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Ball Don't Lie

Are the Los Angeles Lakers beyond repair?

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Coach Mike D'Antoni was at a loss during the first quarter on Tuesday. (David Richard-USA TODAY Sports)

Short answer: No, of course not. They have 60 games left to play in the regular season and have several players we know to be All-Stars.

But the potential solutions are becoming more convoluted and less plentiful. Things are bad — the sort of really, really bad that gets even more coaches fired and impels panic trades. The Laker offense is heavily dependent on Kobe Bryant in a way we haven't seen in quite some time, the defense is a malfunctioning sieve, and Mike D'Antoni seems to have had an adverse effect on the team's fortunes. Everything is going wrong, and it's hard to know exactly how it's going to get better.

[Related: Los Angeles Times reporter sets off Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni]

When so many things are going wrong, it's tempting to pick out the areas of greatest need and go about mending them in order. Yet the biggest problem isn't necessarily that the Lakers have a roughly average defense (they're tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for 14th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency, according to NBA.com's stats database) or that their offense seems limited. It's that they haven't yet figured out what kind of team they are.

When D'Antoni took the job, he brought the promise of offensive dominance, a strategic plan that would turn the Lakers into one of the top two or three scoring teams in the league. Unfortunately, that outlook was always dependent on the health of offensive savant Steve Nash, who as a Laker has yet to team up with the man who helped him make his reputation as one of the best facilitators of the last 25 years. D'Antoni's offensive reputation has always been built on the foundation of functional point-guard play, and the Nash-less Lakers have arguably the worst group in the NBA. (That group is further weakened by the absence of expected second-stringer Steve Blake, sidelined for weeks by an abdominal injury that could keep him out until January.)

Without Nash (and the tendinitis-stricken Pau Gasol, although he hasn't been helping matters when healthy, either), the Lakers lack a coherent identity, one that can help cover for weaknesses and at least get their players to feel confident that they can outperform their opponents in certain aspects of the game. As things stand, the Lakers' offense is a mishmash of post-ups and isolation sets for Kobe, neither of which are hallmarks of the D'Antoni system. The team's defense is a much greater issue, but they always knew (or should have known) that backcourt penetration would be a problem with Nash, Bryant and an aging Metta World Peace around as the primary perimeter defenders. The idea was that, with Gasol and Dwight Howard protecting the rim, the defense would be good enough to allow them to win games with their elite offense. Without that dominance, the Lakers lack cohesive flow between both ends. Instead of a game-long strategy that turns talented groups of players into great teams, possession-to-possession improvisation has taken hold.

[Related: Possible explanation for Steve Nash's slow return to Lakers]

Nash would provide more of a theoretical structure, if not direct answers to all current quandaries. As court general, he would give more shape to the team, organizing possessions effectively and spacing the court with his shooting when playing off the ball. In turn, that could feasibly give the Lakers more confidence in every aspect of the game, from trusting defensive rotations to having faith in a crunch-time lineup to basking in the glow of Robert Sacre's celebration dances. He wouldn't fix anything by himself, but he could help everyone understand their roles. As of now, there's too much internal confusion for the team to develop a collective understanding. Until Nash returns — and that may not be for quite some time, if his latest two-week timetable stretches indefinitely — the Lakers must be graded as an incomplete.

Then again, an incomplete grade often acts as the prelude to failing marks. The biggest long-term issue for the Lakers right now isn't that they're playing like crud as much as that the bad situation continues to fester. Unless Nash has a more serious ailment than we believe, he will eventually return to the lineup. But his return won't happen in a vacuum — its success will depend on the Lakers being prepared for the struggles native to even the most successful team-building processes. Nash and Bryant were always going to have to adjust to each other, and many commentators (like me!) thought that it would take the Lakers a few months to turn into a championship-level outfit. What's taken place has been far worse than expected, and that means these players — not just Kobe and Nash, but also Pau and Dwight, and Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks — have a great deal of work to do to get back to the level of a solid playoff team, let alone a serious contender.

That process takes a great deal of patience and trust. The Lakers, as we've seen, have little of either right now. In a media climate prone to overreaction and unlikely to celebrate incremental improvement, a relatively slow crawl toward success won't always seem like enough. Getting there will take a level of seriousness we haven't seen from them yet this season.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to think they can do it. D'Antoni legitimately altered the course of NBA strategy and tactics in Phoenix, and has the capacity to meld this outfit into a uniquely great team. Nash won't be able to play many minutes upon his return and could hit the sidelines again, but he's one of a handful of point guards in the NBA who can improve an offense in suboptimal conditions. Kobe commits to his craft with once-in-a-generation resolve and has claimed ownership (whether intentionally or not) of this Lakers team and their offseason acquisitions. Gasol, if he's not traded, is the sort of reasonable star who doesn't have to put up huge numbers to be great. And Howard, for all his apparent maturity issues, is well-established as the premier interior force in the NBA when he's at his best.

The Lakers have the kind of high-level talent for which most franchises would tank. If they avoid in-fighting, get healthy and commit to the task at hand, they can turn things around. But those tasks look more daunting with every passing day.

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