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The expectation game

The bar has been set much lower for the Lakers this season. They may be better off because of it. AP Photo/Alex Gallardo

No games can be won or lost in the offseason, but in the five months since being swept out of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers have seemingly lost what has largely defined the franchise in its five decades in Los Angeles: the power of perception.

Among the NBA’s elite, the Lakers have the bluest blood. They are one of the few teams in all of sports expected to compete for a championship every season, and with their alluring location, deep pockets and rich legacy, they have the means to live up to such lofty standards: Since the 1976-77 season, the Lakers have missed the playoffs just twice and have more titles than first-round exits. In the summer of 2012, the team turned a very good center (Andrew Bynum) into the best one in the league (Dwight Howard), and pried away Steve Nash, the best player from a division rival, for draft picks. Long before the ensuing disastrous results, building a superteam out of almost nothing only reaffirmed its supposed infallibility. The rich got richer, and so on and so on.

But with Howard's rejection of their richer contract offer in free agency this summer in favor of a deal from the Houston Rockets, the Lakers not only lost their bridge to the future -- the player expected to take the handoff from Kobe Bryant and lead the franchise into the next generation -- they also conceded some of that cherished status. Cap-strapped and lacking any other alternatives, the Lakers very publicly courted Howard, going as far as to roll out "Stay" billboards with his likeness, which long-term fans largely found unbecoming. To see their efforts rebuffed, to the cruel delight of many, stripped away some of the shine that surrounds the club, and that new, confounding image was only further established when the team trotted out new additions like Chris Kaman, Nick Young and Jordan Farmar (on his second tour of duty) to a media throng that had thinned out considerably from last year’s much-anticipated preseason meet-and-greet. Old money bet on the wrong stock and took a big lost, and now it’s forced to try and make ends meet any way it can like every other team.

Even with oodles of cap room awaiting it next summer and the usual inherent advantages it has in attracting free agents, the prospects of a quick return to glory are far more muddled than usual. The last time the Lakers missed the postseason, in 2004-05, the player expected to bring them into the future was already in-house. But now that same player could be what stunts their ability to transition into a new era. Almost a decade later, Bryant is still the best player on the Lakers, but because of his demanding personality, affinity for taking shots and millstone salary, he is also the best reason for other superstars not to play for the Lakers, at least in the immediate.

For the first time in a long time, there are no easy answers in L.A. But that uncertainty is precisely what makes the Lakers so compelling this season.

Perhaps more than any other sport, the NBA can be rather predictable. Certainly, there are surprises -- first and foremost, last season’s Lakers debacle -- but elite players dictate so much of the league’s results that it’s fairly easy to pick out successes and failures: If you have a superstar, you often win big; if you do not have a superstar, you often do not win big. And unlike the NCAA tournament or the NFL playoffs, 82-game regular seasons and seven-game playoff series have a way of straining out any truly shocking circumstances; last year’s ESPN.com Summer Forecast, comprised of 100 voters, correctly predicted 13 of the eventual 16 participants in the playoffs. Barring injuries, we pretty much know what we’re getting into once the dust settles on free agency. The ballet of a LeBron James dunk is indeed beautiful, but the known is at the core of this league, and that is what makes it so ripe for the advanced analytics that have become so popular, particularly in the daily discussion mill.

For so long, the Lakers found comfort in this predictably. There will always be outside noise generated by their palace’s intrigue, but the only question of much consequence remained a constant: Will they win a title this season? This year’s Summer Forecast panel predicts a meager 36 wins and a 12th-place finish for the Lakers. And while Bryant, among others, may still expect championships, the conversations surrounding the team are much dourer. What kind of player will a 35-year-old Bryant be once he has recovered from a torn Achilles? Can a move back to center rejuvenate a 33-year-old Pau Gasol? What does a 39-year-old Steve Nash have left? Can they even make the playoff field? The baseline for success has indeed been lowered.

Even though the spare parts the Lakers picked up on the open market to plug their many holes probably won’t lead to a significantly better on-court product than last season’s 45-win team, there’s a certain freedom to playing when up is the only place to go in the expectation game. Particularly for a team coming off a season in which each game felt as if it meant everything.

With injuries, reported in-fighting, malaise and poor results, last season’s Lakers were quite the poisonous cocktail. But the tumult only exacerbates when you factor in the context they played under. It’s easy to write off preseason prognostications as silly, and perhaps there is some truth to that, but in those summer months we recalibrate our whole interpretation of the league. While the time to reflect helps us better understand the eight months of game action that just happened, it also resets our expectations for what is about to happen: that the Heat are a budding dynasty, that the Rockets are budding contenders in the West, that the Lakers are a budding crisis. None of this has happened, but if it doesn’t, it will seem incongruous based on the perceptions we spend crafting in the summer months. Without the context of the Summer of LeBron, the Heat’s 2011 NBA Finals loss doesn’t seem so devastating. Nor does the Lakers’ 2012-13 season feel like such a letdown without the immense anticipation that preceded it.

Asked on Saturday if last season was the most difficult of his career, Nash concurred: "It was, yeah. There were other difficult years in there, but it was difficult because it was the freshest [in my memory] and there were the most expectations."

The Lakers were unable to replace Howard in free agency, but their consolation prize is a good one: the benefit of doubt. Bryant and others can express championship aspirations, but if they do not achieve that goal, it will only reaffirm what we already perceived. Anything more, though, will surely feel that much sweeter, and that joy of overcoming expectations (see: every athlete Twitter account) is one this franchise has not had the privilege of in some time. The mood around the team has noticeably been lifted from last season, those around the team say, chief among them head coach Mike D'Antoni, who now gets a full training camp and the chance to run his preferred system with players that seem a better fit for it. Any type of success, particularly in the early stages of the 2013-14 season, will surely only build upon that.

That may not be enough to fulfill any championship expectations left over from years gone by, but anything can happen. And given the circumstances this franchise now finds itself in, the excitement brought about by the unknown is indeed something to look forward to.