For how long will Lakers be patient?

ATLANTA -- It's still December. There's a lot of season left. They just need to get healthy. Get some guys back. Rediscover their groove. There are flashes in there that look good. Everybody just needs to be patient and give things time to work.

Stop me if you've heard any of this before.

Any one of these refrains was heard on a nightly basis for most of last season. And, eventually, the Los Angeles Lakers did get it together, winning 28 of their final 40 games to make a spirited run to the playoffs, so there's reason to believe that it could happen again this season.

But patience in the NBA -- as in life -- is an uncommon virtue.

Just because an organization has it one season, in a specific situation, doesn't mean it will carry over into the next uncertain moment.

This season's team isn't last season's team. The expectations are entirely different. So is the talent level. And with the Lakers' latest dispiriting loss Monday night -- this time a 114-100 loss to the Atlanta Hawks that dropped them to 11-13 on the season -- you have to start wondering just how much slack the team's management will cut them.

Will it really let a team that's still $7.8 million over the luxury tax line fall too far behind in the ultra-competitive Western Conference without making an effort to either shake things loose or cut some financial burdens loose?

At some point in the next two years, the Lakers need to get under the luxury tax line to avoid the enormously punitive repeater tax in the new collective bargaining agreement. If this season's team isn't going to bear fruit, it would be foolish not to try to get under the tax by the end of the season. That's just the reality.

These being the Lakers, however, don't expect them to pull any kind of rip cord until they absolutely have to. They're far more likely to shake things up with a basketball move first before they trim the budget.

Still, the longer this team treads water, the more likely it'll do something about it rather than simply sit back and hope for the best.

The players know it. Heck, it's part of the reason people like playing for the Lakers. NBA life gets old real quickly when a franchise lays down its sword and accepts what is.

"I've been here. There are always a lot of expectations," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. "It's always been one of the positives and the things that I love about this franchise. Obviously, it has a downside. When things are not working out, the pot gets a little stirred and things could happen.

"But we can't be too worried about it. What we have to focus on is our job and playing hard and trying to get wins so things don't get messy."

What's hard at the moment is that this team needs a little more time to get healthy and round into form, just as much as last season's team did. The players are just not as talented overall, so the calculus on whether to give them the time is different.

Point guard Jordan Farmar literally has to restrain himself from running into the game right now.

"I've been waiting for this my whole life," said Farmar, who grew up a Lakers fan in the San Fernando Valley. "I was so happy to be back here, and then we were playing well. … But I'm not going to risk getting hurt again [by returning too quickly], because that doesn't help me or the team if I have to miss more games."

He meant what he said. He knows that's the right course of action, but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow after watching his team struggle mightily without a true point guard for the past three games.

Kobe Bryant is trying. He's actually doing pretty well in that role, but there's a reason he has played shooting guard his whole career.

Monday night, the Hawks exposed that, trapping and harassing him all night, essentially keeping him from getting the Lakers' offense into any kind of flow.

"They were picking up Kobe full court, making him work, so we just didn't create any movement, any motion or any energy for ourselves," Gasol said.

It didn't help that Bryant's legs felt like wood today, 48 hours after playing 32 minutes in the second game of a back-to-back in Charlotte.

It was the first time in his five games back that didn't feel like a step forward. But, well, at least he didn't take a step backward.

"It felt a little stiff on me," Bryant said. "That's the next level of progression in playing these games. When you sit out and get back in, keeping it loose. It's a matter of time; increase the activity and the ankle will get used to it more.

"There's certain things I feel I can do and other things I can't really do yet. I feel like they're coming. It's having the patience and keeping your eye on the big picture and continuing to work and get stronger."

Patience. There's that word again.

Bryant has it. He has to. Farmar is trying to as best he can, too. Lakers management has so far as well. Everyone knows what this team has been up against this season.

How much longer they can all hold onto it hangs in the air.

"That call is completely up to them," Bryant said. "As a player, you rely on experience and rely on the years we had slow starts. I try to stay focused on that. Last year was dire straits. It doesn't feel like that situation. I don't sweat it too much.

"There's certain things we need to correct and fix, and a lot of it starts with me getting healthy. I'll get there, and I'll be able to control things a lot more. I don't trip over it too much. As players, we have to control what we do, and management obviously does the same things."

So we'll see.