Commentary

Goals unrealized: Lakers in review

From Spain to pain, L.A.'s season began with high hopes, then came crashing down

Updated: May 20, 2011, 1:03 PM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Where did it go wrong? It was a season that had such promise and ended in such pain.

How is it that the table for the Los Angeles Lakers season, set by coach Phil Jackson last July when he said, "It'll be the last stand for me, and I hope a grand one," was finally cleared when Kobe Bryant called it "a wasted year of my life" earlier this month?

Rather than being showered in championship confetti, which was the ending to the Lakers' last two go-rounds, they are left to sift through the rubble from what one assistant coach described as a "complete meltdown" versus the Dallas Mavericks, who swept L.A. in the second round.

There wasn't one breakage point. This wasn't the case of an injury derailing the team, like when Karl Malone hurt his leg in the 2004 Western Conference finals, which rendered him useless in the Lakers' NBA Finals loss to Detroit. Nor was it like 2008, when you could point to a lack of toughness in their defense and rebounding that led to their demise against the Boston Celtics.

Was it a complete failure of a season? No. While the Lakers operate under a Larry O'Brien-or-losers mentality, they still managed to win 57 games and earn the No. 2 seed in the West playoffs. But when you figure that if you grade on a curve and the team that wins the championship ends up with a 100 on the final exam, the Lakers fell well short of that number.

How short? Let's try to figure it out by choosing 20 significant moments from the Lakers' 2010-11 campaign and assigning a plus/minus value to them, based on how much they ultimately mattered to the end result.

[+] EnlargeLakers
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe Lakers began their roller-coaster season not by buckling down with their new players, but with a trip to Europe.

Moment No. 1: The offseason -- Bryant and Andrew Bynum both undergo knee surgery
Bryant put his right knee under the knife for the third time in his career and was severely limited in training camp after taking the whole summer to rest and recover from the procedure. Bynum put off surgery to go to the World Cup, and when his right knee was operated on, he opted to have his frayed meniscus repaired by having the damaged cartilage sewn back into the knee rather than snipped off. It should benefit his knee in the long run, but in the short term it meant a much longer recovery period that wiped out all of training camp for the sixth-year center and kept him out of game action until December, putting a lot of stress on Pau Gasol, who was often forced to play more than 40 minutes per game in Bynum's absence.
Impact: -20 (Net: -20)

Moment No. 2: The preseason -- Not much of a European vacation
The Lakers were trying to incorporate a lot of new faces into the fold -- from free-agent signees Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Theo Ratliff to rookies Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter. Rather than hunker down with an intense, teaching-oriented training camp, the team was selected to represent the NBA in its Europe Live! promotion and spent more than a week in October in London and Barcelona, rather than sweating through two-a-days at its practice facility in El Segundo. While the scenery might have been pretty, the results weren't as the back-to-back champions opened up the preseason with back-to-back losses to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves in England and then to Gasol's former club team, F.C. Barcelona, in Spain.
Impact: -10 (Net: -30)

Moment No. 3: Regular season tips off -- 8-0 start out of the gates
Starting with an emotional ring ceremony on opening night that was capped by a clutch Blake jumper which beat Houston 112-110 to begin the three-peat bid, L.A. was rolling out of the blocks. Even though Bryant was still rounding into form and Bynum was out, the Lakers won their first eight games by an average of 12.5 points and looked every bit like the bunch that prompted owner Dr. Jerry Buss to say, "I feel there's a good chance this could be the best team we've ever had."
Impact: +20 (Net: -10)

Moment No. 4: A bad precedent -- Lakers fall to Houston to mark first four-game losing streak of the Gasol era
After acquiring Gasol from Memphis in 2008, the Lakers went 217 games before losing three in a row in March 2010. They were barely two months into this past season when they dropped four in a row. None of Jackson's 11 title-winning teams had ever lost four in a row during the regular season and gone on to win it all. "We lost four or five games in a row, which had never happened," Bryant said after his exit interview. "That was concerning to me, because in the playoffs, that gives a team hope that we can lose four or five games. That was concerning." Making matters worse was the fact that Houston was playing without Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks in that game. Said Lamar Odom at the time, "We are not playing well, and it's a joke."
Impact: - 15 (Net: -25)

