Already below .500, the Lakers' problems are building as Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are out with injuries. How much will their playoff chances take a hit? Do Howard and Gasol have a future in Los Angeles? Our crew discusses what's in store for the Lakers.
1. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers will make the playoffs.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Fiction. The question essentially is, "Will the Lakers finish ahead of Utah, Minnesota, Dallas and Portland?" Considering the injuries to Howard and Gasol and how lost the team is defensively, it feels as if the Lakers are drawing to an inside straight. Certainly not impossible, but increasingly unlikely.
Brett Koremenos, HoopSpeak: Fact. It will be a struggle, but I still think L.A. will beat out Utah, a Kevin Love-less Minnesota and Portland for the final spot in the West. That said, I wouldn't be totally shocked if a gritty Wolves team sneaks in ahead of the Lakers.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Fact. It's still inconceivable to think that this team won't make the playoffs after the splashy summer it had. It would rank as one of the biggest failures in NBA history. The Lakers will find a rhythm and win enough games to get in, but it's going to be tough. They'll need roughly 48 wins or so. That would mean they have to go 33-16 in their final 49 games, 26 of which are on the road.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue and Gold: Fact. I simply can't see the Lakers performing as poorly in their final 49 games as they have in their first 33. In the short term, they will need to overcome injuries, but in the long term, I'm betting their health improves, which will lead to them developing the on-court chemistry needed to make a playoff push.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: Fiction. I'm just playing the odds. There are a few teams of roughly equal value vying for that No. 8 spot out West. The Lakers happen to be one of those teams, along with the Jazz, Blazers and Wolves. Smart money is to take the field.
2. Fact or Fiction: Mike D'Antoni was the right hire.
Arnovitz: Fact, though there really wasn't a right hire because this wouldn't have been a cinch for anyone. Phil Jackson is the most talented coach in the game, but you could argue the 2011 team should have won at least a game or two in a conference semifinal series. A healthy Lakers team under Mike D'Antoni would improve considerably.
Koremenos: Fiction. I respect D'Antoni as a coach, but taking a rigid approach to an ill-conceived roster in an unrelenting media market seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.
Palmer: Fiction. Unless the Lakers shot to the top of the conference -- or at least the Pacific -- D'Antoni was in a no-win situation with Phil Jackson as the other candidate. But I just don't think his basketball philosophy fits with this group.
Soriano: Fact-ish. While I still believe Phil Jackson would have been the best hire, I'm not indicting D'Antoni's hire after 23 games. He will need to continue to adjust his schemes, but with time for him to continue to acclimate to his players (and vice versa), I expect the results will justify his hiring in the long run.
Sherwood Strauss: Fact, but they shouldn't have even made a coaching change. As I stressed before and after Mike Brown's ouster, this is a roster problem and a Dwight problem, not a coaching problem. No coach can magically make Howard's vertebrae feel cozy. No coach can get around the fatal "two starting centers, no bench" flaw.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers should trade Pau Gasol.
Arnovitz: Fact, but only if they can find the right deal. The Lakers shouldn't take on any long-term commitments that would make their future cap situation more inflexible than it already is, and there isn't much you can feed into the Trade Machine that makes sense on that front.
Koremenos: Fact. If they aren't burning up the phone lines right now, it's an even bigger mistake than when the team didn't try to move him right after acquiring Howard in the offseason. They need youth, defenders and shooters in a bad way, and a Pau deal can perhaps net a few of those things.
Palmer: Fiction. Easy to blame Pau, but he's not the major problem. In fact, I don't think he's really a problem at all. He's not the player he once was, but he doesn't significantly contribute to the Lakers' glaring weaknesses. His biggest trouble is inconsistency, which is fixable. Pau has to deliver on the floor, but it's also up to the coaches to put him in a position to succeed.
Soriano: Fiction. Pau isn't the Lakers' chief problem on either side of the ball. Trading him for more "right-fitting" pieces, such as a stretch power forward, doesn't solve the team's problem (perimeter defense). Much like the change from Brown to D'Antoni, I could see a Pau trade netting short-term success with a long-term regression to previous levels of play.
Sherwood Strauss: Fiction. There exists the real possibility that Howard won't re-sign with Los Angeles or that Los Angeles might not even want Howard. If this happens, wouldn't you want Gasol around to play center? Wait till next year, then see if a Pau trade is needed.
4. Fact or Fiction: Dwight Howard should re-sign with the Lakers.
Arnovitz: Fact. It's still the same market, brand and organization that it was a few months ago. Even if everything continues to crater, at some point in the near future Howard will be healthy. When he is, he'll be one of the two or three best centers on the planet. Historically, many notable people with that job title have found the Lakers to be a very nice professional fit.
Koremenos: Fiction. Howard should re-sign wherever he feels has the best organization for him. I have no clue where that is -- and I'm sure Dwight doesn't, either -- but it isn't necessarily L.A.
Palmer: Fact. Where else is he going to go? In a couple of years, this will be his team and he can begin to really shape his legacy. The rewards of winning with the Lakers are enormous. He just needs to weather this rocky period. He has to give it some time.
Soriano: Fact. One bad 30-odd-game stretch doesn't change the fact that the Lakers can offer Howard the most money and the chance to play for a franchise with incredible resources and a chance to call Los Angeles home.
Sherwood Strauss: Fact. The novelty of this Lakers collapse should wear off eventually. It's probably best if Dwight stays put and gets healthy. If you believe that Howard can rehab successfully, then L.A. is a fantastic place to flaunt such talent.
5. Fact or Fiction: Kobe will make another NBA Finals before he retires.
Arnovitz: Fiction, because there's some stiff competition and it's unclear how much longer Kobe Bryant will lace them up. There are probably scenarios whereby the Lakers enter the 2013-14 or 2014-15 season as the favorite in the Western Conference, but I can't come up with one that's plausible.
Koremenos: Fiction. The Western Conference is absolutely loaded. The Clippers and Thunder will be contenders for the long haul. Ditto for the Warriors and perhaps even the Rockets and Nuggets. Even if Howard stays in Hollywood and gets back to full strength, it's hard to picture a scenario where it makes the Lakers better than all those other teams.
Palmer: Fiction. It won't happen this season, and too many teams are headed in the right direction in the West to believe he can next season. If he re-signs with the Lakers after his current deal is up, the team will require a major overhaul to get back to the Finals. Two years from now, only two or three others from the current roster would remain.
Soriano: Fact. It looks like an incredible long shot this season, but there's still a chance those odds improve as the season progresses. That said, if this season proves a failure on that end, next season (and beyond), the Lakers can continue to shape their roster to contend with the top teams in the West and get to the Finals.
Sherwood Strauss: Fiction. Hey, I like to play the field against the individual. Kobe has been incredible this season, but there are so many good teams and he has only so many years left. The Western Conference is No Country for Old Men (who want another Finals trip).
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Chris Palmer writes for ESPN The Magazine. Brett Koremenos, Darius Soriano and Ethan Sherwood Strauss are part of the TrueHoop Network.
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