes and anticipation end in such heartbreak?
It was only late last summer when GM Mitch Kupchak engineered improbable deals to bring both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to Los Angeles.
Lakers Nation could barely believe its good fortune. Nash, Howard, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant all taking the floor to start for the Lakers? It was almost an embarrassment of riches. There were renewed dreams of title hopes after an ugly playoff exit at the hands of Oklahoma City the previous spring.
But as things got underway, something didn't seem quite right. The pieces just didn't seem to fit. Add to that coach Mike Brown installing a new Princeton offense, and the Lakers somehow found themselves with an 0-8 preseason record and 1-4 start to the regular season.
Suddenly, Brown was fired, and after a few days of speculation and intrigue worthy of a palace coup, Phil Jackson was passed over for Mike D'Antoni as Brown’s replacement.
Oh, and did I mention the injuries? Howard was struggling to regain form after back surgery. Then Nash sustained a leg fracture in a freak collision in only the second game of the season.
D'Antoni's plans for the team were left high and dry without Nash to run his system.
Worse, he didn't adapt to fit the skills of the players he did have. His stubborn insistence on having the team try to run and gun cost the Lakers. Sometimes I'd watch him on the sidelines exhorting the team to run, run, pick up the pace! and I felt like I was watching nothing more than a desperate jockey flogging his exhausted thoroughbred as it slogged around a muddy track.
I found myself yelling at him through the TV. Did he not watch any footage of this team last year? This isn't a track meet team. The pace was unsustainable.
It took him way too long to adapt and realize that one of the biggest assets on the team was the tremendously high basketball IQ of the players. After a “let’s clear the air” team meeting, things finally started to change. Kobe effectively took over point guard duties, giving Nash more time to ease back into playing. The Lakers seemed like they were finally putting it together.
But the injury bug kept hitting this team with a vengeance I cannot recall in all my years of Laker watching. No sooner did someone get healthy than someone else went down.
Just off the top of my head in no particular order: Howard (back/torn labrum), Nash (fractured leg), Steve Blake (abdomen), Jordan Hill (hip), Gasol (ongoing knee and feet issues), Metta World Peace (knee), Antawn Jamison (wrist), Earl Clark (ankle). And, of course, Kobe: ankle/bone spurs/Achilles and whatever myriad other ailments that only he and Gary Vitti know about. It just never stopped.
The effect of injuries on the team was drastic. In practical terms, it meant that the Lakers could never get into any kind of consistent rotation. I believe this was the root of the turnover problems all year.
Look, teams turn the ball over. It happens. But the Lakers did it a shocking amount. I think that stemmed from the lack of chemistry because of the constant lineup changes. The highest levels of championship basketball teams are marked by play that is almost intuitive. Guys instinctively know where their teammates are going to be.
Against all odds, the Lakers somehow put together a winning run after the All-Star break, and with Kobe leading the way, they vowed to make the playoffs at all costs.
It turned out the cost was enormous.
Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles on a routine move against the Golden State Warriors in a must-win late-season game.
I've been witness to Kobe's heroics since he joined the league. When he finally decides to hang 'em up, the tribute special will be long. The buzzer-beaters, the championships, all the record-breaking feats.
I've cheered at the top of my lungs along with everyone else in Lakers Nation. But I don't know that I've ever been more inspired than when I watched him drag himself to the free-throw line on one foot in what must have been excruciating pain after he tore his Achilles and sink both free throws.
Two points: The margin of victory in the game.
That's what being the man looks like, Dwight Howard. Kobe promised the Lakers would make the playoffs, and he delivered.
It was emblematic of the season. Thrilling wins and demoralizing losses.
On February 18 came the worst loss of all. Lakers Nation learned the terribly sad news of the passing of Lakers owner and patriarch, Dr. Jerry Buss. It is a testament to his commitment to winning, his passion for the Lakers and his love of the community that everyone felt a profound sorrow, even if you had never met him personally. A legend had passed.
Since 1979, the Lakers sparkled under Buss’ capable and visionary leadership. He set the bar high, never wavered and backed it up with his checkbook. Sometimes I think we Lakers fans take for granted how lucky we are.
But the Lake Show must go on. Dr Buss would have it no other way.
On April 2, Shaquille O'Neal's jersey was retired. It now joins the other Lakers greats hanging in the rafters. Various Lakers luminaries spoke at the ceremony, but his daughter Jeanie was the highlight for me. She asked folks on Twitter to tweet her with one word they thought described Shaq. I immediately thought of "dominant." She had that and several others that were funny and sincere. And then, she added hers.
Two words: champion...and Laker.
The crowd lost its collective mind. The ovation was deafening. How Shaq held it together, I'll never know. Jeanie Buss, ever classy, did her father proud.
This season didn't end in another trophy and a victory parade down Figueroa.
But the Lakers never quit. In spite of the heartbreaking loss of their leader and the tsunami of injuries, the Lakers battled. Just as Kobe promised, they did make the playoffs—as the seventh seed, in fact. But they were just too depleted to beat a San Antonio team that got healthy at just the right time.
Always proud, the Lakers never phoned it in. They battled until the final buzzer. If that "We may be down, but we will never lay down" ethos is another part of Dr Buss’ legacy, that's pretty hard to beat.
Dr Buss set a tone: sexy, fun, entertaining, winning basketball. The embodiment of that is winning championships. That's where he set expectations for the Lakers. And I think we all, players, fans, the NBA and the greater sporting world, are better for it.
Thank you Dr. Buss, for all the great teams, great wins and thrilling championship seasons. That is your true legacy for the fans and for Los Angeles.
Lakers Nation will be forever grateful.
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