|The Lakers are preaching patience, and good for them, they still have time. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Twenty games down, almost exactly of a quarter of the season gone for the Lakers.
Pretty sure a 9-11 record, a fired coach and multiple injuries wasn't how this thing was supposed to go.
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After the Lakers were mostly worked over Friday night in Oklahoma City in a game in which they had a chance to make a little statement, it's obvious this team has a long road ahead to live up to the offseason hype showered on it. The Lakers are woefully inconsistent on the defensive end, they're old and they're slow.
But they also have 62 games to get things figured out, to get themselves healthy. And that's the message they preach. Because really, at this point, what else would you say?
"This team has just gotten together," Dwight Howard said following Friday's loss. "It's not like we're going to go out and get together and start winning right away. The only team that I've seen do that was Boston a couple years ago. We're learning how to play together. We're getting better. This is not on anybody's timetable but ours. We have to be patient and understand it's a process. We grew tonight despite the loss."
It's absolutely the truth. New players, new coach, major injuries to said new players. There have been half-hearted attempts at drawing comparisons between the Lakers' start and the Heat's 9-8 beginning two seasons ago. I would assume Howard was thinking about exactly that as he spoke. The Lakers have only had really one full game at full operational power -- granted, a loss to the Mavericks -- but still, it's only been one game.
But at a certain point, that excuse runs out. Because injuries do happen. Chemistry is a real concern. While everyone fawned and drooled over the Lakers' additions over the summer, the reality was that the team was placing its faith in a 38-year-old point guard, a center coming off major back surgery, a power forward who might've shown signs of regression last season and a 34-year-old shooting guard with a ton of mileage and some bad knees.
And it was all trying to be put together under the biggest microscope in basketball.
Like I said, only one-fourth of the season is done. And while 11 losses in 20 tries certainly wasn't the expected start for the Lakers, it only means there's time left to right the ship. The team is confident. The coaches are confident. (Most) fans are confident.
"Obviously we got the best team in the NBA, but we just got to go out there and play together," Metta World Peace said.
The Lakers rebuilt themselves from a team last season that was brushed aside by the Thunder in five games last May. They looked old, slow and unathletic compared to OKC's high-velocity, explosive style. Kobe Bryant brashly proclaimed then that the Lakers weren't going anywhere, saying, "I'm not fading into the shadows. ... Come hell or high water, we're going to be there again."
With 20 games to reflect on and a game against the team that eliminated him last season, does Kobe feel like the Lakers are any different this time around?
"It doesn't seem like it, but I do," Bryant said. "I do. I think we have to shore up a few areas execution-wise, but I think we'll be fine."
Those areas are plenty, but not beyond fixing. Turnovers, transition defense, Pau Gasol, health -- there's a lot to work on. But the good news for the Lakers is that the talent is there, and Bryant is actually playing better than ever. There's the ugly stat of the Lakers being 1-8 when he scores 30 or more, but reality is he's shooting the highest percentages -- across the board -- of his career. He's leading the league in scoring -- again. Really, he's doing almost everything right.
The fact that Kobe is performing that way and the Lakers are still losing is kind of stunning. It actually gives more credence to the thought they aren't far off. Get Steve Nash back, get Gasol healthy, integrate Howard more, keep Kobe cooking and there should be something positive. The bench is still going to be terrible any way you shake it, but that's just a casualty of frontloading your roster.
"We've got things that we have to work on," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We got to get Gasol and Nash back. They set a bar and they play very well. We know where we've got to go. I'm very encouraged about some of the stuff we're doing."
The Lakers are preaching patience, which of course is a little odd considering they fired their coach five games into the season. But they seem convinced they'll snap out of this once they have their pieces back. What happens though if nothing changes when those pieces do come back? Hell or high water, I guess.
This idea that returning a still 38-year-old Nash and a declining Gasol is going to magically correct everything is a bit naive. I'm on the side that you can't entirely evaluate the Lakers now without their whole package. D'Antoni desperately needs a point guard to run his system, and no one does it better than Nash. And having him do that should improve Gasol. But there are no guarantees. No assurances. You still have to play the games, and win the games.
Eventually, patience turns to pressure. The Lakers are already eight games behind Memphis in the loss column, and we just started December.
No way around it, even if D'Antoni sees positives in the losses, the Lakers are the league's most disappointing team, by far. I'm as guilty as anyone who crowned the Lakers as clear favorites back in August.
"Just look at the roster," World Peace said Friday. "We've got Dwight Howard."
Then and still now, it seems impossible to ignore those names -- Nash, Bryant, Gasol, Howard. Problem is, names don't win you games.
"We have a better team this year," World Peace said. "We have a much better team this year."
We all thought so too. In August. Too bad it's December now and we've seen you play 20 games.