With a season that has gone from bad to abysmal, what are the Los Angeles Lakers playing for right now?
Forget about when or if Kobe Bryant will return—that’s not the here and now. Forget that Pau Gasol was putting up some highly efficient numbers before being put on the shelf for at least a week with a groin injury.
This is about a bunch of bargain-basement castoffs who have gone from the Bad News Bears to the Who-Cares Bears. Most of these guys are playing for a contract next year, and for some of them, it won’t be with the Lakers.
Are they playing for the name on the front, or the name on the back of their jerseys?
Ramona Shelburne for ESPN Los Angeles addressed the issue when she observed that it doesn't actually feel like it matters anymore. When asked what was left for his team to play for, however, Gasol said this:
Mostly pride and our fans and the name that we have on our chests, more than anything. It's not looking and feeling good right now, but you've got to play through it and do your very best.
There may, in fact, still be some pride, but there’s also an inescapable dilemma: The Lakers just don’t have the guns this season. End of story, except there’s still 35 games to go and the Lakers are a story unto themselves. This is the land of all the banners, after all.
How did we get to this historical awfulness?
A simple answer, really. Management decided to surround three aging stars with a bunch of draft busts and other assorted spare parts. There was a method to the madness—a season-long audition process that would help clear the decks of salary commitments.
And then the dice were rolled and came up snake-eyes, over and over again. Bryant returned from Achilles surgery and promptly fractured his knee. Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry were all injured in short order and are still on the comeback trail, while Steve Nash has been trying to find an escape hatch from a series of health maladies that seemingly have no beginning or end.
And now it’s Gasol’s turn. Are we really sure this isn’t some cruel hoax?
Next Tuesday, the Lakers will limp out on a three-day road trip, featuring a starting lineup that if recent minutes are any indication, will probably include Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Kendall Marshall.
And all of this at the third-fastest pace in the NBA. At some point in the first quarter, Mike D’Antoni will send Nick “Swaggy P” Young into the fray with the simple mandate of scoring lots and lots of points. In fact, any Laker on the floor will have the green light to fire at will.
This is the D’Antoni way, and it was entertaining for about the first month of the season. And then came the losses and the injuries, and at some point, the novelty of jacking up unfettered shots wore off.
You really can’t blame these guys for the lack of structure. And there have been some bright spots in the midst of such a dismal season. Who would have guessed that Marshall would arrive from the D-League and average 9.6 assists through 19 games? There is something both weird and wonderful about that.
So back to the matter at hand: What are the Lakers playing for?
The simplest answer in the world—opportunity.
Most of the guys currently on the floor might never have had a chance like this. They were low-risk gambles, and whatever they leave with at the end of the season is up to them. Their minutes, however, won’t remain the same.
Between now and the end of the season, most if not all of the injured players could be returning to action. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is coming to an end.
For those who are now wearing the Purple and Gold, for those who have gone from obscurity to the white-hot spotlight of a premier NBA franchise—grab this chance while you can.
This is the team so many of you dreamed about playing for. Management may end up with a lottery pick in the 2014 draft, but that won’t get you hired again.
Seize the day—it might never come your way again.