The Los Angeles Lakers are 9-14 through the first quarter of the 2012-13 NBA season, and at this point, there are far more questions surrounding the team than answers. That's never a good thing.
Who are the Lakers, and how far should they be expected to go into the playoffs, if they make it that far? It's a question worth asking, and one of many that deserve further exploration. In fact, let's go ahead and play 20 questions with the Lakers:
1. Will Mike D'Antoni adjust his offense?
Mike D'Antoni is known for his fast-paced, high-octane offense. The Lakers are old and slow with seven players north of age 30. Something's got to give, and it's up to the coaching staff to make the adjustment.
2. How much will Steve Nash help upon his return?
Steve Nash has played in just two of the Lakers' 23 games as he deals with a fractured left fibula. D'Antoni has cited his return as critical to the team's success so often, that he sounds like a broken record. But how much will Nash help? He's going to run the system to perfection given his history with his former coach, but how will he help the defense with his 38-year-old legs?
3. How will the Lakers address the defense?
About the defense, it's clearly the most glaring weakness of the 2012-13 season. The Lakers rank 22nd in the league through 23 games, giving up an average of 99.5 points per game. Specifically, the transition defense is killing the Lakers through the first quarter of the season. Will they change personnel, emphasize it more in practice, cut down on turnovers or look at themselves in the mirror and find improvement from within?
4. Are the Lakers really the 3rd best team in California?
As of December 14, the standings show the Lakers looking up at both the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers. By following the Bill Parcells-ian theory of rating teams, the Lakers are obviously not as good as either team. Is this a trend or mirage?
5. Will Dwight Howard stick around for this?
Dwight Howard is an admittedly emotional person. He's been stoic in post-game interviews and hasn't been his normally jovial self. Obviously, with the Lakers struggling the way they are, this has been a trying season for the 27-year-old. This season has to have tested his patience in every aspect, and he's a free agent following this season. If things continue the way they're going, and with the Lakers' finances limiting their ability to be major players in the open market, it's not outside the realm of possibility that he bolts for a better long-term situation.
6. How healthy is Howard?
Dwight Howard is coming off back surgery less than a year ago, and it's worth noting that he's still not right. In Thursday night's loss to the New York Knicks, he missed a dunk that would normally be a gimme. That's just one example of him not being fully healthy. When he gets better, so will the Lakers and their ailing defense.
The biggest question is, where exactly is he from a health standpoint right now, and how long before he's back to 100 percent?
7. How long before Bryant gets fed up?
Kobe Bryant has said that this is the most trying stretch he's endured in his entire career, and it keeps getting worse by the day. He's been measured and thoughtful in his post-game press conferences to this point, but that can't last much longer if the Lakers continue to play like they are.
He'll never quit -- ever. But something's going to break if things don't get better.
8. Will Pau Gasol be traded?
Pau Gasol is one of the best big men in the NBA and most skilled players in the world, but for some reason, he's been a non-fit in this new system since D'Antoni arrived. The Lakers are 1-5 without him in the lineup this season, but he's still had the worst season of his Lakers career. Gasol has looked out of sorts within the offense playing mostly away from the basket.
It's all led to constant speculation that he'll be traded for a true "stretch" four -- a power forward that can play away from the basket and knock down the 3-pointer. It's hard to see that happening at this point, especially with Nash not having an opportunity to play with Gasol yet, but with this front office, all bets are off.
9. When will the gut check moment come?
The Lakers need to look at themselves as professionals and fix their locker room . When will that moment come? Will it take a loss to the worst team in the league? A 10-game losing streak? If now's not the time to panic, then when?
10. What's with all the turnovers?
The Lakers lead the NBA in giveaways with 376, a 16.3 average. This stat has helped contribute to their awful transition defense by putting them out of position on opponents' possessions. How will they fix it?
11. Did Jim Buss ruin the season?
The Lakers' head man Jim Buss decided to fire Mike Brown five games into the season, teased fans with the obvious best replacement in Phil Jackson and then let ego get in the way of making the right call by hiring D'Antoni in stunning fashion.
Buss shunned the triangle when this roster is highly-suited to run it, and embraced a system that the personnel effectively can't run due to physical limitations. He wanted to put his stamp on the organization, and it's beginning to highlight a lack of basketball acumen and rationale. How badly will his decision-making affect the Lakers this year and in the long term?
12. Would Phil Jackson have done a better job with this roster?
Jackson was the obvious choice for this roster. He's a master at getting superstars to gel, and this team is full of them. It's hard to argue otherwise that a team under his direction would have managed to string together more wins than D'Antoni, Brown and Bernie Bickerstaff to this point, even with the injuries.
13. Will the Lakers' front office make another move?
General manager Mitch Kupchak has shown a willingness to make any move he feels necessary to help the team. The Lakers have been through so much in a short amount of time, that another shakeup seems unlikely.
But anything's possible with the team from Hollywood, and it could happen.
14. Are Gasol's knees to blame for his struggles?
Gasol has missed six games through December 14 with knee tendonitis, and his struggles have been well-documented. He's not getting the number of touches he's used to, but he's also shooting a lower percentage from the field. How much are his knees really bothering him? The answer should become clearer when he returns.
15. How much does Steve Blake matter?
D'Antoni and Bryant have each gone on record as citing Steve Blake's eventual return from an abdominal injury as a big boost for the Lakers. Given the magnitude of their issues on both ends of the floor, how much will he affect their ability to compete, if at all, when he does come back?
16. Why can't the team win despite Bryant's strong season?
In perhaps the most misleading stat of the season, the Lakers are 1-11 when Bryant scores 30 or more points. Those numbers aren't a product of him shooting recklessly, but more an indictment on the ineffectiveness of his teammates.
The Lakers are averaging 101.7 points per game and are seventh in the league in that respect. Scoring is not the issue, and defense is.
17. What will be this team's identity?
Are the Lakers a pick-and-roll team, a fast break team or a read-and-react team? They're none of the above, because no one knows what this team is. It appears they don't, either.
18. Is the bench capable?
The Lakers' bench has improved its scoring under Mike D'Antoni. In their last 10 games, they've averaged 27.5 points per game. Given how top-heavy the team is, that's good enough on offense. But like most of the problems this season, defense has to be the focus of the second unit. Can they stop opposing benches from going off? So far, they've done a mediocre job of it in allowing opponents' subs to score 33.5 points per game over that same stretch.
19. How much will free throws hurt down the stretch?
The Lakers are shooting 68.3 percent from the free-throw line this season and are 29th in the league. With the team playing from behind often, both in the standings and in many of their games, the charity stripe will continue to hurt them. Points without the clock moving are critical, and the Lakers are a liability late in games because of their ineffectiveness in this area.
20. What happens next?
The Lakers love drama, and with the first quarter of the season complete, it seems that something outlandish is going to happen. The interesting thing about it is that L.A. needs a catalyst to get things going.
It's like a bad reality show that we somehow can't turn off.
Michael C. Jones covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA. He writes regularly for SB Nation and Examiner.com. He is also the Editor of Sports Out West.
You can follow him on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets