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Please fix the Lakers

2011 NBA ALL-STAR WEEKEND

Unless GM Mitch Kupchak fixes the roster by the trade deadline, the Lakers have no chance of a three-peat.

February 18, 2011|BILL PLASCHKE

It was a ceremony to honor a cornerstone of the glittering Lakers past.

But you know what everyone on the Staples Center plaza was thinking, and Mitch Kupchak finally blurted out the unspoken fears of an uncertain Lakers future.

While lauding Jerry West in a statue ceremony Thursday, Kupchak paid his former boss the ultimate compliment by publicly sweating his team.

"Jerry, that handbook you left on my desk, 'How to Be a Good General Manager'? ... I looked this morning and there's not a chapter on what to do after a game like last night," Kupchak announced.

That game, of course, was Wednesday's 104-99 loss to the hopeless, historically bad Cleveland Cavaliers. It was the worst Lakers defeat in a decade, the worst loss by any team in the NBA this season, and when Kupchak mentioned it, the plaza crowd groaned.

Then, suddenly, folks sitting in the back buzzed with the late arrival of another dignitary.

Sorry, Mitch, it wasn't a young, strong guard with energy. Nope, it wasn't a motivated small forward who still cares about defense. Heck, it wasn't even Carmelo Anthony.

The late arrival was Pau Gasol, and as soon as he took his seat, the stir quieted and the attention returned to Kupchak, who, not wanting to ruin the night, quickly changed the subject back to West.

But the message and metaphor were clear. The current Lakers need help, and it's not just walking in off the street.

During an event in which West was repeatedly praised for fearlessly taking risks during his seven championship seasons as Lakers general manager, Kupchak was surely reminded of his historical mandate.

Keep the legacy alive. Do whatever it takes to win now. And can you do it, like, in the next week?

With mere days remaining before the Feb. 24 trade deadline, it is clear that these Lakers are broken beyond all chance of a championship. If this roster is not fixed in the next week, their fate is sealed, and if you want to keep preaching patience, let me preach a little history.

With their current record, to win a third consecutive NBA championship, the Lakers face the real possibility of needing to win three playoff series without home-court advantage. Since Shaquille O'Neal left town, guess how many times they have won a playoff series without home-court advantage.

None. Never happened. And this aging, attitude-challenged group is in no shape to change that trend, or didn't you see them finish the Grammy trip crying uncle, with three consecutive losses to inferior teams by an average of 13 points.

They have endured ugly road losses in the previous two title seasons, but never three in a row that were filled with such a weird combination of frolic and fatigue.

How bad was the loss in Cleveland? At one point, Gasol threw a perfect pass to a completely empty area of the court, the ball landing on the Lakers bench, and that wasn't even the worst of it. I shouted loudest when Ron Artest lost the ball on another silly, selfish drive, then remained on his side of the court while the Cavaliers drove down and scored against an outmanned Lakers defense.

Mitch, anything to add?

"Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you climb up," he said after Thursday's ceremony.

So, somebody asked, does that mean this is rock bottom?

"To date," he said.

He knows it. We all know. So far this season, every autumn promise has become a winter betrayal. Everything that needed to go right has gone wrong. Every worst fear has been realized, and often the Lakers react by playing every man for himself.

Kobe Bryant, whose weary legs couldn't get to the rim enough to shoot a free throw in two of those three losses, is no longer basketball's greatest safety net. He can no longer save them every night, and right now, the Lakers are not built to save themselves.

Ron Artest has mentally checked out, sending postgame tweets about his music, spraying cologne on the media, the tough guy recording no steals and no rebounds in just 18 absent minutes against Cleveland. Derek Fisher is not getting the help he requires from Steve Blake -- 32 points by Cleveland backup guard Ramon Sessions? -- and thus it often seems like the Lakers are playing three on five.

Lamar Odom can still be a mystery. Andrew Bynum is still more project than player. Shannon Brown was great for about five seconds. Gasol will spend the rest of the year lugging those early-season minutes on his back like a wet knapsack.

What can they do? Great question. No answer. Big trouble.

They probably can't trade Artest because nobody would want to pick up the remaining $22 million on his contract. They probably won't trade Bynum because Jim Buss discovered him and will never give up on him, which, again is carrying that legendary Lakers loyalty too far.

What can they do? Aside from handing over the entire offense to Devin Ebanks? Once upon a ring, Kupchak came up with Gasol, so maybe he's got a secret plan this time?

"I think it's unlikely," Kupchak said of a possible trade. "But there's eight days to go. All of the general managers are here in Los Angeles and there will be a lot of yapping."

Kupchak is paid to act calm, and so he said, "There's a tendency to overreact, I get it. This team is not that different than the team we had last year ... we know we're good enough."

But I know that inside, he's boiling. I know because Jerry West would be boiling, and the results of all his legendary worry and sweat filled the Staples Center plaza Thursday night with joyful tears and soft confetti and a bronze hunk of love.

The Lakers never simply stumbled into championships, they painstakingly sculpted them.

It's in Kupchak's hands now.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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