The end is always ugly, but rarely has a team heard the death knell in such a complete fashion as the Lakers did this past week. Expected to easily dispatch of a Dallas team that didn’t seem particularly stronger than past iterations, the Lake Show may have had the curtains called on them instead. The finality of Game 4’s blowout, complete with the petulant acts of childishness from Bynum and Odom, belies this truth: the Lakers as we know it are done winning titles.
The 2011 playoffs mark the end of the Kobe Era. A run of historic dominance and good luck over the last few years, highlighted by the Gasol trade, the Garnett and Perkins injuries, and keeping Ron Artest sane has finally run out. More importantly, the foundation has crumbled with Phil gone and Kobe and Gasol slowing down.
As LA enters its most uncertain era since the pre-Shaq days, the reaction to this stark truth will dictate the franchise’s future. In light of the Lakers’ shocking demise, we take a look at the important pieces in the team’s championship run to assess the damage. Who’s to blame? Who will be around next year? And what will need to happen to allow the team to quickly return to its glory?
Derek Fisher — Alongside Phil Jackson’s eminent retirement, Derek Fisher’s decision to hang up his sneakers could be the next largest looming question for the organization. While he still ranks as one of the most clutch Lakers of all time, Fish’s best years are obviously days gone by. Usually, the playoffs become his time, embracing the role of “coach on the floor” and stepping in to knock down big baskets when the team called his number. However during this year’s run, those contributions were limited to either towel-waving support roles or chewing out teammates as Phil Jackson sat perched on a stool during timeouts. Putting it all in perspective, Steve Blake, a relic himself, was pulling off his warmup to enter games more often than Fisher, which speaks louder than any words typed here.
Fisher could depart knowing he really had no active hand in the Lakers’ meltdown. He won’t rank as one of the greatest to wear the purple and gold but he’ll remain a fan favorite, seen as instrumental to the team’s success in recent years. He has a fistful of championship rings – five, in fact – and only five Lakers own as many and for that accomplishment he will be revered. The point guard has the opportunity to retire with the same franchise who drafted him in 1996 and, even in retirement, he won’t have to leave the bench. Taking a seat beside fellow former player turned assistant Brian Shaw on game night’s seems to be the natural progression and a role D. Fish been destined for over the past few seasons.
The Front Office – Mitch Kupchak and Jerry Buss are probably second-guessing themselves right now. Earlier this year, the Nuggets were willing to trade Carmelo Anthony to the Lakers for Bynum in what should have been a no-brainer trade. Instead, the front office decided to stick with Bynum, who totally imploded against the Mavs and is now responsible for one of the team’s biggest embarrassments in history. As the Lakers’ future unfolds, the refusal to trade for Anthony might be a decision that is looked back on unfavorably for many years.
The Lakers trades and big decisions used to be handled by the brilliant Jerry West. Now, without his masterminding, L.A. still has to retool and build a new team around Kobe, maybe even convincing him that he’s not the number one man anymore. This won’t be an easy task, especially without teams willing to just hand over their star like Memphis did with Gasol a couple of years ago.
Lamar Odom — To be honest, L.O.’s shove of Dirk in the fourth quarter of Game 4 was not anything that warranted an ejection, but it was also understood. Plus, he apologized for it after the game, so no one will remember his final moments of the Mavs series by this time next week. There are plenty of jokes that can be lobbed towards Odom, but the fact remains he is one of the more talented players in the NBA, when he’s focused and wants to be. Add that along with the fact he’s played integral roles in the past two championships and keeping him in LaLa land makes perfect sense.
He’s 6’11” with equal amounts range and vision and, on any given night, can give the Lakers 23 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Contributions that aren’t exactly a common commodity, even in today’s league. Now, to be fair, he can also easily go for a pedestrian seven points, five rebounds and one assist too, but that’s the gift and the curse that has always been Odom’s career. It’s like dating a girl who wears a lot of make up. When she decides to step out, everyone marvels at her beauty. When she goes all natural, everyone marvels, but for all the wrong reasons.
Kupchak knows all of these things and the entire league does too. So in a sense, Lamar finds himself as a human collective bargaining chip. For any trade the Lakers want to make, it would seem Odom has to be a part of the deal. There’s just no way around it.