Moment No. 5: Even the buzzer-beaters don't feel as good -- Derek Fisher makes a last-second layup to beat the Clippers
The Lakers tried to find their footing after their four-game skid, but surprisingly found themselves in an intense battle with the Clippers just three games later. Fisher made the hero play -- a swooping, high-arcing runner over DeAndre Jordan's outstretched arms as the clocked ticked down to 00.00 -- but there was no joy in the locker room after the Lakers had to frantically climb back from 12 points down to win the game. Even Fisher's incredible shot was sullied by Bryant waving his arms in disgust when Fisher drove toward the hoop instead of passing it to him on the last possession. What could have been a galvanizing team moment, as Bryant's eight game-winning shots were in the 2009-10 season, didn't provide much of a lift other than a tally in the win column.
Impact: +2 (Net: -23)

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesFor the second straight year, a LeBron James-led team came to L.A. and beat the Lakers on their home court.

Moment No. 6: Coal for Christmas, again -- Miami routs L.A. 96-80 on Dec. 25
For the second straight year, LeBron James came into Staples Center and made it his home while the Lakers just looked like they would rather be home with their families. After the game, Bryant said, "I think these games mean more to our opponents than they mean to us," and vowed to return to practice rather than using the non-game days to rest his knee. Bryant's postgame diatribe hit on two factors which would plague the team the rest of the season -- uninspired/undermanned practices and no sense of urgency.
Impact: - 10 (Net: -33)

Moment No. 7: The big man is back -- Bynum returns to starting lineup and Lakers snap a three-game skid
Bynum came off the bench in his first seven games after returning to the lineup in December, but Jackson decided it was finally time to make the center a starter again on Dec. 29 in New Orleans. Bynum had an immediate impact, going off for 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting to go with six rebounds and a block in 30 highly effective minutes. L.A. got its first post-Christmas win after another disappointing loss in San Antonio following the Heat game. There was hope that Bynum's emergence could be a difference-maker in turning things around as Gasol's minutes would be cut down and L.A. could exploit its size once again.
Impact: +20 (Net: -13)

Moment No. 8: Killer B's take a hit -- Barnes injures right knee
The Lakers' bench unit of Barnes, Blake and Shannon Brown -- affectionately dubbed the Killer B's by Lakers broadcaster Stu Lantz -- wasn't flying as high in January as they were through the first month of the season, but they were still important as a change of pace. Barnes admittedly was having his struggles picking up the triangle offense, but his solid defense and instincts on offense when he would cut to the hoop and crash the glass made him a valuable asset. On Jan. 7, he suffered his first major injury as a pro when he tore the meniscus in his right knee against the Hornets and wasn't able to return to the lineup until March. After the injury, his and the bench's effectiveness was never quite the same.
Impact: - 15 (Net: -28)

Moment No. 9: Wow, they're good -- Lakers beat down Cavaliers by 55 points
Cleveland was terrible coming into the game, having lost 20 of its past 21 games, and the Lakers showed no mercy, holding the Cavs to just 57 points, a record low for the shot clock era. For a Lakers team that had already dropped disappointing games at home to Indiana and Milwaukee, it was encouraging to see them thoroughly demolish a subpar opponent.
Impact: +8 (Net: -20)

Moment No. 10: Foreboding -- Loss in Dallas on Jan. 19
In the midst of the Lakers' winning 10 of 12 games from Jan. 4 to Jan. 25, the team traveled to Dallas and let a third-quarter lead disappear when the Mavs went on a 17-2 run. The loss didn't sting that much at the time because it was bookended by a home win against Oklahoma City and a road win in Denver, but it ended up being a look into their future fate.
Impact: -2 (Net: -22)

