The Los Angeles Lakers used to be the hunted, but this new hunter's role appears to be fitting quite well.
After scoring a pair of early season victories over on-paper title contenders (the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets), though, the Lakers have started to shift those projections. The playoffs might be out of the question, but could this team actually keep other teams from reaching their goals?
Really, what are these Lakers: pushovers or overlooked?
The Good Times
For LA fans, that probably means those moments of nostalgia remembering the team's rich history. While last season can only be described as a disaster, 2012-13 also marked the team's eighth straight postseason appearance—a stretch that includes two league titles and a third NBA Finals appearance.
But those aren't the good times we're focusing on here. Rather, what's been far more fascinating is the way this current group has thrived as a spoiler.
It all started on opening night, 2013-14's first round of the intracity fight for control of Los Angeles.
It felt like the basketball world had entered the Twilight Zone. The Clippers, lovable losers in seasons past with an emphasis on the losing part, waltzed into the Staples Center as one of the offseason's biggest winners.
Chris Paul was back with a new five-year contract securing his future with the franchise. A pair of new shooters (J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley) flanked Paul on the backcourt, and a former NBA champion (Doc Rivers) took over the most prominent perch on the Clippers bench.
The Lakers, on the other hand, limped into the contest with a roster that was long in years and short on talent. Bryant was out. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were present, but not as hoops heads remembered them. Programs were poured over as the mighty purple-and-gold faithful tried to put a name on the more unfamiliar faces:
Who is Shawne Williams?— Adrià Gasol (@AdriaGasol) October 29, 2013
No, this actually happened. And things only got weirder from there.
The star-studded Clippers struggled creating any separation from the scrappy, albeit less talented, Lakers. Coach Mike D'Antoni went full-on reserves in the final frame, and Rivers couldn't find an answer.
"Mike (D'Antoni) did a great thing: He didn't bring his starters back in," Rivers said after the game, via The Associated Press. "There was a point where I was thinking: 'Please bring them back in.'"
The Lakers reserves keyed a 41-24 advantage, and the stunned Clippers were sent off with a 116-103 loss.
Less than two weeks later, the Lakers were back at their spoiling best. Matched up with the Houston Rockets and super villain Dwight Howard, LA once again shocked the world, this time with a dramatic finish befitting of their Hollywood home.
Had we really misread these Lakers that badly?
This roster does have talent if you're willing to look long enough.
Jodie Meeks has been a scorer since he first picked up a basketball. What's new this season, though, is that the long-range gunner (48.4 three-point percentage) has proven to be just as effective inside the arc (49.2 field-goal percentage).
Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry are all former lottery picks. You can argue about the wisdom of the executive staffs that brought them into this league, but there's a reason this group was projected to have strong careers.
The athleticism, speed and three-point shooting Bryant asked for, via Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times, all arrived, just without the marquee names this franchise is used to landing.
Johnson's length and athleticism have shined on the defensive wing. Jordan Farmar (7.9 assists per 36 minutes) has helped kick start D'Antoni's up-tempo offense. Hill has been a force on the glass (team-high 14.4 rebounds per 36 minutes).
Sleepwalk against this team, and it has the bodies to make you pay. As teams start to figure that out, though, the losses could pile up at an alarming rate.
The Bad Times
It's a scary proposition, those losses starting to appear with more frequency. As it is, they're already outpacing the win column.
Just one night after that uplifting win over the Clippers, the Lakers were stomped back down to Earth by way of a 31-point blowout at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. The Dallas Mavericks dealt the Lakers their own brand of nasty in a 123-104 win, and L.A. was victimized by Anthony Davis (32 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks) in an 11-point loss to the New Orleans Pelicans its last time out.
Even L.A.'s wins have been a grind. This team is fortunate to be sitting at 3-4 and not 1-6.
Credit Steve Blake for burying his game winner, but that play never happens without a defensive breakdown by Houston. The Lakers scored a similar nail-biting win over the Atlanta Hawks (105-103), a game in which LA once held a 21-point advantage.
What's behind this team's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde performance?
There are almost too many reasons to mention.
The Lakers found cheap shooters (Meeks, Young and Henry are collecting just $3.5 million combined this season, via HoopsWorld.com), but their price tags were justifiable. All three are water-faucet shooters, capable of both scalding hot performances and ice cold outings.
Hill and Gasol (10.7 rebounds per game) aside, this team's commitment to the boards has left plenty to be desired. The Lakers have tracked down just 48.9 percent of errant shots, 10th fewest in the league.
There is no reliable scoring option. Meeks' 12.3 points per game (tied for 84th) leads this roster.
The Lakers don't have a player capable of consistently creating for himself. Crisp ball movement is nice, but LA's 62.5 assist percentage (ninth) comes more from necessity than selflessness.
And the defensive end offers no sort of protection.
Eight of the team's top-nine rotation players would fall under the offensive-minded umbrella. Johnson, the lone exception to that rule, doesn't have the offensive game (34.3 field-goal percentage) to warrant more than part-time status (23.6 minutes per game).
This team might be better than we thought, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's good.
It's hard to picture the way things will look when Bryant finally returns to the floor.
So much is going to change at that time. The backcourt minutes will be sliced. That assist percentage will almost certainly fall. Already streaker shooters will have more pressure and smaller windows to perform; expect their shot selection to reflect that fact.
Bryant will help this team. He's the type of offensive force this team is missing, and defenses will have to react to his presence.
Which would be a preferable outcome to LA's 2013-14 season?
But don't start shopping for playoff tickets.
He can't protect the rim. He won't solve L.A.'s rebounding problems. Those steady streams to the basket aren't going to stop flowing.
He'll get up for the marquee matchups, though. And the Lakers will find the way to shock a few more contenders along the way.
But this is a lottery lock if I've ever seen one.
Don't take that the wrong way, Lakers fans. That's actually good news. If any team could use the injection of some young blood, this is the one.
So, enjoy those spoiler wins when they come this season. That's as deep as the Lakers' prize pool will get before next summer.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.