The 2012--13 NBA season has offered lessons in the art of diminished expectations, fungible goal-setting and, most of all, humility for a Lakers franchise that has won 16 championships and carries itself with a purple-and-gold pomp that suggests it should have won 16 more. Before the season it was all about Taking the Court with One of the Greatest Starting Lineups in History. Now it's about If We Make the Playoffs, We're Going to Be a Tough Out.
Los Angeles being the land of perpetual rewrite, the Lakers (25--29 at the All-Star break) still seemingly have the talent to flip the script and pen a smiley-face denouement. But a soul-searing 125--101 loss to the Clippers last Thursday left them to ponder a cruel calculus: Despite improvement over the last few weeks, the Lakers have only lifted themselves from the quicksand of 12th place to the muck of 10th, 3½ games out of a postseason spot with 28 to go.
Whatever happens, it has been a memorable—or forgettable, depending on your perspective—season of sooner-than-expected firings and unexpected hirings, injuries, finger-pointing, second-guessing, trenchant tweets, the invisible yet palpable presence of a former coach with more championship rings than fingers, and the passing of the man who shepherded the franchise to its place atop the NBA mountain.
Herewith, the main story lines and characters.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Phil Jackson, who last worked an NBA sideline on May 8, 2011, lunched with Mitch Kupchak before the start of this season and told the Lakers' general manager that he wasn't interested in returning to coaching—which, in Phil Speak, means, "I might be interested in coaching." Then, on Nov. 10, the morning after Mike Brown was fired as L.A.'s coach, Kupchak and Jim Buss, who runs the Lakers' basketball operations, met with the 67-year-old Jackson, who told them he was interested but "needed a couple of days to think about it." Laker Nation was abuzz imagining the return of their 11-ringed Obi-Wan.
However, late on the evening of Nov. 11, around midnight, Jackson received a call from Kupchak informing him that the Lakers had hired Mike D'Antoni. Jackson was stunned.
"I just didn't understand the timing," he said last week over breakfast at his favorite spot in El Segundo. "Even if I had come in that Monday and said, 'Hey, I'm really interested in this thing,' and they had told me, 'We're going in a different direction,' I would've said, 'O.K., that's cool.' But why call me at midnight? Were they worried I was going to take the job?"
Jackson swears that at that point he hadn't yet made up his mind about whether to come back. "I have my process that I go through, and I was going to need a couple of days, that's all," he says. "I'm a big part of the Buss family, and I want to see them right this thing. I came back in 2005 because I was asked to by the family. And we got it back on track."