That the Los Angeles Lakers are struggling isn't surprising. Everyone understood coming in they had a top-heavy roster built around stars, supplemented by the type of bench players who require talent around them to be effective. With Steve Nash and Pau Gasol in street clothes, the starting lineup is substantially weaker and a bench most hoped could be average (a major improvement over last season's awful) is stretched thinner than Keon Clark's calf muscles.
Bottom line, the Lakers don't currently have enough good players to beat good teams.
But there is struggling, and then there is this.
Right now, the Lakers are a legitimately bad team, and as a result, on top of their problems with personnel, they have a problem with belief. There is zero confidence in what they're doing offensively. Kobe Bryant doesn't fully believe in the guys around him (with legitimate cause) and the other guys don't believe in what they're doing. They're turning the ball over, dribbling to places they shouldn't, and gripping the wheel too tightly in a system built on free-flowing movement and energy. Bad offense leads to bad defense, and certainly the Lakers, who were about 0.1 seconds from allowing 71 points in the first half Thursday night -- upon further review, Raymond Felton's buzzer-beating 3-pointer didn't quite beat the buzzer -- have a significant problem on that side of things.
There is no continuity, no cohesion, no consistency in the Lakers' effort. Dwight Howard doesn't believe the guys behind him have his back (with legitimate cause). As you might suspect with a team surrendering points by the bushel, the Lakers do a lot of pointing. At one another. There are good moments, but nothing close to 48 minutes of sustained competence. Instead, they tend to bury themselves early and then work for a miracle.
As a result, the Lakers are facing their most significant problem: Math.
Over the past three full NBA seasons, the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference has averaged 48 wins. The Lakers, now 9-14 following Thursday's 116-107 fraternity-style paddling at the hands of the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, would have to go 39-20 to get there. That's a .661 winning percentage, the equivalent of a 54-win pace over a full season. Doable -- at least in theory -- for the roster assembled in the offseason, except nobody has any real idea of when that team will actually take the court, and the current group has shown nothing but the ability to lose to any team on any night. Sure, the Lakers made a late push against the Knicks, just as they did last week in Oklahoma City. But spotting teams huge leads and hoping they get bored (or that the star player turns an ankle) before staging a comeback isn't exactly sound strategy.
Who is willing to call Friday's game in Washington a sure win? I'm certainly not.
The rest of the conference won't wait around for the Lakers. Dallas will eventually get Dirk Nowitzki back. Minnesota gets Ricky Rubio back, maybe as soon as this weekend. The Wolves were strong last season with Rubio and Kevin Love available. Denver ought to get better, and so on. Even stipulating the Lakers will look like the team we expected once Nash and Gasol return (and there are reasons to believe they'll still have some issues), they've reached a point where the games in between are critical. Not for winning the conference (ha!) or pushing into the top four on the playoff ladder, but to avoid having to play .700 or even .750 ball just to make the playoffs. Somehow, someway, the Lakers need to win games with the guys available to them or they risk making their quality of play with Nash and Gasol a moot point.
I still believe they'll get in and I know we're not even to Christmas yet, but the threat is very real. Already the Lakers have taken giant bites out of their season's allotment of margin for error, particularly when considering this was supposed to be the easy portion of the 2012-2013 schedule. Nash said Friday he hopes to begin practicing next week, which could mean a return to the lineup around Christmas, barring any setbacks. But the Lakers have to assume he won't be back for a while, and start producing Friday in against the Wizards and in every game until he (and Gasol) are back.
As someone expressed to us via Twitter after the Lakers paid homage to the Cuyahoga River fire with their self-immolation act Tuesday in Cleveland, Nash is seen as the guy who can right the ship, and get the Lakers back on course. But even accepting this (no longer completely) conventional wisdom, there's only so much the two-time MVP can do if the boat is halfway to the ocean floor when he returns.
Without question, water is currently flowing in faster than the Lakers can bail.