Very little has gone according to plan for the Los Angeles Lakers this season. So little, in fact, that executive vice president Jim Buss said Thursday it would be foolish to “blow it up” until the team has played enough games together to correctly identify why it has so badly underachieved.
“We still like this team a lot,” Buss said Thursday in an interview with ESPNLA 710 radio in Los Angeles. “How can you not believe in this team? This team is built to win. It’s a very, very solid team. We haven’t seen them all together and play together for games. In my mind, we would not consider a temporary fix or blow it up. Why blow up something we have a future with?
“It’s very difficult to talk this way because we’re five games under or six games under .500, and we’ve dug ourselves a hole. But at the same time, I feel that if we put it together, we can string seven or eight games in a row and dig ourselves out of this hole. If we play with the energy we’ve seen in the last two games, then I think you go into the playoffs with momentum.”
Buss was referring, of course, to the Lakers’ injury woes this season. Steve Nash missed seven weeks with a broken bone in his leg. Dwight Howard has struggled in his recovery from back surgery and is now out indefinitely with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Pau Gasol has missed time with assorted leg injuries and is now out with a concussion. Backup point guard Steve Blake has missed all but the first five games with an abdominal injury.
Still, bad luck hasn’t been the whole story of the Lakers’ season. The team fired coach Mike Brown five games into the season and chose Mike D’Antoni to replace him when former coach and 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson was available and interested in the job.
General manager Mitch Kupchak has previously said the Lakers chose D’Antoni because they felt his system would apply to this roster better than Jackson’s Triangle offense. Buss concurred and said he, Kupchak and his father, owner Dr. Jerry Buss, still feel that way.
“We thought Steve Nash was our future point guard for the next three years and we needed a coach we felt would fit with him,” Buss said. “That was one of the main issues where we thought that D’Antoni was better than Phil. Well, not better, nobody’s better than Phil, but we felt that he fit the team the way we wanted to work it.
“I like D’Antoni a lot. I still believe in him 100 percent. I have no questions about him. We just have to have this team work together and play together. We just don’t have enough information to analyze anything. It’s just not enough data to put your finger on a problem.”
Injuries and everything else aside, what if this team and its $99.2 million payroll don’t make the playoffs?
“We stuck our neck out with this payroll because Kobe (Bryant) is in the twilight of his career and we want to win championships,” Buss said. “Now, am I upset that we might not make the playoffs? Of course. I’d be upset if I had a $10 payroll or a $200 million payroll. I want to make the playoffs and I want to win championships. But to panic? No, we’re not going to panic.”
The Lakers could face a difficult situation in convincing Howard to re-sign with them when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1. The Lakers can offer more years and more money than any other team because of the way the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement is structured, but would Howard want to stick around after a season that’s gone so poorly?
“If we make the playoffs, that means we’re playing well and I think we’ll go deep in the playoffs and it’s a no-brainer that he stays,” Buss said. “I think if it continues to fall apart because of injuries, I’m hoping we can convince him, ‘Look, everybody was injured, you weren’t 100 percent for the whole year, let’s give it another shot next year.’
“It points to 95 percent that we’ll be able to keep him. I can’t control what he does, but I can sure make a great argument.”
As for Gasol, who is averaging a career-low 12.6 points a game and has struggled each of the past two seasons to find his place in the Lakers’ offense, Buss said he expects the 7-foot Spaniard not only to revert to his previous form, but to play more in the low post, as both Gasol and Bryant have advocated.
“I love Pau Gasol,” Buss said. “The thing is, if you shoot the basketball from 6 feet, your percentages are going to be in the high 50s. If you shoot from 18 feet, you’re lucky to get 40 percent. To base his year off of his shooting percentages is just not the right way to analyze how he’s playing.
“I believe if we can get him down low, he can coexist with Dwight Howard if they play enough games to where they can play off each other. I believe eventually he will move down there and D’Antoni will move him down there and his percentage will go back right to where it was.”