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Grading the Lakers: A Half-Season Report Card

Kobe Bryant: the face of despair
Kobe Bryant: the face of despair
PHOTO BY JEFF COWAN

Behold: the Lakers half-season distilled into a single head-shake of despair.  Kobe Bryant, seen here, illustrating the maxim that a good eye roll is worth a thousand GIFs. Darth Mamba has barely played this season, but his powers of conveying disillusion remain at all-NBA First Team level. This is an 81 points-per-game eye roll. It's like watching Charlie Chaplin silently read the full list of injured Lakers. 

There are no words that can do a better job of summarizing the first half of the season. I can invoke the Lakers point guard curse that will continue until every Angeleno names their first born child Van Exel. I can mention that they've lost 14 out of their last 17 and have been so short of players that they can't do a full scrimmage. At this point, Mike D' Antoni is basically using the Fibonacci Sequence to determine new starting lineup permutations. Kobe broke his knee six games into a comeback from a ruptured Achilles Tendon. If not for the Clippers, it would lead one to believe that a river of evil pink sludge runs beneath Staples Center (maybe it explains Chris Paul's injury). 

Every time I try to bring up the Lakers with a Lakers fan, they make the same Kobe cringe and say, "Please, let's not talk about the Lakers." It is not one of those wait-till-next-year seasons, it's one of those what-the-fuck-went-wrong, Exorcist-neck swiveling type of seasons.

And yet there have been rays of light, many of them connected to Nick Young's Swaggy Peacock Parade of Traveling Yeezus All-Stars-style basketball. They are 16-26, which means that they're only two games out of contention in the Eastern Conference. The problem is that they're in the Western Conference (at least one problem). My suggestion for the panicking sports talk-radio fans is to start meditating. Your mantra: "At least we're not Milwaukee."

With that in mind, here's a report card of the 2013-14 Lakers at the halfway mark:

Starting Lineup (As Of Yesterday)

Pau Gasol: He gets a B+
Pau Gasol: He gets a B+
PHOTO BY JEFF COWAN

Pau Gasol: Grade B+
It's not easy to watch a dominant player in his declining years. You oscillate between being too hard on them for failing to recreate the magic of their youth, while simultaneously overrating them because your perception is still jaundiced by their past greatness. This is the only way to really explain the schizophrenia surrounding Pau Gasol this year. 

The press has derided him for missing games due to an upper respiratory infection. D' Antoni's offense is designed without the need for a back to the basket center who demands the ball in the low post. The two-time champ has suffered constant trade rumors, nagging injuries, and withering reviews of the new Warpaint album. And yet, he's averaging 20.5 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and nearly 2 blocks a game in the month of January, while shooting better than every other rotation player. The Lakers have given up more points in the paint than almost every team in the NBA, but Gasol's Defensive Efficiency Rating (105) is second-best on the Lakers next to the barely-used, Chris Kaman. Gasol frequently looks slow and lumbering, but he's still a very effective starter and the squad's most likely player to reenact an Ernest Hemingway novel in the off-season.

Ryan Kelly: B-
The rookie out of Duke has contributed surprisingly solid play since entering the rotation a few weeks ago. His on-court savvy led Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau to praise his "feel for the game." D' Antoni has been similarly effusive. Until he improves his shooting percentage (a woeful 38 percent in Jan., 25.8 percent from behind the arc), he isn't about to replace Amar'e Stoudamire as D' Antoni's platonic ideal stretch 4. But he is the Lakers version of McLovin: gangly but feisty and more effective than his appearance would ever lead you to be believe.

Kendall Marshall: B
On one hand, Kendall Marshall has exceeded anyone's wildest expectations, dishing out assists (9.1 pg) at the highest levels for a Lakers point guard since Magic Johnson. On the other hand, his defensive strategy seems to come from the Ole! textbook. His 113 points allowed per 100 possessions Defensive Efficiency Rating is one of the worst in the NBA. But he came straight from the Development League to admirably run a (mostly) professional offense, so he deserves credit. There is a lot of room to improve, but the combination of his superior court vision and eerie resemblance to Vlade Divac and Swizz Beats, gives me hope for his future. Even if his jump shot looks like he learned shooting form from an ultimate frisbee instructor. 

Wesley Johnson: C
Johnson has the second-lowest Offensive Efficiency rating among rotation players (11.1) and has frequently looked lost on defense. It's partially not his fault. When things are flowing and they have two viable NBA point guards, he's shown flashes that he can be a valuable cog in a large machine. His athleticism has allowed the team to play at D' Antoni's preferred up-tempo style (currently the Lakers are playing at the third fastest pace in the league.) Unfortunately, this Lakers team requires something more than a decent cog. They're like a plane with one engine. If everything goes right, they can get to their destination intact. But mostly, there have been crashes. 

