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A leap of faith in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES -- Before a recent game, Byron Scott said he told his players "doubt kills dreams." The Los Angeles Lakers coach was just getting warmed up.

"I told them that I have no doubt that we will win a championship in my tenure here as head coach," Scott told ESPN.com this week, "because I know this organization. But I do know it's going to take some patience. It's a process."

Wait. A championship?

"I agree," Lakers star Kobe Bryant told ESPN.com when asked about Scott's remark.

Why?

"Faith," Bryant continued. "The Lakers' track record. This organization is really good about turning around, period. We don't have many dry years."

Now in their 66th season, the Lakers have made a league-high 60 playoff appearances, have reached a league-high 31 NBA finals and have won 16 titles, the second-most behind the Boston Celtics (17) and 10 more than the third-place Chicago Bulls (6). Perhaps more than any other franchise in professional sports, success is expected, and often achieved.

Until now.

"I told (the players) that I have no doubt that we will win a championship in my tenure here as head coach."

Byron Scott

The Lakers lost the most games in franchise history last season (55) and, at 1-7 entering Friday's home matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, are off to their worst start since the 1950s, when the team was based in Minnesota.

Steve Nash (back) and Julius Randle (leg) are out for the season. Ryan Kelly (hamstring) and Nick Young (hand) are also out. And Wayne Ellington will be out indefinitely after his father was shot and killed earlier this week.

Scott has harped on defense all season, but as of Thursday, the Lakers have the worst defensive efficiency by any team in the past 30 seasons, allowing 114.5 points per 100 possessions.

Scott and Bryant may think banner No. 17 is right around the corner, but a title has never seemed more distant for the Lakers.

"I think all that good luck has abandoned them and all the bad luck that they should have been getting during that time has come to visit them at once," Lakers Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said.

"It's going to take them a couple years to get out of that rut."


The silver lining for most fans is the draft. The Lakers will lose their first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns if it falls outside the top five. So the more the Lakers lose, the better their chances of keeping it.

"It's a lottery," said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said during a recent interview in his office. "It doesn't mean anything. I mean, last year, we got the seventh pick in the draft, and to me, it felt like we lost every game. I don't know how you lose more games to try to get a better pick. I just don't know how you do it."

One need only look at the Philadelphia 76ers for a master class in the art of fielding a roster that has little to no chance of competing. But the mention of "tanking" to Kupchak results in a lightning-quick reply.

"We would never do that," he said. "This business doesn't work that way."

As proof, Kupchak noted how late last season, when every loss meant a better chance at a higher lottery pick, the Lakers won their final two games, both on the road. Had they lost those games, they would've tied for the fourth-worst record in the league; instead, they had the sixth-worst.

"Our feeling is, you can't manipulate [the system]," Kupchak said. "It's bad Karma. First of all, just the whole concept of talking to your coaches and sending a message that, 'We want to lose,' it's just so counter to professional sports and to the way that this organization thinks."

He added, "I don't even know where you begin. Do you call a coach in and say, 'Listen, I want to talk to you about something. We've got to lose these games.' And then if that coach leaves your organization in three years, and he says, 'Yeah, the Lakers wanted to lose ...'

"I mean, it doesn't work," Kupchak said. "And if you did do that, the Karma would be such that you'd probably end up with the 14th pick. But the message to send out is not the right message.

"We're always going to try to win. We did that last year and we felt that we got a great player [in Randle]. He got hurt, but we felt we got a great player."


Of course, luck isn't the real reason the Lakers were so good for so long.

Even Abdul-Jabbar said so, crediting management.

"They made their good luck by being smart and growing the team," he said.

Kupchak cited many of the historic moves made by the franchise, such as Jerry West acquiring 17-year-old Kobe Bryant during the 1996 offseason.

"Jerry did not say, 'Oh, I think we're going to get lucky here,'" Kupchak said. "I mean, Jerry knew. He knew this kid was going to be able to play."

Eighteen years later, Bryant (again) leads the league in scoring, at 27.5 points per game; no player in NBA history has ever averaged at least 26 points per game in their age-36 or older season.

"I think he's very motivated because of the way (ESPN) ranked him, being the 40th(-best) player in NBA and he's leading the league in scoring," said former Lakers big man Pau Gasol.

"He's probably going to do that throughout the year. So I know he'll be fine but obviously (the situation's) not ideal for him. But he'll figure it out and he'll weather the storm."

"I think (Kobe) is very motivated because of the way (ESPN) ranked him."

Pau Gasol

But Bryant, who missed all but six games last season because of injuries, is averaging a league-high 24.5 field goal attempts per game, almost five more than the next closest player. He has also taken 196 of his team's 676 field goal attempts this season, or about 29 percent, the highest among all NBA players this season.

He is also missing 15 shots per game and one about every 2 minutes, 20 seconds, which, if it held up, would be the fastest rate since the merger, besting Freeman Williams' rate of missing a shot about every 2 minutes, 57 seconds.

"We've been through this before with him, several times, where it's shooting at a high rate, or however you want to say it," Kupchak said. "To me, it's just a great player trying to figure out what his teammates can and can't do under a new system."

Overall, Kupchak praised Bryant, calling him their main bright spot thus far.

"If there is a silver lining that is really up front and out front, it's that Kobe can still play at a high level," Kupchak said. "You can see him making adjustments, still shaking of the rust - and maybe some of it is rust, maybe some of it is maybe being 36. You can see him still getting a feel.

"But the bottom line is, he can still play at a very high level. He competes. He can go get shots. He can still defend. He can play big minutes. ... And he's fun to watch. And he's fun to watch compete and he still wants to win. The fire is still there."


Gasol feels for his former team.

"It's hard to see (them) struggle, what's been my team for many years, and a franchise that I love, and fans that I love," said Gasol, who left the Lakers this past offseason after six and a half seasons and two championships to join the Bulls.

"But obviously there's a lot of new players, a lot of new faces, a new coach, a lot of new things, and the Western Conference is extremely competitive."

Gasol said he believes they'll improve, but until then, "you just have to be patient."

Have the Lakers ever had to be patient? Really patient? Words like "process" are being used daily by Scott and his players, but that's not a familiar one for this team or its fans.

"The adjustment for me is just the patience part of it, which is sometimes tough, because I'm so used to winning," said Scott, who spent 11 seasons with the franchise as a player. "And the people here are so used to winning. And the people in this organization are so used to winning."

All around Scott, whether at Staples Center or at their practice facility in El Segundo, there are reminders of how far he has to go: photos, banners, retired jerseys.

Championship trophies line the office window of Lakers executive vice president Jeanie Buss, overlooking the practice court.

"Kobe has earned five of those. I earned three of those," said Scott, a member of the Showtime era. "We want our guys to see that because it's important for them to see what this organization is all about."

Of course, the team could make one or two landmark moves and be a contender again, like they have in the past. In the interim, it's unclear what path they'll have to take, or exactly how long it might be, until they add another banner -- or at least make the playoffs.

"Just trust the management upstairs, man," Bryant said. "They're really good about what they do."

That's his faith talking. His trust in the organization's track record. His belief that they can turnaround everything in a snap, that here, dry runs never last.