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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Deep breaths... Happy place...

By Brian Kamenetzky

Here's what we know:

1. The Lakers weren't good enough to win a title last season, for reasons related to context (burnout after three straight Finals runs) and shortcomings in personnel.

2. The Lakers aren't as good now as they were last season, having traded Lamar Odom and lost Shannon Brown to free agency, while adding only long-range bomber Jason Kapono.

3. The Lakers, even without Odom, still have high-end talent, but they have real depth issues after the elite guys, including backup holes behind Kobe Bryant at shooting guard as well as Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol in the frontcourt.

Here's what we don't know:

1. Everything else.

This while every team in the league busts through a post-lockout, Wild West, sleep-deprived transactionpalooza -- leaving the NBA, in the words of Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, "shooting from the hip." (He would know, considering one of those bullets shattered his Chris Paul deal.) Basically, it's the worst possible time for a team to be dealing with high-end uncertainty. Particularly when that team is the Lakers. They do drama on a daily basis, but few if any franchises in sports have been as reliable in their success or as infused with stability, meaning that when uncertainty does come, the impact is heightened.

Concerns surrounding the franchise's future are legit. The highlights include the potential decline of Bryant, labor rules designed specifically to keep teams like L.A. from building and maintaining the sorts of dynastic teams to which the locals have grown accustomed, and the ascension of Jim Buss, who fans don't yet trust and, frankly, isn't particularly well-respected around the league.

No wonder fans are flipping out.

It's against this backdrop that Mitch Kupchak met the media Monday afternoon, addressing questions on Odom, what the Lakers plan to do going forward, whether they're thinking big or small, and more. Kupchak did his best to explain the logic behind the L.O. deal, arguably with at least some success* (though like Kobe, I believe if they had just waited, Lamar would have returned to practice and after a week or so would have been fine). From there, Kupchak basically spoke in calculated Kupspeak, divulging few specifics (for obvious reasons), while at the same time saying seemingly contradictory things, such as he expects to play this season with his big three of Bryant, Gasol and Bynum while at the same time acknowledging the Lakers are pursuing big deals.

Deals. Plural, which by definition would have to include Bynum and Gasol. Kupchak's essential message: We recognize the problem, we're working on it, and everything/everyone is in play.

Kupchak's basic temperament -- very careful, very even-tempered -- should serve him well over the next week or two, as the Lakers work to fill out their roster. Good thing, because if there's one thing the Lakers can't do, it's panic. I can't say definitively what it looks like, but I'll afford Kupchak and Buss the benefit of the doubt that they have a plan (and alternates to said plan) -- and whatever that plan is, they ought to stick with it. Abruptly changing course in response to external pressures in the midst of the current transactional insanity would almost certainly lead to bad decisions. Superstar obsession can be dangerous, too. If the Clippers eventually land Paul, the Lakers can't respond by going overboard for Dwight Howard, just to toss out a name, in the interests of looking like they're "doing something."

Nothing is worse in the world of sports transactions than doing something just to show you're doing something.

In a perfect world, Kupchak would have handed new coach Mike Brown a more or less fully functioning team, ready to go save a late tweak or two. Unfortunately, the lockout destroyed that option. The confusion injected into the system absolutely works against the Lakers, who have championship aspirations and little wiggle room, and are being put behind schedule in their on-court preparation. But it can be overcome. Failing to solve their personnel problems can't. The Lakers can win by building around their big three. They can win (and answer some questions about the future) by parlaying some of those parts into stars like Howard or Paul. The moves don't have to come today, tomorrow or even necessarily by Christmas, they just have to come.

AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
No offense to Jason Kapono, but if he's all the Lakers add during the transaction derby, the Lakers have big problems.

The Lakers are off to a bad start this month. First, they were jobbed by the NBA on the Paul deal. We'll never know exactly how that sequence of events would have played out, but it began with Paul, meaning there was plenty of potential. Courtesy of David Stern, it disappeared. Now they work from a weaker position. Then came the giveaway-until-something-useful-comes-of-it Odom trade. Players are edgy, fans are edgy (and tired of looking at the Game 4 box score on the right rail of the blog), executives are sleeping four hours a night, and a lot has to happen before it can be said shortcomings have been addressed.

"I think everybody feels the urgency to condense something that's normally done over a month or two with planning that takes place for a year, into a two-week period with no planning," Kupchak said Monday.

He's right. The environment is crazy, and while things don't look promising now, the game isn't over yet. The Lakers could still wind up with a championship-caliber roster. The damage of the Odom trade can be addressed. As Bryant pointed out Monday, Kupchak has a solid track record, whether going David Copperfield and turning Kwame Brown into Gasol, or making smaller moves to pick up pieces such as Trevor Ariza, Brown and Matt Barnes. The Lakers won't get there, though, if management gets rash. They need as much patience as circumstances allow.

Fans should try to use some, too, for their own benefit. Take a few deep breaths, and try not to focus on the worst-case scenarios (which require only a little imagination to truly get worst case). Thanks to the compressed schedule, we'll know fast enough if things really are as gloomy as they appear today, and 66 games will leave plenty of time to criticize.

*I'll give Jim Buss a pass on the idea the Lakers are trying hard to strip payroll. Not in a "control costs where we can" way, totally fair given L.A.'s financial outlay, but a true savings-trumps-winning way. A week ago, everyone was talking about putting three superstars on the same roster. Now people are worried about the organization cheaping out? It could be true, but I'll need more evidence.