Moment No. 11: Good start, bad finish -- Lakers start seven-game road trip 4-0; end it 0-3
L.A. had another one of its patented Sunday letdown losses on Jan. 30 at home to Boston, losing by 13 points, but quickly regrouped by starting its longest road trip of the season with consecutive wins against the Hornets, Grizzlies, Celtics and Knicks in early February. Then it finished off the trip by losing three straight -- in Orlando by 14, in Charlotte by 20 and in Cleveland by five (marking a 60-point turnaround from the last time the two teams met). "I think [my team] took their All-Star break before the game," Jackson said. "They left before this game started. I'm not happy with the way this trip ended, that's for sure." All the goodwill from the back-to-back wins in Boston and New York was dashed by the feeble finish.
Impact: -20 (Net: -42)

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant set out to win the All-Star MVP on his home court in Staples Center, and he was rewarded for his efforts.

Moment No. 12: NBA All-Star weekend -- Kobe wins MVP
Even though Odom was disappointed by his All-Star snub, having the All-Star Game in L.A. was a very good thing for the Lakers. Bryant and Gasol made the team, and Bryant was able to come away as the star of stars, winning the MVP with a remarkable 37-point, 14-rebound performance that featured several dunks that managed to steal some of the attention away from the Clippers' Blake Griffin, who seemed destined to own the weekend after his car-leaping jam on Saturday night in the dunk contest. Bryant seemed re-energized by playing with all the league's young stars, and Gasol had his best All-Star line of the four he's played in, finished with 17 points and seven rebounds. And the fact that L.A. didn't have the best record in the Western Conference worked in its favor this time around, as Jackson and his staff got a break from coaching the West and could rest up for the second half of the season.
Impact: +15 (Net: -27)

Moment No. 13: We're going streaking -- L.A. amazes with a 17-1 record following the break
This was the Lakers team everyone was waiting for. They looked absolutely dominant, routinely holding teams to fewer than 100 points and often under 40 percent shooting. Thanks to a new defensive system that was meant to show off Bynum's size and athleticism around the rim, the 23-year-old finally felt that his role with the team had matured to the point where he was relied upon for the Lakers to succeed. The Lakers lost a close game to Miami, yes, but it didn't dampen the eight- and nine-game winning streaks that made up the successful stretch. And it wasn't just against patsies, either. Ten of the 17 wins came against teams that would go on to make the playoffs -- including an overtime win in Portland, a win in Oklahoma City against the youthful Thunder, a win in San Antonio against the No. 1 Spurs and two wins against the Mavericks, who the Lakers caught and passed for the No. 2 seed in the West. Throw in an ultra-fun, gut-check 139-137 triple-overtime win against the Suns, and it looked like the three-peat was inevitable.
Impact: +50 (Net: 23)

Moment No. 14: An amalgam of moments -- Kobe Bryant's historic scoring spree
As the season went on, Bryant passed a list of legendary names one by one as if he was flipping the pages of an NBA history book. He passed six all-time greats on the league's all-time scoring list -- John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone -- to move from No. 12 to No. 6 overall. With each milestone passed, Bryant was placed in the context of the game's history once again. It seemed like the perfect precursor to Bryant's passing Magic Johnson's five rings and tying Michael Jordan's six with another championship in June.
Impact: +10 (Net: 33)

Moment No. 15: An amalgam of moments -- Constant controversy
From Bryant's being taken to task for the message he was sending in a video-game advertisement in which he fired a gun, to the outrage caused by his directing a gay slur toward a referee, Bryant found his name in the news for the wrong reasons several times this season. Jackson was right there with him as the coach took on many issues with equal fervor in the press, be it Erik Spoelstra's hot seat in Miami to the league's suspicious purchase of the Hornets to comments about the lockout that got him and the Lakers fined $75,000 apiece. For two guys accustomed to performing at their peak in the eye of a storm, as was the case in the Shaquille O'Neal years, it didn't faze them one bit.
Impact: 0 (Net: 33)