Andrew Bynum — Take a look at these numbers.
With the second year being a team option, this is what Bynum is owed over the next two seasons. In three years, this could either play out one of two ways for the Lakers often injured, highly coveted and controversial seven footer. Situation A says he puts this season behind him, sheds the injury bug, finally lives up to the billing Jerry Buss has bestowed upon him and averages 20+ and 13 for the next seven or eight years of his career. Situation B is something that’s been discussed around here for awhile now, but seems to have really picked up traction given recent events: a possible trade for Dwight Howard.
Bynum’s cheap foul on JJ Barea was just that, cheap. Sure, he was frustrated, that’s understandable. But given how we all saw Rajon Rondo’s elbow bend in ways elbows are not supposed to bend, many likely thought the same was about to happen to the Mavs point guard as he crashed to the floor. And to make matters worse, Bynum never really said he regretted it when asked about it after the game. Some believe the ill-advised elbow will stain Andrew’s image going forward, but it will ultimately serve as a blip on the radar, especially if he has a new start in Orlando. For the Lakers (pending the parameters of the potential deal are to their liking), giving away Bynum for Howard is almost a cakewalk of a decision.
While their shot volume is different, people lose their minds when Bynum has games of 18 and 10. Howard can get that in one half. And he doesn’t get injured. He’s a freak athletically while Bynum’s knees seem to be built with the paper that covers straws from fast food restaurants. StayDwight.com better get on their job because this has Shaq 2.0 written all over it.
Phil Jackson — Against Dallas, Jackson was clearly incapable of solving whatever was bothering the team and he failed to come up with a way to stymie Dirk Nowitzki or develop any sort of defensive scheme. Phil’s used some sort of Zen because he’s probably going to leave this whole situation largely unscathed, especially since this is his first sweep in 65 playoff series. The coach goes off into the sunset as one of, if not the greatest coach in North American sports, with an undeniable pedigree. He might return to coach another team – the Heat if they struggle for a couple of years or the Knicks – but this is probably the end of an undeniably great career.
Pau Gasol — If the finger should be pointed at one person for the Lakers’ demise, it has to be pointed at Pau Gasol, who’s playoff performance was reminiscent of an MVP that just found out his teammate banged his mom. Gasol looked flustered, uninspired and timid, even in the first round where Okafur bullied him around the paint. Let’s not forget that the Lakers were up one point in the waning seconds of game 1 when Gasol committed an insanely dumb foul on Nowitzki that put the Mavs up for good. Two years ago, when the Lakers got bullied by the Celtics, the main culprit was said to be the big guy’s softness. Now, Pau has an even bigger cloud of b*tch hovering over him than before, which will undoubtedly be nearly impossible to shake off.
Rumors have been swirling about Pau’s recent break-up off the court, but that’s no excuse for his soft play. For someone who entered this year’s playoffs as untouchable, Gasol’s future with the Lakers isn’t as set in stone as it once was.
Kobe Bryant — A lot of the Lakers’ downfall has to fall on Kobe’s shoulders. In Games One and Three, the Lakers were primed to win, relying on KB24 to carry out the wins that were definitely in reach. This is probably hard for you diehard Kobe stans to hear, but he had a lot to do with choking those games away. More important than the immediate impact of the sweep will come when people start to objectively look at Bryant’s stance as an all-time great. Three of his last four elimination games have been grand disappointments: yesterday’s terrible performance against Dallas, the atrocious game 7 against Boston last year, getting pounced by those same Celts in 2008 and basically tanking the last game against the Suns in 2006.
As we pull back from the mystique of Black Mamba and look at the facts, the sweep against the Mavs may be the final nail in the Kobe/Jordan comparison’s coffin. Performance? Jordan has countless defining playoff moments, where he won games seemingly by his own force of will – the Flu game, The Shot, his first half against the Blazers in ’92, etc. Can anyone recall Kobe’s last defining playoff moment? Last year, the debate was where Kobe stood as one of the greatest of all time. This year’s performance did some serious damage to that legacy.
Moving forward, Kobe can definitely score a couple of more rings if the Lakers grab Dwight Howard, but his chances are numbered if that role encompasses him being the head honcho, leading his team to a championship. He’s at a stage in his career when some serious help is necessary.
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