On Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers played host to Dwight Howard’s former team, the Orlando Magic.
It was the superstar centre’s first time facing the team for which he played the first eight years of his career since the messy exit he orchestrated this past summer.
And given that the Magic are firmly in rebuild mode and sorely lacking in elite talent, it should have been a convincing win for the struggling Lakers.
For the first three quarters, it was. However, in the fourth quarter, LA’s defence fell apart, giving up 40 points to the Magic, who ultimately pulled off a shocking 113-103 victory at the Staples Center.
It was just the latest in a long line of setbacks for what was supposed to be a powerhouse team. The Lakers’ struggles this season are well documented. Following a 1-4 start, they fired head coach Mike Brown and opened discussions with legendary coach Phil Jackson, who won five titles with the team between 2000 and 2010.
However, somewhere along the line, the team decided instead to hire former Suns and Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni. He seemed to be a perfect fit for their roster, especially given his previous success with Steve Nash.
But Nash has yet to play for D’Antoni, having broken his leg in the second game of the season. Backup point guard Steve Blake is injured as well, and isn’t expected to return until January.
In addition, D’Antoni and big man Pau Gasol are clearly not in sync. Gasol has been sitting down the stretch in close games since D’Antoni took over, and has publicly voiced his displeasure with his role in the new, shooting-heavy system the coach wants to install.
There has been speculation that the Lakers will move Gasol before the February trading deadline, and it may be a wise move given his poor fit in their new offense. But it won’t be easy. He’s making $19 million in this season and next, and at 32-years-old, that’s a lot of money for a team to take on, especially while giving up the kinds of assets the Lakers would want in return.
It seems, also, that Howard still hasn’t fully recovered from the back surgery that kept him out of the playoffs in Orlando last season. A three-time Defensive Player of the Year and perennial MVP candidate, Howard is the kind of player who should, in theory, make a defence better simply by being on the floor.
So far, his effectiveness on both ends has been off from what was expected of him before the season. He occasionally shows flashes of the man who has rightly made a reputation as the most dominant centre in the league, but he’s been far from the consistently game-altering force we’re used to him being.
Aside from the underwhelming defence, the biggest problem by far for the Lakers has been their depth. Jodie Meeks, touted as a steal in free agency for his shooting ability, has barely seen the court. Antawn Jamison is well past his prime and not nearly the offensive weapon he once was.
With Nash and Blake out, the point guard position has been turned over to a combination of Darius Morris and Chris Duhon, neither of whom are capable of contributing for extended minutes.
The one unqualified bright spot this season for the Lakers has been Kobe Bryant, having arguably the most efficient scoring season of his career at age 34. He’s shooting 48.9 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range, both career-best marks. He’s scoring 116 points per 100 possessions, also a career high.
D’Antoni’s offense hasn’t benefitted anyone else on the team, but Bryant has absolutely thrived. However, he won’t be able to save the season alone.
The returns of Nash and Blake will help the Lakers’ offensive production, but they will solve far from all of their problems. Neither are great defensive players, and even if they were, the team’s issues on that end run deep enough that getting two players back wouldn’t solve them.
Depth is still a major issue, and the questions of Howard’s health and Gasol in general still loom large. There is plenty of time for them to figure this out, and it’s still smart to assume they will before the start of the playoffs. But something has to change.