Lakers very much a work in progress

LOS ANGELES – Is it still exhibition season?

That thought had to be coursing through Staples Center on Tuesday night, when the curtain came up on the NBA season and the new-look Lakers, whose star-studded lineup looked . . . a lot like the one that didn’t win any of its eight preseason games.

This newly reloaded juggernaut, with the additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, might be the center of attention in the NBA for an altogether different reason after being soundly beaten by the Dirk Nowitzki-less Dallas Mavericks, 99-91, an outcome that will no doubt set Lakers fans on a campaign to a) scrap the Princeton offense, b) fire coach Mike Brown, c) hire Shaquille O’Neal to teach Dwight Howard how to shoot free throws or d) all of the above.

If that wasn’t quite the introduction Howard was hoping for, he learned afterward that he’s not in Orlando anymore when one of the first questions he was asked was whether he was embarrassed.

“Embarrassed?” Howard asked, either incredulous or not sure he had heard the question correctly.

The older hands around Lakerland knew better than to sweat the loss, figuring that once everyone learns the offense and actually tries on defense, everything will work itself out.

“It’s like when I go on a date – it’s going to take time,” said Metta World Peace, who presumably scores at a more efficient clip on the singles scene than he did with his 1-for-8 shooting against Dallas.

But he was not alone. Nash made just 3 of 9 shots, and acknowledged that he was tentative directing the offense – unsure when to get into the Princeton, which is predicated on movement off the ball, or run the pick-and-roll sets that helped make him a two-time MVP. Howard made 3 of 14 free throws, the frustration showing in his carping at the officials, a flagrant foul and his exit in the final minutes after being called for an offensive foul.

Even the good news – that Kobe Bryant, sidelined 10 days with a sprained foot, had 22 points on 11 of 14 shooting – was tempered by the possibility that he will not play in Portland on Wednesday.

Dallas owner Mark Cuban, whose summer plans to land Howard and/or Deron Williams fizzled, was giddy after a team that got major contributions from Eddy Curry, Rodrigue Beaubois and Brandan Wright built a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter.

And while he joked beforehand that “I hope they suck,” Cuban did not gloat too much, though his assessment of the Lakers did come with a smile on his face.

“It will be interesting to see how they get it together,” Cuban said in the hallway outside the Mavericks locker room. “The Lakers are going to be a good team. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. It’s going to take time, but what’s going to be interesting is to see how it plays out, how long it takes them to find their identity and see who they are. They’ve got amazing talent, they’re going to be a great team, but it doesn’t necessarily happen overnight.”

The Lakers and Mavericks might serve as a referendum this season on how best to win by the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, which were brought into relief Saturday when Oklahoma City dealt James Harden to Houston because it did not want to pay a steep luxury tax to keep him.

The Lakers, who hope to sign Howard to a max contract extension next summer, are going all in by signing the 38-year-old Nash to a three-year deal, and teaming them with Bryant, Pau Gasol and World Peace.

The Mavericks, after whiffing on Howard and Williams, pieced together a roster full of solid talent on one-year contracts, such as O.J. Mayo, Elton Brand and Chris Kaman (who was out injured) in the hopes of getting one more run out of Nowitzki, who will miss the first six to eight weeks of the season after undergoing knee surgery.

Cuban, who has enjoyed tweaking the Lakers, said beforehand of their conglomeration of stars: “I don’t have a problem with it because until guys start playing until they’re 50, it always comes to an end at some point. Houston went for it when they got Barkley and it didn’t happen. Guys have shelf lives, they don’t play forever and so at some point, you have to reformulate your team. In the meantime, if someone has a ‘super team,’ that’s fine. We did all right when we got to the Finals against a super team (beating Miami two years ago) and when we were the super team in the Finals, we lost (to the Heat in 2006).”

The Lakers hardly carried themselves with the air of a super team Tuesday. Their offense looked sharp at the start, but stagnated as the game progressed, leaving one to wonder if the Princeton offense were named for the giant Sycamores on campus. When the Lakers came out of a timeout with 8:50 left, all five starters stood near the scorer’s table with Nash directing an animated conversation with Bryant and Gasol. Howard and World Peace listened.

Only Gasol, with his supreme skill set, looked truly at ease in the offense, leading the Lakers across the board with 23 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.

“We’re running, by NBA standards, a fairly untraditional set so it’s going to take us a lot of time,” Nash said. “It is complex and it takes cohesion from each guy that we just don’t have yet. We have to figure out ways to win in the meantime.”

That would require playing some defense. As Brown noted, the Lakers’ initial effort was adequate, but the second effort was non-existent. If Howard was supposed to solve the pick-and-roll troubles of Andrew Bynum, the Mavericks instead used Gasol’s man to set the picks. Brown called the defense a disappointment, but others called it worse.

“Those are things that are unacceptable,” Antawn Jamison, the newly acquired forward, said of the Lakers’ poor communication. “I don’t know if we just felt that because Dirk wasn’t playing or what, that’s unacceptable with this group of guys. We know we have a lot of talent at both ends of the floor. You’ve seen it with Miami – just because you have a lot of talent doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed. You have to put in the work and have a certain type of chemistry. You have to have a certain chip on your shoulder.”

That would be hard to imagine with the Lakers and their great expectations. But the start of the regular season showed there is work to be done if all this talent is to come together, if the Lakers are to put the title back in entitlement.