By TIM DAHLBERG
If the guarantee was somewhat shocking, it’s only because the Los Angeles Lakers have been shockingly bad.
That’s hardly Kobe Bryant’s fault, though as usual he’s the one charged with fixing the mess. He has to, because his coach can’t seem to figure it out, and neither can the stars brought in to help him win a sixth ring.
Feel free to file this in the category of desperate men doing desperate things. But everything else has failed for the Lakers in a season like no other, so forgive Bryant for trying to make one last stand.
“It’s not a question of if we make the playoffs,” he told Sports Illustrated earlier this week. “We will.”
Lakers fans surely hope so, even if this was hardly the scenario they envisioned when the season began. After luring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to Los Angeles in the offseason, the Lakers figured to be fighting for the top seed in the West, not scrambling after the last one.
But scramble they must, and even a guarantee from one of the greatest players in NBA history may not be enough.
It used to be that however Bryant went, so went the Lakers. But while Bryant is arguably playing some of his best ball in years, his team is so dysfunctional that some of the brightest minds in basketball — Kobe included — seem bewildered about it all.
The scorer became a facilitator and it worked for a while, with Bryant dishing out assists by the handful. But that was the job the Lakers brought in Nash to do, and if he’s not doing it he’s just an undersized 39-year-old defensive liability who has no business playing guard in the NBA.
Nash was supposed to be one of the missing links for the Lakers, a point guard who would make sure Bryant and Howard got the ball early and often. But he seems lost in an offense he should be thriving in under Mike D’Antoni, his coach during his best seasons in Phoenix.
So does Howard, who has struggled all season to adapt to the pick and roll, one of the most basic plays in basketball. Only in the last few games have he and Nash seemed to be coming closer to an understanding about how it should be executed and the reasons why.
Meanwhile, Bryant and Howard seem to be closer to an understanding of their own. For Howard that means playing harder and trying to get more involved in the offense. For Bryant, it means offering some positive praise instead of the type of veiled criticism he leveled when he suggested recently Howard needed to worry less about his injured shoulder and get more of a sense of urgency in his game.
If the Lakers are confused, their fans are too. They’ve watched as the team switched coaches, changed offenses, and played defense with a lack of intensity that can be felt from up in the rafters at Staples Center. Their owner, Jerry Buss, died this week, further clouding the identity and future of the team he made so wildly successful.
On Friday night the puzzle continued at home, before the usual glittery array of Hollywood types. Bryant returned to the role of shooter and scored 40 points, and Howard had 19 and 16 rebounds. But Nash struggled again and the Lakers needed four Bryant free throws in the last 13 seconds to beat the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that had lost six in a row coming in.
“We’re getting there,” Howard said. “You could see the effort and emotion that we have on the court.”
Unfortunately for the Lakers, getting there is going to be difficult. They’re 27-29 on the season, ninth in the Western Conference and 3½ games out of the last playoff spot. They’ve got 26 games left, and the teams immediately in front of them have shown no sign of imminent collapse.
The Lakers, meanwhile, aren’t even the best team in their building. The long woeful Clippers own that title, and own the Lakers after blowing them out by 24 points earlier this month.
For the Lakers to make good on Bryant’s guarantee, they need to win like this team was expected to win when the season began. So far they haven’t shown they’re capable of doing that on a sustained basis, even if they have won seven of their last 10.
Still, Bryant is doing his best to find a way to get it done. He’s altered his game, cajoled his teammates, and tried every psychological ruse he knows to get the Lakers moving toward the ring that would put his name in the conversation with Michael Jordan when the debate turns to the greatest NBA player ever.
The guarantee may be the last trick left in his bag.
“You love it when your best player has that confidence and that challenge,” Nash said. “He’s put it out there for us to go get now.”
That wouldn’t have been an issue before. In 16 seasons with the Lakers, Bryant has missed the playoffs only once, in 2005 when Phil Jackson was between stints with the team.
To do it again with a team that seemed so loaded in talent when the season began is almost incomprehensible.
Bryant understands that better than most. Surely, too, he understands what missing the playoffs this season might do to his legacy.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg