Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2012-13 season, giving him unique perspective on the team led by Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard that ended up not being able to live up to grand expectations.
What some forget about that season’s Lakers was that they were starting to live up to those hopes after the All-Star break. Howard was looking a bit healthier while Bryant was playing some of the best basketball of his career as the Lakers furiously battled for a playoff spot.
To hear Clifford tell it on the “Lowe Post” podcast, their roster was playing well enough that they might have been able to play spoiler to a top seed, at least until tragedy struck as Bryant tore his Achilles.
Even then, Clifford liked how the team finished out the season until the injury bug finished them off in the first round:
“To be around Kobe, Steve, Pau Gasol, Metta and Dwight, and the whole dynamic of that group, the one thing people don’t give those guys credit for — or Mike (D’Antoni) — Mike did a great job, is we were struggling. [But] the last 40 games of that year, we were 28-12. I’m going to say this, and I feel confident in this, two weeks left in the regular season, I guarantee those tops seeds were saying, ‘That’s the team we don’t want to play.’ And then Steve goes down, Kobe does his Achilles.
“We ended up having to play San Antonio in the first round. Then Steve Blake, who’s really good, Game 1, we could’ve won. Had the ball, down one with a minute and a half, Blake had done an unbeliever job on Tony Parker. He gets hurt in that game, Metta gets hurt. We started Games 2, 3 and 4, Andrew Goudelock, who had played in the D League the whole year, we brought him up for game 82. We were devastated. And Mike D’Antoni, he did a phenomenal job that year keeping those guys together, teaching his system. … Those guys figured it out, they figured out how to play with each other. Once we got organized and tuned in, I think 28-12 over the last 40 was the third-best record at the time.”
Clifford is right about those Lakers being awesome down the stretch, and people forget not only how good they were, but how injury-ravaged they became to end the season.
If the Lakers had managed to stay healthy, there is a chance things go differently, with Howard re-signing to play alongside a healthy Bryant and Nash and live up to the expectations the team had going into the season.
Alas, that was never going to happen on such a veteran-laden team, and the possibility of that core working out will always remain one of the league’s greatest “what if” scenarios.