The NBA All-Star Game is Sunday, Feb. 17 in Houston. The Los Angeles Lakers will know by then if they are a championship-caliber team or an experiment by management that turned them into the Frankenstein of professional sports.
Despite their 9-10 record, the Lakers still possess exceptional talent capable of big things on big stages, including the NBA Finals. There are 63 games left in the regular season, enough time for the team to sort through a myriad of both physical and philosophical issues.
The reality of the Lakers' situation is that this has been a tumultuous start to a season unlike any this stable franchise has seen in recent memory. Consider this:
- May—Lakers are dumped from the second round of the playoffs for the second year in a row, this time to the high-flying Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook dominate a Lakers team that looks and plays old.
- June—Lakers huddle to discuss next steps. Earvin Magic Johnson still feels they should "blow up" the team and start over. Trade and free-agent rumors begin to fly.
- July—After another NBA draft in which they had no first-round pick, the Lakers surprise the basketball world with the acquisition of two-time league MVP Steve Nash on July 4th. Suddenly, the Lakers have new life.
- August—Dwight Howard gets traded to the Lakers in a blockbuster, four-team deal. Nash and Howard are now teammates of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. Time to order championship rings.
- September—Training camp opens and the players look like freshmen students as they try and decipher something called the Princeton offense. This offensive system, sort of a Triangle Light, seems like an odd fit now that the Lakers have two of the best in the business at pick-and-rolls. Nash and Howard both say they'll adjust.
- October—Lakers start and end the preseason with zero wins. It's no big deal, says the coach and his players. But, it turns out, it was a very big deal. This new roster is not jelling.
- November—Sporting a 1-4 record at the start of the regular season, Mike Brown gets fired, the third-fastest coaching dump in NBA history. Bernie Bickerstaff takes over on an interim basis for five games and, in yet another shocking move, the Lakers decide to hire Mike D'Antoni over Phil Jackson as their new coach.
Now in December, the Lakers resemble a rag tag outfit of quality parts that just don't seem to fit in correctly. There are moments of brilliance, followed by fourth-quarter collapses against some of the league's worst teams.
Heading into tonight's showdown with the Thunder in Oklahoma City, the Lakers stand to gain a boatload of confidence if they can manage to hang with the reining Western Conference champions, who currently stand at 15-4 with a league-best, six-game winning streak.
As great as a win would be, the good measure for a team that's missing Pau Gasol, Steve Blake and Nash with injuries will be a close battle that comes down to the final minutes. Other than their 84-82 loss at home to the Spurs, the Lakers have yet to show their mettle against a top-flight opponent.
Despite all the turmoil, this Lakers team can still be a dominant force, especially when Steve Nash and Pau Gasol return to the lineup. Nash played less than two games for the Lakers before going down with a broken fibula, and Gasol has been nursing tendonitis in both knees since training camp.
The true test of whether this team under Mike D'Antoni will succeed will come over the next two months. There is a legitimate argument to be made that the Lakers will finally jel into an explosive powerhouse under the direction of Steve Nash. After all, Nash and D'Antoni both enjoyed their greatest success when paired at Phoenix, and were so close to winning a championship.
And Pau Gasol—who has looked the most out of place thus far, averaging a career-low 12.6 points on 42 percent shooting—will get the opportunity both he and Nash have been looking forward to since July when the Canadian and Spaniard became Lakers teammates.
"It will be a huge honor to play alongside Steve," Gasol said in a video chat the day he learned of the sign-and-trade that brought Steve Nash to L.A.
"Obviously I know him for many years now, and he's been one of the elite point guards in the league for as long as I can remember, as long as I've played in the NBA. It will be a true pleasure to play with Steve. He's one of the best point guards that has ever played the game, and still has a lot of juice in him. So I look forward to that."
As frustrating as the season has been, a lot can happen between the Christmas shopping season and the start of the playoffs in April.
There are always two ways to look at a mediocre start to a basketball season. If you see the glass as half full, then you see a Lakers team that hasn't had the opportunity to really succeed just yet.
The pieces are there. The Lakers have dominated at times and if they played 48-minute games instead of 40, might be 12-7 instead of 9-10.
Are their recent collapses against Orlando and Houston indicative of tired legs or do the Lakers just need a swift kick to remind them how much work it takes to get where they want to go?
The pieces are there—you see it in Bryant, who is having one of the best seasons of his career. It's apparent in Howard, who is looking more and more like pre-surgery Dwight, and you see it in MWP who is scoring points, making steals and grabbing big rebounds like Ron Artest used to do in Indiana.
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak wants to see Gasol and Nash healthy and playing together with Kobe, Howard and MWP before he looks at making any trades.
This team has too much promise to just collapse after 20 games. Through three coaches and major injuries to two of their key starters, the Lakers remain in the hunt.
OKC tonight is a test. As Kobe told Time Warner Cable Sports Net Wednesday night when asked about playing the Thunder: "Let's see what we've got."
The Lakers have been searching for an identity and are slowly discovering who they are and what they can be. By the All-Star break, they will certainly know.