Moment No. 16: Uh-oh, not again -- Five-game losing streak near the close of the season
The Lakers' 17-1 run brought them within striking distance of the Spurs for the No. 1 record in the West as they cut the gap to just one game at one point. But, on April 3, the Lakers lost to the Nuggets (it was a Sunday, go figure) on the same day the Spurs beat the Suns, and it seemed to take the wind out of L.A.'s sails. The Denver loss was followed by four more -- a home loss to Utah when Bryant fumbled away the chance to shoot the game winner, and then losses to Golden State, Portland and Oklahoma City that weren't even close. At the time it, could be rationalized as the team simply packing it in and looking ahead to the playoffs, similar to the way they stumbled before the All-Star break, but in retrospect it was another sign that this team wasn't clicking on all cylinders.
Impact: -10 (Net: 23)

Moment No. 17: Award season -- Odom is named Sixth Man of the Year
The team's most well-liked and popular player who sacrificed money and minutes to return to the team in the summer of 2009, turning down a more lucrative starting role elsewhere, was finally recognized for his individual contributions. In an emotional trophy ceremony, the 12-year veteran was surrounded by his two families: his actual one, consisting of his wife and reality TV co-star Khloe Kardashian and her mom, and his team one, consisting of Bryant, Fisher, Gasol, et al, who bestowed Odom with a loud cheer and several standing ovations. With the first round of the playoffs upon them, the team looked as close as ever.
Impact: +10 (Net: 33)

Moment No. 18: More awards -- Ron Artest is named the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship winner
If seeing Artest accept his ring from David Stern on opening night wasn't evidence enough of how far he's come since the fallout stemming from the Malice at the Palace, then this award certainly cemented how Artest has transformed himself from Public Enemy No. 1 into a cuddly advocate for mental health charities. If Artest could change his spots, maybe the Lakers could put their shaky season behind them and flip a switch in the playoffs, as well.
Impact: +10 (Net: 43)

[+] EnlargeAndrew Bynum
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireAnd then it all came crashing down suddenly at the hands of the Mavericks and a four-game sweep.

Moment No. 19: We have liftoff -- Bryant dunks on Emeka Okafor
After sweeping the Hornets 4-0 during the regular season, few predicted that New Orleans would give Los Angeles any trouble in the first round. Of course, as things never seemed to be with the Lakers this season, it wasn't that easy. The Lakers dropped Game 1 on their home court and lost again in Game 4 and saw Bryant viciously turn his ankle late in the defeat. The series returned to Staples Center for Game 5, and Bryant put to rest any notion that he was too hurt to play or the Lakers were too flawed to beat the No. 7-seeded Hornets. Bryant unleashed one of his all-time best dunks in the second quarter right on Okafor's head, sparking the Lakers to a 16-point win and ultimately a six-game series win. "It's a message for us that this is important," Bryant said at the time. "And you know I save those. I don't have many of those left." Perhaps the Hornets were merely a scare, as the Thunder were in the first round in 2010. After Oklahoma City tied it up 2-2 with L.A., the Lakers went on to win eight straight games in the playoffs. The way L.A. responded in Games 5 and 6 against New Orleans after the 2-2 scare, it looked like that could be the case again.
Impact: +20 (Net: 63)

Moment No. 20: This is the end -- Dallas wins Game 4 by 36 points to sweep the Lakers out of the second round
The Lakers opened up the second round the same way they did the first -- by losing Game 1 at home. But it was the way they lost -- relinquishing a 16-point lead in the third quarter -- that was disturbing and harkened back to that Jan. 19 loss to the Mavs earlier in the season. The series became a laugher and a dishonorable discharge for Jackson's incredible career. Peja Stojakovic looked 10 years younger thanks to wide-open looks gifted to him by the Lakers' discombobulated defense. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry couldn't miss either. Meanwhile, the Lakers struggled with "trust issues," according to Bynum, and things got messy -- from Artest's suspension for a hit on Barea in Game 2, to Bynum's suspension for a hit on Barea in Game 4, to Fisher's uncharacteristic mistakes late in Game 3, to Gasol's being a shell of himself and Bryant's putting up just 34 points total in the last two games.
Impact: -50 (Net: 13)

It's all over now. Whether my math makes perfect sense or not, the Lakers ended up with a symbolic 13 points toward their championship goal of 100, and we can all agree they ended up a long ways away from lifting the Larry O'Brien trophy this year.

The moments just didn't add up.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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