Critical juncture to shape season, future

December, 14, 2013
12/14/13
12:28
AM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- It's true there are still 60 games left in the Los Angeles Lakers' season after their 122-97 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday. And it's accurate to say that even with L.A.'s current three-game slide putting its record at 10-12, the Lakers are still only 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in the West.

But as much as patience is a necessary virtue over the course of an arduous 82-game season, and as much as Kobe Bryant, an 18-year veteran who has experienced everything the game has to offer, was right when he said afterward, "I'm not worried about it, to be honest with you. ... We've seen worse," there is no denying that the Lakers find themselves at a critical juncture of the season already.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant, Pau Gasol
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiKobe Bryant, left, says the key to getting through tough times is to focus of playing and on-court execution. The Lakers hope Pau Gasol, right, plays a major role in that going forward.
The thing that everyone knows but have done their best to refuse to acknowledge is that 2013-14 is not a season that is going to be judged in and of itself.

It's a stepping stone, a necessary evil, an opening move on the checkers board that Lakers management hopes will leave them telling the NBA, "King me," once again by lifting another Larry O'Brien Trophy sometime in the near future, or ideally, sometime in the next three years before Bryant calls it quits.

It's also somewhat of a testing ground to better educate the decisions the Lakers front office will make for 2014-15 and beyond.

If L.A. doesn't win a game the rest of the season, it would have already accomplished several important steps toward its goals, in locking Bryant up to an extension, having Bryant return healthy and, in the tanking scenario, improving the chances of its first-round pick in the 2014 draft landing a top-tier talent.

But a subpar season the rest of the way is not preordained, even with all of the Lakers' point guards on the mend and Bryant going through what he calls his own personal preseason in December to get his game right, all the while with Pau Gasol and coach Mike D'Antoni taking passive-aggressive runs at each other through the media this week.

Yes, the Lakers are in a bad place right now, with the prospect of it getting even worse with three more road games to close out their current trip, continuing Saturday in Charlotte on the second night of a back-to-back set and followed by another back-to-back against Atlanta and Memphis.

"You just focus on execution," Bryant said of the key to turning things around. "You just focus on playing. You don't really get bogged down on the emotion of things. You just focus on the next opponent."

Meanwhile, the Lakers will focus on what plays out on the court. They will analyze how Gasol either sinks or swims with Bryant back in the fold feeding him the ball, and see if the back-and-forth between him and D'Antoni can die down by Gasol letting his game do the talking. And they'll decide if Gasol will be someone whom they will want to have around for the final chapter of Bryant's career, or if he'll be shipped out for another accomplice -- maybe come Sunday, when players signed this summer become eligible to be traded, or by the trade deadline in February, or simply as an expiring contract, free to go where he pleases as a free agent this summer.

And maybe after a few days of being at the center of the Lakers' drama for perhaps the first time of his own doing, Gasol decided he'd better start making it seem as if he wants to stick around. Gasol already seemed like a new man, even in the blowout loss against Oklahoma City, by moving in tandem with Bryant, making more than half of his shot attempts. He sounded like a new man, too, taking responsibility for his lackluster play instead of blaming it on D'Antoni's offense.

"I got myself closer to the basket, I was able to make better plays, I got myself some offensive boards," Gasol said. "Overall, I got myself closer to the basket and didn't take so many jumpers, where the percentage is lower."

While the Lakers already know what Gasol can do, they are more concerned with what he has left. The team is also using injuries to Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar and Steve Nash as a chance to really take a closer look at all the players in the final year of their contracts whom they don't know as well -- and there are a lot of them in Wesley Johnson, Nick Young (though he has a player option for next season), Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Jordan Hill, Shawne Williams and Chris Kaman -- to determine which ones they will want to try to re-sign this coming summer.

That's why the Lakers didn't run out to sign another point guard in the interim. Adding another player at this point would only distract them from the evaluation they have to make as they start to sift players into categories with titles like "Trade Him Right Now," "Trade Him In February" or "Sign Him In July."

"I think it also can expand some guys’ games. These are times that guys got to take advantage of,” D’Antoni said at shootaround Friday when asked about sticking with the roster he has for now. He acknowledged that the other view, with the glass being half-empty, “would be to lose and we need to win while guys are expanding their games. If we can do that and stay there and then get our point guards back and get everybody rolling, and obviously that’s the best-case scenario."

Which is pretty much what the Lakers' highest hopes for this season were anyway -- bring in a bunch of young, inexpensive players who are fun to watch; teach them how to play; maybe even turn them into a winner; and in the process find a couple of pieces that they will want to stick around as they take the next steps in the coming seasons and shoot for the moon with the cap space they strategically freed up for this moment.

Toward the end of the night Friday, a national writer, who isn't always around the Lakers, asked D'Antoni about where they go from here.

"We will get better," D'Antoni said. "Just check in on us in a couple weeks and see where we are."

At this critical juncture of the season, a lot more than just the win-loss record could change in a couple of weeks.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Kobe Bryant
PTS AST STL MIN
26.7 4.2 1.3 35.7
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 10.0
AssistsJ. Lin 4.9
StealsR. Price 1.3
BlocksE. Davis 1.4