It remained hard for TNT NBA analyst Kenny Smith to contain his laughter.
Of all the storylines entering 2013 NBA All-Star weekend in Houston, there seems to be one topic that he can never avoid addressing.
The Lakers entered this season with plenty of hype surrounding big acquisitions in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Yet, they enter the All-Star break with in 10th place in the Western Conference with a 25-29 record. The Lakers trail the Houston Rockets by 3 ½ games for the eighth postseason seed, a place Smith remains convinced won’t happen.
“Why do we keep talking about a team that’s not going to make the playoffs?” Smith said in an interview with this newspaper. “It’s just amazing. Nationally, they talk about it. No one’s talking about the demise of the Minnesota Timberwolves. I’m tired of talking about guys who don’t produce.”
Nonetheless, Smith willingly obliged on dissecting what exactly has gone wrong with the purple and gold.
What’s disappointed you the most with how the Lakers have played this season?
What’s disappointing as a basketball fan is I was expecting the Lakers to make a run and have an opportunity four possible Hall of Famers and six former All-Stars play at one time. That’s an intriguing story. Now you’re talking about the demise of that. I don’t think that’s fun.
Even with the overlapping injuries and adjustment to the coaching change, where should the Lakers be at this point?
A championship caliber team. They shouldn’t be a team fighting to make the playoffs. Is it going to be them, Miami or Oklahoma City? We’re not talking about those stories.
When did it reach the point when you believed there’s zero percent chance the Lakers will make the playoffs?
When they went on a three-game winning streak and everyone got happy. This isn’t real. There’s always been something. ‘It’s Mike Brown. We have to change the offense. We got a new coach. Somebody is hurt.’ There’s no indication to me where I can point to where there’s something positive where you can put your hat on.
Considering Pau Gasol’s long-term injury and the team’s play, should the Lakers add another player before the trade deadline?
You still have three of the best players at the top-10 in their position. Kobe Bryant is top-five easily. Dwight Howard is top-five at his position. You would say Steve Nash is top-10 at their position. You don’t need anything else. They still have enough to be a championship caliber team. If the Lakers this offseason traded Gasol in the deal for Howard, people still would’ve said they’re a championship team. Even without Gasol, they’re a championship team.
Why haven’t the Lakers been able to mesh together all that talent?
There’s a lack of trust, obviously. They don’t trust their first coach and they don’t play well. Boom, now he’s gone. They don’t trust the new coach and the system. Basketball isn’t about the talent. It’s about trusting each other. Do I trust the game plan? Do I trust my teammates? Do I trust their reactions? That’s what it’s about. When I watch a team, it’s easy to know if they trust each other. As a basketball player, it’s easy to see it. It’s not very difficult at all.
So what do you see contributes to that lack of trust?
That’s the difference that separates championship teams. It’s a collection of things that happen throughout practice and games that abandon trust. It’s as simple as we’re supposed to send everyone baseline. They send a guy baseline and the opponent dunks it. Do I trust the next time that my teammate is going to be there? No, so I’m going to stand in the middle and play my guy straight up. Then that time the guy actually goes over. You basically have 12 guys doing that. That’s how you lose close games.
No one is totally abandoning the game plan. They’re just not sticking to it in key moments. It could be late in the game or when the team is making a run in the second quarter. Those are the times that it shows. It doesn’t show when you’re up 15 or points. That’s when they follow the game plan. When the game is close or getting away, that’s where the lack of trust shows.
Do you find any fault with Mike D’Antoni trying to adopt his fast-paced system to a veteran-laden roster?
It’s not the style. After a while, it’s the people in the style. The 12 guys have to buy into something. If I told the Oklahoma City team they should walk it up and they bought into it, Kevin Durant would still score 30 points and they would still be a tough team to beat. If I tell them to push the ball up like they do and they bought into it, they would be where they are right now. When you have that kind of talent, it’s about buying in. They have too much talent not to buy in.
So would buying into the system allow them to play at that fast pace?
You and I could go on that bench and if they bought into the system, we would get to the Western Conference Finals.
I don’t know about me.
I’m telling you. You and I could go on that bench and if they bought into that system, they could get into the Western Conference Finals. That team has that much talent. It’s not rocket science. Just buy into it.
Do you believe Kobe Bryant will sustain the facilitating role?
This is why I talked about buying into systems. Kobe Bryant is good enough to do that. He’s good enough to say I’ve been one of the top scorers in the league. Now I’ll be a facilitator. In the past 10 games, he’s been the top 10 in assists. Why can’t he fit into any system? Systems are good for guys who aren’t good who don’t know where to go. Guys who are great players, they can play in any kind of system and environment. It doesn’t matter. If there’s some semblance of organization you’ll be okay. There’s queens on a chess board. They can go anywhere.
What do you make of the dynamic between Kobe and Dwight Howard
Kobe is trying to lead the team in different ways. He’s trying to lead it by being a scorer. Then he tried to lead it by being a facilitator. He’s trying to be verbal. He’s trying to figure out a way and get his troops going. Does it always work? Maybe not. But I definitely see the effort.
How would you evaluate Dwight Howard’s play?
He’s playing like a top-5 center, but he’s the best center in the world. So he should play like one. Why is he playing like that? He’s an All-Star. But if my son can make A’s and he’s getting B-minuses, why am I happy? You didn’t study and come in and are engaged in other activities. He’s the best center in basketball and he’s not playing like it. Not only is he the best center in basketball, he’s one of the top 5 players in the world when he’s playing at his best.
What’s he lacking?
A great player dominates the game in multiple ways. He’s only dominating in games if he rebounds well. That’s it. He’s not protecting the paint to that degree. He’s not scoring at a high clip. A great player can control the game in multiple aspects with scoring, assists, rebounding, defense and tempo. He’s only controlling it in one aspect and sometimes at most two he might defend. He has the ability to control them in all.
With how he’s playing, to what degree do you measure his injuries with his overall effort level?
My dad taught me this real young, when you’re on the court you can only evaluate what you’re doing on the court. We can’t evaluate how much you’re injured and how much that’s hampering you. I can only evaluate what you’re doing. If he’s on the court, I’m evaluating him. I don’t know what his threshold for pain. That’s not for me to try to figure out. All I know is he’s on the court and that is what I see.
What’s your outlook on his free agency?
He has to stay. He can’t leave. The Lakers have to re-sign him. He can still be one of the top five players in basketball. So you have to re-sign him. Resign Dwight Howard and everything else will come to pass.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org