Jodie Meeks: B+ 
Until Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar got hurt, Meeks was a viable candidate for the NBA"s Most Improved Player. His defense is among the worst statistically on the team, but he's been a sniper on offense, hits clutch shots, and has averaged over 18 points a game this month while shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point land. He is a consummate glue guy, a valuable thing to have when the losses make you want to sniff glue. 

 

Bench

Jordan Hill: A-

The low-key most valuable trading chip on the Lakers is Jordan Hill, who has somewhat cooled off after a red-hot start (partially because the lack of point guards has cut off his stream of easy buckets in the post). His PER is 19.8, the highest on the team, an all-star rating. He's a vicious rebounder and has the team's highest shooting percentage by a wide margin (54.9 percent). Perplexingly, he's only playing 20 minutes a game. D' Antoni regards him as mainly an energy guy, a shame, as he gives the team a toughness and physicality that they lack when he's on the bench. Bonus: he wore his dreads in pig tails during last night's loss to the Heat, which gave off mild Pippi Longstocking vibes.

Nick Young: A-
Watching the 2013-14 Lakers without Nick Young is like trying to eat a burrito without guacamole or trying to imagine Migos rapping without being able to repeat the word "Versace." It's possible, but the mere mention of such a quandry can send you into a tailspin of misery. It's best we don't consider these worst of all possible worlds.

If nothing else, basketball is a triumph of aesthetics. No other sport or city places such a premium on style, and Swaggy P drives a Porsche and spends 50K a month on clothing to ensure that he reigns supreme. For all the flash and four-point plays, Young is having one of the best seasons of his career. He's tied for second in the league in points per touch (0.43), just behind all-stars Kevin Durant (0.46) and Klay Thompson (0.46). His defense is never going to win awards, but he did win a game by taking a charge. When we look back on this season a decade from now, the bad memories will fade away and the few good ones will stand out - -and we will call the 2013-14 Lakers season, the Year of Swaggy P. 

Robert Sacre: C+
At times, Sacre displays brolic low-post muscle, impressive energy, and a soft touch around the basket. At other times, he plays basketball with the grace of a man who dances like this. 

Manny Harris - Inc.
The D-League call-up hasn't played enough to get a complete grade. However, it's important that the world knows that his full name is Corperryale L'Adorable "Manny" Harris. 

Chris Kaman - Inc
The lack of Kaman-time this season is sort of baffling. During the brief stretches he's played, he's proven to still be a very solid NBA back-up. And yet, he mostly rides the pine looking like a melancholic cottage-cheese eating beanstalk giant.

Injured Reserve 
Kobe Bryant: On one hand, it's incredibly frustrating that Kobe has only gotten to play six games this season, further curtailing the number of times fans will get to watch him play basketball again. On the hand, he gave us that Gif. It's a toss-up. 

Steve Nash: He may play again this season. He may not. Either way, he has had the worst luck with nerve damage since Ken Griffey Jr. came to play on the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team. 

Jordan Farmar: Before his hamstring troubles, Farmar was having one of the best seasons of his pro career. It's no coincidence that the Lakers slide started shortly after his injury. 

Steve Blake: See Jordan Farmar - except replace "hamstring" with elbow."

Xavier Henry: See the previous two entries, except replace "hamstring" and "elbow" with knee. Make the Kobe eye-roll face. 

Mike D'Antoni: He gets a B/B-
Mike D'Antoni: He gets a B/B-
PHOTO BY JEFF COWAN

Coach
Mike D'Antoni: B/ B-
To many Lakers fans, the mere thought of giving Mike D' Antoni a passing grade is unthinkable. He became coach early last season and was immediately met with impeachment cries, mainly because he had the misfortunate of not being Phil Jackson. And, yes, there are flaws in his coaching style. He doesn't seem to communicate enough with his players about their roles. His substitution patterns are erratic. His concept of the game can be ideological and he struggles to find time for deserving players who don't fit his system (Jordan Hill, Kaman), while his lack of a crunch-time defensive plan against Chicago this week was indictment-worthy. 

Yet he's also been waylaid by roster-obliterating injuries that have never allowed him to achieve any consistency. It's clear that the Lakers are an abysmal defensive team, but it might unfair to pin the blame on the head coach. Last year, he had Steve Clifford running the defense. Clifford was previously the defensive coordinator for Stan Van Gundy when the Orlando Magic had a top 3 defense (in spite of every player not named Dwight Howard). This year, Kurt Rambis, one of the most respected men in the game, is in charge of the defense. And still, they rank 26 out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency. It's likely that this team simply doesn't have the personnel to be a good defensive or rebounding squad. 

As for their offense, he runs a system based on having good point guards and has lost all three of his opening-night ball handlers. Lesser coaches would have lost their team by now. Instead, D' Antoni has the Lakers battling hard every night. They've hung with the Miami Heat on two separate occasions and were above .500 until the engine started to combust. He may not be the solution, but he's not the problem either. In many ways, his coaching stint deserves an incomplete grade too. 

Overall
Lakers: 
No letter grade necessary - - just go watch that Kobe Gif again. 


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