“It’s not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone—Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver...whoever. I have zero nervousness about that.” -– Kobe Bryant to Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum
It sorta began there. Even though the talk that had been lingering around the basketball universe about them not making the playoffs began around Week 10, real talk about the Los Angeles Lakers making the playoffs jumped off when Kobe went ’Sheed.
Ever since then, there hasn’t been an NBA broadcast that has not included that line of discussion: the “if they’s,” the “can they’s?” the “will they’s?” etc. Of all the special incidents and far greater story lines going on around the NBA at this point of the season, the interest in whether or not LA’s new “other” team makes the playoffs, seems to still, at times, dominate the collective conversation.
But why? Why do we even care? I know it’s the Lakers, but remove the emotional, “Kobe deserves better than this” attachment and ask yourself: What have the Lakers done to even deserve to play in the playoffs?
The honest answer is they’ve done nothing to deserve making the playoffs. Nothing to warrant them playing beyond 82 games this season. Nothing for us to keep discussing their fate and not the fate of teams that have overachieved to be on the playoff bubble while the Lakers continue to be one of the most underachieving teams in NBA history.
Question: What have these Lakers done so far this season to prove that they’d do anything different come playoff time? For only the seventh time this season they’ve reached the .500 mark. Only once this season (back on Nov. 20th for one day) have they been over .500. They’ve squandered almost every opportunity to succeed and used almost every excuse to explain what’s gone wrong. They have played a brand of basketball this season that even the most staunch, loyal, in-denial-that-anything-is-wrong Laker fans have admitted is unacceptable and embarrassing.
(Note: The only difference between the paper bags that Lakers fans walk around LA with over their heads, and the ones all other sports fans wear when their teams embarrass them the way the Lakers have this season: Lakers fans big brown bags come from Bloomingdale’s.)
Questions: What have they done to make us believe they’ll hit a magic switch—or that there even is one—and become the team on the court that their collection of first ballot HOF names represent on paper? What have they done to make us think that if they do make it in, that they’ll magically transform into a legit dream team?
Here’s what’s real: Of the five teams that occupy the top five spots in the Western Conference that the Lakers could eventually play in if they make the playoffs as either an 8, 7 or 6 seed (realistically, they won’t come in any higher than that unless a few teams totally collapse over the last six weeks of the season), the Lakers record this season is 2-11.
(They play OKC next. Good luck with that.)
Here’s what won’t change: Their ability to, all of a sudden, stop teams from scoring. No intentional disrespect, but the Lakers are 24th in the League in points allowed. It bodes well for them that the three teams they are chasing to get into the playoffs—the Warriors, Nuggets and Rockets—are 25, 26 and 29, respectively, in the same category. But, once again, looking at the teams that the Lakers would have to face once they get into the post-season, three of them—Memphis, LAC and SA—are in the top 10 in points allowed and OKC is 13.
Look, I am a Lakers fan. Not die-hard like those people that say “we” when they talk about the Lakers, but one that loves when they either achieve or over-achieve. As bad as I feel that this is the team Dr. Buss had to watch upon his death, I know that unless something extremely drastic changes in the Lakers’ locker room and approach, I’d rather see hungry teams like Utah, Golden State or Houston get in.
To me, those teams deserve it. Those teams have played all season long as if making the playoffs meant something to them. The Lakers? They’ve, too often, played with a certain faux hierarchy, as if making the playoffs was an inherited privilege that would automatically be bestowed on them because they are NBA royalty.
So even if the Lakers do make it, the team(s) that they knock out to get there will have deserved it more. To be brutally honest, regardless of the outcome, at this moment, on this day, thus far for this season, the Jazz, the Warriors and the Rockets (and even the Trailblazers, if they go on a Heat-like streak to end the season) deserve to make the playoffs more than the Lakers.
“You don’t wanna see them in the first round,” is what Magic Johnson said about the Lakers at halftime of Sunday’s OKC/LAL game. Shaquille O’Neal went in the other direction, last week on a TNT broadcast, to say that the Lakers need to change their mentality from making the playoffs to “championship or nothing.”
Again, why? Why are we having this discussion? Why is there interest in this particular squad playing games past April 17th? Why are we making this Lakers team a universal topic of discussion when there are other teams more worthy?
In 2009, the Lakers were in the playoffs to avenge their 2008-Finals loss to the Celtics. I remember after a “gut it out” Game 1 win against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, Kenny Smith said what seemed to be on the minds of millions: “The Lakers don’t deserve to win the championship.” Charles Barkley went a step further (as I wrote in a column for ESPN.com), saying that a team that talented and playing the way they were playing is “a shame.”
Four years removed from that sentiment, the Lakers story repeats itself. But this time it’s for entrance in, not an honor earned. Those Lakers ended up winning the chip that year; they finally decided to play like they deserved the championship that they eventually won. This team right here doesn’t have the same luxury.
The true difference in that team and the one we’ve been forced to endure this season is that there were times during that 2009 regular season when the Lakers showed us what they were made of. They showed us their hearts and souls. It wasn’t always pretty, but we knew they deserved everything that came their way.
This Lakers team? At what point have they shown us that they are any different than a team that has taken making the playoffs for granted? At what point have they shown us that a different team will appear once the playoffs begin?
See, there’s a distinct difference between showing people who you really are and exposing yourself.
I’m not sure these Lakers can afford to be exposed any more than they already have been.