The Los Angeles Lakers have 28 games left to salvage a 2012-13 season that has played out worse than even the most pessimistic prognosticators could have predicted.
Forget title hopes. Those are out the window now.
In place of championship aspirations, Kobe Bryant's L.A. club must instead focus on the substantially more modest goal of making the postseason at all. Hey, when you're 25-29, it's time to downsize expectations.
With two months to play, the Lakers sit three-and-a-half games behind the Houston Rockets for that eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. It's not impossible for L.A. to pull it together down the stretch, but it'll need a cohesive plan to get the job done.
Not to mention a little luck.
In order to avoid finishing this year as one of the most disappointing teams in NBA history, the Lakers will have to put ego aside and focus on a regimented six-step plan.
Here's the blueprint L.A. must follow in order to make the playoffs, set things right and avoid historic embarrassment.
Without good health, even the simplest plans fall apart in the NBA.
The Lakers know that all too well, as they've seen three-fourths of their supposed superstar quartet hit the bench with injury so far this year.
Steve Nash fractured his leg before he ever had a chance to find a rhythm with his new teammates, and Dwight Howard has suffered through two separate issues with his slowly recovering back and cranky shoulder.
Pau Gasol, of course, has had the worst injury luck of anyone.
Creaky knees sapped the last remaining bits of quickness from the high-mileage big man, and a concussion knocked him out of a handful of games in January. In a fitting microcosm of the Lakers' nearly lost season, bad turned to worse when Gasol tore his plantar fascia against the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 5.
He has missed 18 games to date and stands to miss a significant chunk of the stretch run.
So obviously, Job 1 is finding a way to get healthy. There's no getting around it. If L.A. can't get its best players on the floor in decent shape, nothing else will matter.
Hardly a week has gone by without a few barbs being exchanged between Laker teammates.
Bryant tried to exhort better effort from an obviously hampered Gasol way back in December. "Put your big boy pants on," Bryant famously said.
In hindsight, it wasn't pants Gasol needed, it was a pair of younger legs to fill them.
Then the sniping started between Bryant and Howard. The back-and-forth bickering focused on everything from Bryant's leadership style to Howard's reluctance to play with pain. For the maniacally competitive Mamba, D12's carefree attitude has proved to be a constant source of irritation.
A little bickering is fine, but these Lakers have to find some common ground if they're to have any hope of salvaging the season. Even though Howard, Gasol and Bryant might approach the game differently, each should be commonly motivated by a desire to avoid an embarrassing failure.
They've got to come together on that much, at least.
Instead of using their defensive instincts against one another in verbal media battles, maybe the Lakers should put them to use on the hardwood.
It's clear that Mike D'Antoni isn't going to install any defensive schemes at this juncture—and that should have been obvious from the start—so the Lakers will have to find a way to get stops on their own.
The talent is there, and even if Howard only moves about half as well as he used to, he should still represent an intimidating presence at the rim.
On the perimeter, the Lakers have simply got to shore up their rotations. Junior high teams play better position defense than L.A. has at times, so there's no excuse for the insanely late helpers and lackadaisical work in transition that have cropped up all year.
A little effort on D could help the Lakers climb up from their No. 16 ranking in defensive efficiency. They'll need to do that in order to catch the Rockets.
It's telling that we're over 50 games into the season, and we still can't put a finger on what kind of team the Lakers want to be.
Part of L.A.'s identity crisis has had to do with the coaching carousel that installed three separate offensive systems and employed inconsistent lineups. At present, D'Antoni seems stuck on retaining at least a few principles of his up-and-down style.
And that's the problem.
Look at this roster! There's hardly a player on the team that plays better when the pace picks up. One of the most stunning mistakes D'Antoni has made this year (among many) is his stubborn insistence on a fast pace.
Considering that the Lakers are relying on a 39-year-old point guard, a shooting guard with 17 years of experience and a physically failing center, it might be a good idea to slow things down.
L.A. must change its identity, and the alteration is a specific one: The Lakers have to become a half-court team.
It seems like Kobe Bryant re-invents himself on a weekly basis. And while it's fascinating to watch the Mamba go all chameleon, it's definitely not the best thing for the Lakers.
You can't really blame Bryant for trying to find a way to make the offense work, but shifting his focus from high-volume scoring to defensive stopper to prime facilitator is no way to establish any sort of continuity.
And let's not even get started on the mismanagement Gasol suffered through. D'Antoni started him, benched him, started him again, made him a stretch 4, asked him to run the offense and used him on the block.
How on earth could anyone expect L.A. to lay a foundation on that sort of shifting sand?
The Lakers need to find offensive roles and stick to them. Nash and Howard should run the pick-and-roll until they drop, Bryant should be working on the wing in isolation and Gasol needs to get the ball on the block when he returns.
Doing anything else is a useless exercise in overthinking. The Lakers stars have clear strengths, and if the offense plays to those areas, there's a chance L.A. can salvage its season.
Even if the Lakers get healthy, come together, play some D and sort out their offensive identity, they're still going to need some help to snatch that eighth seed.
With the Rockets scoring in buckets and improving their per-game differential to plus-2.8 over the past couple of weeks, it's becoming clear that they're not going anywhere. In fact, they're more likely to move up than down in the West.
And the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors, despite a five-game skid, still hold a six-game advantage on the Lakers. It'd take a miracle for L.A. to overtake them.
But in the middle of those two teams, the Utah Jazz reside uncomfortably in the No. 7 spot. With a crowded frontcourt many expect to see freed up by a trade, there's a good chance that the Jazz will look significantly different after the trade deadline.
If Utah ships out Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap in order to create some room for the younger, cheaper Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, some standings slippage could definitely follow. If that happens and the Lakers get their act together, maybe—just maybe—there's a shot L.A. could creep past the Jazz and into that No. 8 spot.
The odds are shrinking with every day that goes by, but if everything breaks right, the Lakers might save their season.