If Phil Jackson has any unused Zen Master tricks hidden away in a dark corner of his tepee, now might be a good time to break them out. The long grind of the NBA season seems to have claimed its latest victim in Jackson's Lakers, who are reeling after a 2613 start that filled their eyes with dreams of title contention.
Unfortunately, those hopes have been derailed by injuries, inconsistency, and a much less friendly stretch of schedule. The Lakers are 714 in their past 21 games, halving their winning percentage from the opening 39 contests, and as a result find themselves just six games over .500 and falling back toward the pack in the Western Conference playoff hunt.
The schedule certainly contributed, as the Lakers have faced much tougher tests of late after an early-season schedule laden with home games. Thirteen of their past 21 fixtures have been away from the friendly confines of Staples Center, and there's more where that came from: L.A. plays four of its next five away from home before things even out for the stretch run.
But more insidious has been the problem that catches up to a lot of teams over the NBA's 82-game slog: Injuries. Interestingly enough, the Lakers shrugged off this scourge earlier in the season. They started off strong despite Kobe Bryant having to work his way back into shape after knee surgery, and also withstood absences from both forward Lamar Odom and center Kwame Brown.
However, few teams can survive what L.A. has suffered of late, in the form of multiple body blows to the same spot. Teams can prevail over injuries, even if they come in a rash, as long as they affect different positions and skill types. That's especially true for a team like the Lakers, which has one of the league's better benches.
Unfortunately, the Lakers' most recent injuries weren't of that type. Instead, all their forwards got hurt at once, and now they're scraping the barrel trying to come up with competent replacements. The first forward to go was Luke Walton, one of the league's most improved players this year. He's an underrated glue guy in L.A.'s triangle offense because of his Houdini-esque passing proficiency and ability to score from inside or out. In fact, L.A.'s winter swoon corresponds almost exactly to the day Walton checked out of the lineup.
Though Walton's absence stings, the Lakers weren't too worried at first because they had replacements. But another fell by the wayside over All-Star Weekend, when forward Vladimir Radmanovic decided he would spend his time off snowboarding in Park City, Utah.
Anybody who has played basketball for any length of time even in high school knows that snow sports are strictly verboten for players because of the high risk of injury. Radmanovic showed us why. He took a tumble on the slopes and separated his shoulder, knocking him out of action for eight weeks, or basically the rest of the regular season.
Actually, he's lucky he's still a Laker. The NBA's standard contract forbids players from doing these sorts of activities, and since he's already underperformed on the five-year, $31 million deal he signed over the summer, it was a perfect opportunity for the Lakers to cut the cord. Luckily for him, they settled for a $500,000 fine. According to one report, this was due in part to the technicality that the contract forbids skiing and Radmanovic was snowboarding.
Nonetheless, the half-pipe halfwit is out of the lineup, and his absence became even more glaring once the next blow come: a torn labrum in the shoulder of forward Lamar Odom. Technically, he's listed as being out for three weeks and could be able to gut out the rest of the season while playing in pain.
Realistically, however, most expect that he's done for the year. If so, it's a mortal wound that leaves the Lakers with a forward rotation of Brian Cook, Maurice Evans, and Aaron McKie. Yes, that Aaron McKie. The Lakers had to drag the veteran deadwood out of cold storage the past five games, so desperate were they for help on the wings. (Side note: The Nets don't have a lot to be thankful for right now, but one area where they can feel blessed is that L.A. won the "war" for McKie's services in the summer of 2005.)
All this has fueled rumors that Jackson and Scottie Pippen could be headed for a reunion. With Pippen's prior knowledge of the triangle offense, not to mention Jackson, it seems a better fit for his recently announced return than most other destinations. The Lakers would have to cut a player, but McKie, guard Shammond Williams, and center Chris Mihm (out for the season and a free agent after it) all seem expendable.
In the meantime, Jackson's work still isn't done if he wants to get this team into the playoffs. On paper, L.A. should be fine. They still own the no. 6 seed in the West, with leads of 3.5 games on the Clippers and Nuggets and five games on the Hornets. All three teams would have to pass the Lakers for L.A. to miss the postseason.
But a look at the schedule shows that the Lakers play Denver three times, the Clippers twice, and the Hornets once, not to mention two games apiece against the Kings and T'wolves the other challengers for the West's last playoff spot. Thus, a losing streak now would also be adding wins to the ledger of precisely the wrong teams and could quickly tighten up the race.
On the other hand, I'm sure L.A. would rather be facing these teams than, say, San Antonio or Utah. The Lakers don't play either team the rest of the way, and in fact only four of their remaining 22 games are against teams with winning records.
Because of that, I think we can hold off on any doomsday scenarios for L.A. They still have Kobe Bryant, their frontcourt still looks solid, and the schedule is full of cupcakes. And while the forward corps has been thinned considerably, the impending return of Walton should help stop the bleeding.
It's still a far cry from the sugarplum dreams the Lakers' torrid start engendered, but as long as the injury bug subsides, the Zen Master needn't worry about his first-ever appearance in the lottery. However, should another malady hit Jackson's already reeling squad especially were one to impact Bryant even his greatest Jedi mind tricks might not be enough to keep his team afloat.