Let's get one non-basketball item out of the way first. Dodgers owner Frank McCourt did not call the Lakers and ask if he could take the half-court shot to win approximately $250,000 after the third quarter Wednesday night. He called to see if he could do it during Game 5 next week, when the jackpot rises by another five grand.
Now, on to more serious matters. The Kobe era is over. The Lakers have as much chance of winning this series as the Hornets do. Where do we begin? How about at the end?
J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award winner Ron Artest's facial hook on J.J. Berea was idiotic, but he did it because Derek Fisher refused to trip Berea with his cane. "Laker guards" has become an oxymoron. Berea looked like someone trying to get in the door of Target at 5 a.m. for a post-Thanksgiving Day sale. Nothing was going to stop him. The difference? Berea only had to get around one person Wednesday night. A slow-roasted rotisserie chicken rotates faster than this Laker defense.
But on the whole, this Laker roster is entirely fried.
Before people begin to skewer Mitch Kupchak again, he deserves a ton of credit. He overcame a miserable situation after Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal departed in 2004 and the roster was in decline. He eventually pulled off the Pau Gasol trade, re-signed Fisher and brought in Trevor Ariza. When Ariza's agent demanded $9 million per year on a new deal in July of 2009 (then $8 million, then $7 million before it was too late), Mitch signed Artest, who will live in Laker lore no matter what happens from here on out. Artest hit the winning shot against Phoenix in Game 5 last year and more importantly, the trey that iced the series against the Celtics. Kupchak only wanted to sign Artest for three years, but his hand was forced to do a five-year deal by owner Jerry Buss' desire to have Artest in purple and gold.
The Gasol trade was a boon that bore two titles, but suddenly Pau looks like Dirk Nowitzki's game day ball shagger. Pau entirely gave up on one of Nowitzki's second-half baskets Wednesday night, walking toward Dirk, or maybe lightly shuffling. Shockingly to some, Gasol was booed at Staples Center more than once during Game 2. It was unfair for missing a free throw, and generally it's wholly unwarranted if a guy who's helped you win two championships is just in a slump. But clearly fans were booing Pau's seeming lack of effort and infrequent willingness to take the ball at Nowitzki. Everyone knows bin Laden's wives play better defense than Dirk.
One huge glaring weakness of this Laker assemblage of talent has been Kupchak's inability to fill the backcourt void, and he's been forced to subtract from a guard rotation already lacking speed and agility. Buss instructed Kupchak to cut payroll, thus the departure of Sasha Vujacic earlier this season. The transaction saved Buss some money but cost the team an outside stroke and an occasionally aggressive backcourt defender. Sasha may have only played 5-10 minutes and isn't a point guard, but Steve Blake looks like he'd be overmatched on Venice Beach right now. Blake couldn't puncture the Maverick defense with an assault rifle.
The triangle offense yields open shots and focuses on cutters to the rim. But even the triangle requires a guard that can occasionally penetrate the lane and dish. Without that in this series, Gasol and Bynum aren't getting any easy hoops.
On the other side of the court, good defense begets some easy hoops, and Laker fast break points are now similar to Dodger payroll checks- when they finally come, people get really, really excited. That tells you the Lakers aren't playing much defense.
Last summer's signings of Matt Barnes and Blake looked good at the time. Reserve Shannon Brown began this season looking like the most improved player in the league. Ten months later, Barnes, Blake and Brown now look like the Bumble B's. Fans wonder why Brown can't stop the league's quicker guards, but Brown is fast only in a straight line. He is not laterally quick, and can't stay in front of anyone with a crossover, or even a combover. And speaking of hair, can someone take Barnes to the nearest Floyd's and shave that ridiculous fro-hawk? He looks even worse than his game, and that's an accomplishment right now. Put Barnes squarely in the starting lineup of the NBA All-Ugly team.
Even uglier, there are no solutions for Jackson, nobody to turn to on the bench. Jack Nicholson might crack the lineup before Luke Walton, and Luke's still owed $11,780,000 over the next two years. Blake has three years and $12 million left. Barnes and Brown have player options for next year. And Pau, who hopefully emerges from this funk by next season, has $57 million due over the next three years. Phil won't have to worry about it as he rides his motorcycle off into the sunset, but don't be surprised if Kupchak orders Laker trainer Gary Vitti to "accidentally" poison at least Walton before the lockout.
As 2011 and the Kobe era wind down, some Laker fans just can't accept the inevitable. Walking out of Staples last night, I told my 8-year-old daughter that the Lakers can't win the championship every year. Her earnest reply? "But, daddy, we're the Lakers! We always win."
As the ship sails onto the horizon, all Laker fans can ask for is effort. Go down swinging, preferably without intentionally disfiguring someone who just torched you. Be classy, even if you're losing to Mark Cuban's team. The appreciation for this Laker group and the championships is still there, but just don't quit. It would have been nice to win number 17 and tie the Celtics for most all time, but at least the Lakers won the last matchup, and the Celtics aren't winning a title any time soon, either. So sit back and enjoy some good basketball.
May the Durant v. LeBron Finals matchup happen. Good vs. Evil. Luke vs. Darth. Cow Pies and Meadow Muffins vs. "Our *#!$ doesn't stink." Because if it's Atlanta v. Memphis, I'm hoping for an early lockout.
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