NEW YORK -- If this continues, the Lakers will find themselves sitting out of the playoffs, a team built for June somehow managing to make it to April, which would make them Hollywood's version of a costly box-office bomb, a production that disappears after the opening week.
Yes, if the Lakers keep living on sub-.500 ball and disappearing defensively and losing to teams like Cleveland, then all the money spent and expectations raised will be wasted along with one of the few remaining years in Kobe Bryant's career.
That sounds implausible, months after the Lakers put this All-Star team together. And yet, based on the sound of the sky falling in L.A., missing the playoffs is actually being raised as a frightening possibility for a team built to win a championship, which happens when you work in a vacuum. You get sucked inside a vortex you created, with a little help from crummy luck, and there's seemingly no way out, alive at least.
Well, the right way to deal with this early Laker season is by waiting instead of worrying, by exercising patience instead of panicking, by allowing them to get their pieces together rather than wondering if they're ready to be broken up. The Lakers are missing Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. Can we see them play a good three weeks together before writing the team off like a bad check? Don't the Lakers and especially Kobe deserve that much?
It was fairly evident that the only championship-quality team on the floor Thursday was the Knicks, who jumped on the Lakers for 41 points in the first quarter and pounded them before Carmelo Anthony limped off in the third quarter with an ankle sprain. No, the Lakers aren't ready to run with the Knicks, or almost anybody; in their current state, they're more likely to be run off the floor. That is the sober and startling reality.
"There's no real sense of purpose in what we want to do," said Kobe.
But the Lakers started Chris Duhon and Antawn Jamison against the Knicks. Someone named Devin Ewbanks saw 33 minutes. All that's missing is Kobe placing an SOS call to Smush Parker. Basically, the Lakers team you see now isn't winning for a good reason, and it has only partly to do with their inability to play solid defense.
They have Kobe shooting the ball better than ever in his career, 40 percent on threes and 48 percent overall. Give them a healthy Nash and Gasol and even Dwight Howard, who still hasn't found his way back completely from off-season back surgery, and then we'll see if they're falling behind by 26 points to the Knicks. Certainly this is glass-half-full stuff, but then, it's also being reasonable, which is often hard to do when a team "wins" an NBA preseason championship, as the Lakers did last summer when they swung the Howard trade and signed Nash.
"The more talent on the floor, the better we are," Kobe said. "That's just the truth. We don't have that right now. We've got guys out. When they come back, we'll get this thing moving in the right direction."
There's no disputing which direction the Lakers will go once healthy; the issue is, how far will they travel. Are they a first-round-and-out team? A contender? That's tough to say when spring is four months away. All we know is Gasol will help with low-post scoring and rebounding and Nash will help preserve Kobe by assuming the ball-handling duties. What we don't know is how this makes the Lakers better defensively.
That's something Mike D'Antoni must figure out soon. The Lakers can only stop teams by slowing the pace and shrinking the floor and reducing the number of shots taken. They're not athletic or young enough to run against anyone. They're not good enough to get into a shootout, either now or when they're completely healthy. They don't have the personnel, and you hope, for their sake, they do have the kind of coach who recognizes that and knows how to fix it.
It was a humbling night in New York for D'Antoni. He got a point-blank view of a team that looks nothing like the one he coached in New York. He saw Anthony, a superstar he feuded with, score 30 points in only 22 minutes, perhaps to prove a point to D'Antoni. He saw his record in L.A. dip to 4-9 and heard a taunting "Mike Dan-toe-nee" chant at the Garden -- and this was from fans in a good mood.
"I didn't expect anything different," he said.
Not only are the Lakers missing key players, they're learning a new system without those players. It's a confusing and disoriented "transitional period," as D'Antoni calls it, which won't become smoother or complete for at least another two weeks when the regular lineup is finally ready.
"We've got some problems to solve and we've got to get our guys back," he said. "But nobody's walking around with their heads down. Their eyes are bright and they're engaged."
In these situations it's always best to read Kobe, and the best thing the Lakers have going for them right now is that Kobe hasn't thrown a fit, or even a dangerous object. If he felt the Lakers were in a dark place and unable to navigate their way out, we would know by now. But he doesn't.
"It's difficult but I feel like we have the ability to get to the level where we expect to be," he said. "It's just a matter of when it happens. We all seem to be determined to turn this around. And Mike is thrown into a situation where it's tough. It's a huge adjustment for all of us. But he's a very intelligent coach and I have no doubt he'll figure it all out."
The season is roughly two months old and still salvageable. Pau and Nash are working their way back. Howard is regaining his legs. Kobe hasn't lost his mind. The Lakers are being judged in their admittedly fractured state, which tells us nothing about what they can or will do once healthy.
"We're trying to find that connectivity," said Nash. "Hopefully we find that soon because we are losing ground. I hope I can help when I come back."
The Lakers need good health and better players and both are on their way. They also need to remove the doubts, and that will take a lot more time. How much will you give them?
* * *
Editor's Note: Changes were made after publication to clarify some facts.