LOS ANGELES -- In the fall of 1978, Jack Kent Cooke owned the Lakers, Jerry West coached them, and Kobe Bryant was a newborn. They began the season on a road trip back east, with losses at Philadelphia, New Jersey and Cleveland, the last two by only a basket. The Lakers finished that season in the Western Conference Semifinals against Seattle, and in the following year, the team was sold to Jerry Buss, drafted Magic Johnson and won the championship. Their hideous start was just a small part of a glorious process.
Perhaps the same is true again, as the Lakers fell to 0-3 for the first time since '78, but this team is not waiting on a savior. All their bedrocks are in place: Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, four likely Hall of Famers, adding up to nothing but a wretched opening week. Though the Lakers continue to talk about their lofty aspirations, only one team in NBA history has come back from 0-3 to capture a title, the 1990-91 Bulls. Of course, the Lakers are drawing more regular comparisons to the 2010-11 Heat, whose superstars also struggled to assimilate, but they were 9-8 at the outset, not 0-3.
The Lakers aren't just losing close games and they aren't just stumbling in hostile environments. They've been beaten soundly all three times they've played, twice at Staples Center, most recently to the cross-town Clippers on Friday night. There were times that the Clippers -- specifically DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin -- appeared to jump over their older, slower, earthbound neighbors. Without Nash, who is ailing from a bruised leg, the Lakers never led after 1-0. They cracked 20 turnovers for the second game in a row. Their bench was outscored by 30 points. Chris Paul had as many assists as the Lakers' entire roster.
The final score was respectable, 105-95, only because Bryant logged 43 minutes and scored 40 points on a strained right foot he said would require a walking boot to leave the arena. Staring at the stat sheet, Bryant noticed that the Clippers scored 20 second-chance points on nine offensive rebounds. "I'm having a hard time understanding how that's mathematically possible," he said.
The Lakers shortcomings are confounding. On offense, they don't take care of the ball, and on defense, they can't stop it. Head coach Mike Brown claims they will jell by the All-Star break, but he shouldn't expect to get that much time. The Lakers have not won since mid-May and are 0-11 when counting the pre-season. It's impossible to call a game in the first week of November a must-win, but if the Lakers somehow lose to Detroit on Sunday, Staples Center could turn toxic.
The Princeton offense, which became a source of consternation around L.A. this week for marginalizing Nash, may be turning back into the Lower Merion offense. A week ago, Bryant could barely walk because of his foot, but he could not stand to miss any games. He had to send a message to the new Lakers: They can be a super team, but not a diva team. Although Bryant is the least of their problems -- he is averaging more than 30 points on better than 61 percent shooting -- he is taking over as if it's 2007 and he's still got Kwame Brown at center.
Howard mustered only seven shots against the Clippers, scored 13 points, and was still stuck on two rebounds early in the third quarter. The Lakers never understood why Howard was so reluctant to join them after he asked out of Orlando last season. It made no sense, given all their talent, and all the marketing opportunities in L.A. But perhaps Howard sensed the flaws in this experiment. The Lakers, despite their transcendent skill, lack speed. The Clippers became the latest opponent to fast break them in half.
More than a championship is at stake for the Lakers this season. They are grooming their next superstar to assume the mantle from Bryant. But Howard is a free agent July 1, and while it's widely assumed that he'll sign long term, the Lakers must still convince him he's in the right place. Bryant admonished local fans and media for their collective hysteria after practice Thursday -- "Everybody shut up," he said. "Let us work" -- but following Friday's latest disappointment he joked about dismissing his own advice. "We're hitting the panic button now," he said. "That's what we're supposed to do. That's our job. We've got to push at it."