State of the Lakers: Turn for the worse

LOS ANGELES —  Just when it looked like the Lakers were turning the corner from a being a bad team to one that could at least be called a contender, adversity reared its familiar head.
First there were the self-made problems — lack of effort and lack of intensity that gave the Denver Nuggets a 126-114 win to stop the Lakers’ five-game winning streak Wednesday. It also dropped them to a game under .500 at 14-15. 

It gets worse, Lakers fans.
Just when it looked like the injury bug had run its course, Pau Gasol reported Thursday that he’s having some discomfort in his right foot and had an MRI. The results? It shows — naturally — that the seven-footer has plantar fasciitis. He could miss some time, although he’s listed as probable to face the Blazers on Friday. After eight games on the sidelines with tendinitis in both knees, he looked as if his game was back.  Then — just like that — he could sit out more.
Finally, as you’ll read later in this State of the Lakers story, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley took to the airwaves Thursday morning to basically call the Lakers “frauds.”
Things do change quickly in Lakerland. And so far in the 2012-13 season it’s usually not for the better, although fans will be happy to hear that Dwight Howard avoided suspension and will be available against Portland after being fined $35,000 for pie-facing Denver’s Kenneth Faried on Wednesday.
Having dug themselves into a hole with their disappointing first third of the season, the Lakers are likely going to be fighting the rest of the way not only for a playoff spot, but also for a decent seeding. Right now they’re just a game out of the eighth spot, but that shouldn’t be good enough for any team, let alone one with championships aspirations. To ensure home-court advantage for at least one round, the Lakers need to finish fourth or higher in the Western Conference. As this is written, they’d have to make up five and a half games to overtake Memphis. Kobe Bryant says it’s very doable.
“We just have to get going,” Bryant said earlier in the week, ”meaning that all of them are big games for us the rest of the way. We’ve got to play with energy — that sense of urgency — all the time. But we can do it. Everybody just has to go out and play hard every night. Too much talent here for us not to change this around.”
As Bryant said, it’s going to take a complete effort from every player, every game. This puts an inordinate amount of pressure on any team, especially an older group that may not be able to give its veterans much time off down the stretch of games — and the season.
Has all this bad basketball put the Lakers in a position of just trying to survive the regular season rather than getting ready for a possible championship run?
No,” Bryant said emphatically. “It doesn’t matter, because you just have to go into the playoffs playing the right way, playing with a good energy and feeling good about yourselves. Coach is good about practice time and giving guys days off, so that’s not going to wear us out. We just have to be ready and play hard when the playoffs roll around.”

If they do.

Who’s Hot: Metta World Peace has joined Kobe Bryant in “that Benjamin Button-thing,” as Bryant calls his rejuvenated, more-efficient play late in his career. The 33-year-old World Peace — out of shape and thought by many to be finished just two seasons ago — is playing some of the best basketball of his career. On Christmas Day, he once again played like young, athletic Ron Artest, coming off the bench to score 20 points and slow down Carmelo Anthony just enough to help the Lakers to a fifth straight win. He averaged 18 points, 8 rebounds and 2.5 steals during the winning streak. He’s also become a respected leader on a team with Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. Who’d have ever predicted that?

Who’s Not: Mike D’Antoni. Obviously he can’t score a single point, pass for an assist or make a defensive stop. But the Lakers’ first-year coach seems lost at times, appearing unable to figure out the best way for his team to play. He continues to have them push the ball despite the fact that their talents seem to lie elsewhere. He has two of the best low-post players in the game — Howard and Gasol — yet can’t find a way for them to co-exist and be productive on the floor at the same time. And he’s playing Kobe and Nash far too much, which could kill any hopes of a moderately fresh backcourt once the playoffs begin.

Three Thoughts

1. Did the Lakers make a mistake hiring D’Antoni? Only if he refuses to adjust his gameplan to one that highlights his team’s talents — not his offensive theory. His top priority needs to be finding a happy medium between the running game he prefers and an offense that uses his biggest advantage: the twin towers of Gasol and Howard.

2. Each game sees Antawn Jamison get buried deeper and deeper on D’Antoni’s bench. It’s hard to believe that they can’t find a role for a c areer 19.5 points-per-game scoring machine. Yes, he can be a major liability on defense, but that’s no excuse to anchor him to the pine. Nash is one of the worst defensive guards in the league and he’s never benched because he can’t stop anybody. D’Antoni needs to find playing time for him, because later in the season and in the playoffs, they’ll need his scoring.

3. It seems to be the right time for a “State of the Lakers” address from one of the Buss family — Jim or Jerry. Venerable Lakers owner Jerry has been struggling with his health, so it probably won’t be him. But Jim Buss needs to step into the bright lights and let Lakers fans — and maybe even some players — know what he thinks about his team’s performance so far and where he sees them in the immediate future. It might also be a good time to address the Howard situation, and whether or not the Lakers have made any moves to try and lock him into a long-term deal. Jerry Buss met with the media once or twice a year for decades. It’s time for Jim to continue the tradition.

Quotes of the Week

“We played old. They played with a lot of energy, a lot of youth, got up and down. We just seemed like were in a lower gear all night. It’s a little more alarming now because of the way we started the season.”

Bryant following the loss to the Nuggets in Denver

”Not a whole lot.”

D’Antoni when asked how much Howard’s ejection Wednesday hurt the Lakers

“Our job is to come out ready to play and fight to win. Sometimes you don’t have your legs, but you have to fight and find other ways to win games. We have to do better than that.”

Nash saying there is no excuse for a lack of effort or intensity by the Lakers

News and Notes

* Charles Barkley went on a national radio show Thursday morning and ripped the Lakers, saying he never believed they’d be a legitimate contender this year. “They’re old, slow and unathletic.” Can’t argue with that, which is why the rumor mill is heating up once again.

* One rumor that won’t quit is the Lakers being interested in acquiring Amar’e Stoudamire from the Knicks once he’s healthy. Obviously he’s familiar with D’Antoni’s system and has never played better than he did during his years with Nash running the point in Phoenix.

* Former Laker and UCLA great Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes will have his No. 52 retired Friday night before the Lakers’ game with Portland at Staples Center. Wilkes, the 1974-75 Rookie of the Year for Golden State, won four NBA championships — three with the Lakers and one with the Warriors. He also won two titles with the Bruins under coach John Wooden. He joins Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy on the Lakers’ Wall of Fame, which is reserved for Hall of Famers. Shaquille O’Neal will enter the club in April.

What’s Next: Friday vs. Portland and Jan. 1 vs. Philadelphia.

The game against the Sixers was supposed to be a homecoming for former Lakers center Andrew Bynum, an All-Star last season for LA. It would also have been a Clash of the Titans between Bynum and Howard. Bynum’s chronically bad knees will prevent that from taking place, and with both Howard and Bynum able to become free agents after the season, it may never happen with their current teams.

Tower of Power? They were starting to climb the Tower, but the elevator stalled in Denver on Wednesday night.