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This year's Lakers? Anybody's guess

Mike D'Antoni has a funny habit of laughing whenever he is most honest. The truth might hurt, but it goes down better when you can laugh at the absurdity of it.

And so it was the other night when the Lakers coach was asked if he was encouraged by the team's play in the preseason following a win over the Utah Jazz.

"Well, I think every coach right now is confident," D'Antoni said with a laugh. "I'm sure [Gen. George] Custer was confident before he went to Little Bighorn too. He was hootin' and hollerin' and probably happy as heck, so that's how we are right now. Talk to me in December and we'll have a more serious discussion."

Now that may not be the best historical parallel to cite for a coach on a warm seat, but D'Antoni's point is clear: Who knows?

Your guess about how this season will turn out for the Lakers is as good as D'Antoni's. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas aren't overly optimistic, setting the Lakers' projected win total at 33.5 games. My colleagues at ESPN aren't bullish either -- projecting the Lakers to finish 12th in the Western Conference.

As Lakers forward Jordan Hill explained: "Kobe [Bryant] is hurt. Dwight [Howard] left. [Steve] Nash's age is coming on. We're a young team. So people are definitely going to doubt us.

"What can you do about it? Just perform."

But what about all those good vibes emanating from Lakers camp? What about the play of a resurgent Pau Gasol? What about all those young, athletic, former lottery picks the Lakers salvaged off the NBA scrap heap this summer?

For every fan or pundit taking the under on those 33.5 wins and waiting to see just how far this team might fall, there are a dozen more taking the over and waiting to gloat about how wrong the gloomy preseason predictions were.

It's not so much that it's difficult to predict how this Lakers season will go, it's that there are such widely different predictions floating out there, even with eight preseason games now to use as data in the evaluation.

Some folks think the Lakers will be absolutely terrible, and there are some who wouldn't be surprised if they became a dangerous team in the playoffs once Kobe Bryant returns from surgery on his Achilles.

Where you fall on the continuum of opinions is something of a Rorschach test. What you see in the Lakers inkblot is more of a referendum on how deeply you believe in the mythology about this franchise, and the player who has led it to five NBA titles.

The Lakers, the conventional NBA wisdom says, always find a way to win.

Bryant, the stories go, always finds a way to play.

No trade is too difficult for the Lakers to pull off. Just as no injury is too painful for Bryant to play through. Until now ... maybe?

To the true believers, this is just another important moment the Lakers and Bryant will rise up to face.

To the doubters, it is the fall of Rome, the moment a grand empire and emperor finally become too overextended to remain in power.

It's all a bit much.

Now you understand why D'Antoni laughed as he was comparing himself to Custer.

"It's kind of entertaining," Gasol said. "Something to talk about, I guess.

"Rankings are rankings. People will have their opinions. We just have to come out and do what we do best, prove people wrong and try to exceed expectations."

Reminded that people had rather large expectations for the Lakers last season at this time, Gasol smiled and said, "Yes, they were. ... And see where we ended up?"

Gasol has been through enough in his six seasons in L.A. to make a joke like that. He won two championships in his first three seasons, only to be traded -- and ultimately untraded -- to New Orleans in the failed Chris Paul deal just a year later. The next two years weren't much easier as Gasol saw his role on the team diminished with the rise of Andrew Bynum, then the desperate push to woo Dwight Howard. Neither plan succeeded. Gasol is still here. And now, in a pleasant irony, he's the guy they're counting on to carry them while Bryant rehabilitates.

"It's interesting," Gasol said. "I like it."

So what do we know, other than everything we don't know?

Bryant won't suit up Tuesday night in the Lakers' season opener against the Clippers. Word is he's planning to ramp his training back up this week, then evaluate where he is again. So that pretty much rules him out for the first week or two of the season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Lakers have won 63 percent of the games that Bryant has missed since his rookie season. But that win percentage is just 52 percent since Shaquille O'Neal left after the 2004 season.

Nash missed 32 games last season and the Lakers are already talking about strategically resting him throughout this season to keep him fresh.

Gasol averaged career lows in scoring (13.7 ppg) and field goal percentage (46.6 percent) last season, but he has looked rejuvenated this preseason after offseason procedures on his knees, and in a larger role in the offense.

Former first-round picks Wes Johnson, Shawne Williams, Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry have given the Lakers a nice boost of youthful energy.

Chris Kaman was developing some nice on-court chemistry with Gasol, until he developed some awful internal chemistry in China and missed eight days with a gastrointestinal issue.

There's plenty more data to process, if that helps you make sense of the inkblot.

There are no right answers in a Rorschach test. Just impressions.

So, what do you see? Mostly what you want to.