Basketball: Showtime or bust for the leaky LA Lakers

Struggling to make the playoffs and not even the best team in Los Angeles. What, asks Rupert Cornwell, has gone wrong for Nicholson and Co’s favourite team?

What’s happened to “Showtime?” Not Showtime in the sense of the Hollywood glitter that still encrusts the Los Angeles Lakers, and a fans’ list that includes the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio, Andy Garcia and, most famously of all, Jack Nicholson. But Showtime in the sense that entered basketball lore, the nickname bestowed upon the Lakers of the 1980s, and their thrilling style that made a legend of a team that now boasts 16 NBA championships.

For the past decade or more, the Lakers have been not just the ritziest franchise in basketball, but the dominant power of the NBA. Not though in 2012-13. With just a third of the regular season left, the Lakers find themselves in an unaccustomed position – of floundering also-rans.

The story, in the best traditions of Hollywood, may yet have a happy ending. But whatever happens, this has already been the most turbulent season in the team’s recent history.

It began with sky-high expectations after the acquisition of all-stars Steve Nash from Phoenix and Dwight Howard, to join superstar Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest before the name change) in a starting five that stacked up, in terms of points scored and titles won, as among the NBA’s greatest ever. After two seasons of failure by the Lakers’ demanding standards (defeats in the Western Conference semi-finals), a title once again looked within reach.

So far, it hasn’t worked out like that. On 12 November, after the Lakers had lost four of their first five games, coach Mike Brown was sacked. The faithful, however, could comfort themselves with the seemingly certain return of Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in NBA history, who had led the team to five championships between 2000 and 2010 (to add to the six he won with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s). But that too didn’t quite pan out.

Just when the enigmatic Jackson had been sending smoke signals he would accept, the Lakers management turned to Mike D’Antoni. The “We want Phil” chants that had echoed round Staples Center after Brown was shown the door had come to naught. D’Antoni, long-time owner Jerry Buss believed, was the man to return Showtime to LA. But the Lakers have continued to struggle.

That is not how it’s supposed to be. For decades, the team has been the constant star in Los Angeles’ otherwise flickering sporting firmament. Football has long since supplanted baseball as America’s national sport – but since 1995, the country’s second city hasn’t even had an NFL team. Baseball’s Dodgers may once more be on the brink of great things. The hard fact, however, is they haven’t made the World Series since 1988.

True, the Los Angeles Kings did stage an improbable outsider’s run to win last year’s Stanley Cup. But ice hockey, for climatic reasons if no other, doesn’t exactly set LA’s collective pulse racing. Traditionally, that role has been fulfilled by the Lakers, with their fusion of success, stars and celebrity glitz. Indeed, the joke ran, the Lakers were the only professional sports team whose fans made more money than the players they watched. Right now, however, the Showtime boys aren’t even the best basketball team in Los Angeles.

That distinction belongs to the LA Clippers, long unglamorous and championship-less toilers in the Lakers’ shadow, but as of yesterday 11½ games ahead of their hometown rivals. When the Lakers’ most famous fan walked out seven minutes before the end of a dispiriting home loss to the Oklahoma Thunder in mid-January, even Jack Nicholson, it seemed, had given up on the team.

Excuses naturally have been plentiful. Age, they said, was starting to take its toll on the 34-year-old Bryant, the face of the franchise. Howard has been plagued by injury, Nash missed two months after breaking his leg, while Gasol will now be out for the rest of the regular season after tearing a muscle in his right foot.

Nor does an abrupt change of coach usually enhance a team’s chemistry, while the franchise lost a historical mooring earlier this month with the death of Buss, whose insistence on a fast, attractive and high-scoring playing style helped weave the Lakers into Los Angeles’ image and culture.

Of late there have been signs of improvement. The team has won its last three games, including a 103-99 defeat of the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, in which Bryant scored 38 points and the 39-year-old Nash got 20. Most importantly, Bryant and Howard may finally be starting to click.

“We will make the playoffs. And we will compete,” Bryant vowed last week. But the Lakers still have a losing record, 28-29, and are only ninth in the Conference, three games out of a post-season spot. Should they miss out, it would be for just the third time in more than three decades, since Showtime arrived in LA.

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