State of the Lakers: Still stumped

LOS ANGELES — “Our record is 7-8 right now,” said Lakers forward Metta World Peace. “That means right now we’re a 7-8 team.”
Leave it to MWP to say what most of us are thinking.
Fact is, they are a game under .500, and most of the time this season they have absolutely played down to their record. Sometimes, even lower, like the rancid offensive performance against Indiana last Tuesday. But while the effort is always there, this Lakers team — for whatever reason — just isn’t clicking every game.
Part of it is obviously a new cast of characters who are learning how to play with each other, and part of it is playing under three coaches and two offensive systems less than a month out of training camp. There’s also been the rash of injuries to contend with.
The team’s top two point guards, Steve Nash and Steve Blake, are still out with a fractured leg and abdominal strain, respectively. Pau Gasol’s ego has been bruised and he hasn’t looked anything like the All-Star he was just two seasons ago. And Dwight Howard — still recovering from back surgery — is literally in the middle of all of it, trying to figure out where he fits in. And he’s OK with the transition right now, because he believes in the vision sold to him by Mitch Kupchak when he said yes to being traded to Los Angeles — critics be damned.
“I don’t really pay attention to what anyone has to say,” Howard said Thursday after practice. “I just understand that down the road, later on in the season, we’re going to be a better team than we are now. And that’s what we’re keeping our sights on; what’s going to happen when we’re all healthy and once we learn this offense.
“Right now, things are going to be a little bumpy, and I understand that, but if we continue to do everything right in practice and continue to practice hard and compete with each other, then we’re going to be fine.”
Howard says it’s the little things that the team works on every day that are going to make the difference as the season progresses.
“A lot of people don’t see the extra possessions you can get; the steals and rebounds late in the game because we played hard and hustled,” he said. “And those are the little things that are going to make a big difference later on. They might not show up on the scoreboard or on (the highlight shows), but those are the plays that win games.”
And improve your record to over .500.

Who’s Hot: Who else but Kobe Bryant? So far this season, Bryant is averaging 27.7 points, 4.9 assists and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 50.2 percent — nearly five percentage points higher than his career mark of 45.4. All of it while mostly playing facilitator, a spot he had hoped to move away from when Nash was signed.

In the last four games, Bryant averaged 31.8 points, 3.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals, including a 40-point, 10-rebound performance in the ugly 79-77 loss at home to Indiana. He did have 10 turnovers, though, so he’s no longer white-hot, just scorching hot.
Who’s Not: Gasol continues to struggle worse than at any time in his career. In the last four games he’s averaging an abysmal 9.2 points and 7.7 rebounds. His shooting is drop-off-the-charts bad at 35.2 percent. No wonder the Pau-for-Amar’e Stoudemire trade rumors are popping up again. Question is, would the Knicks make the deal?
Three Thoughts

1. Mike D’Antoni is playing with fire every time he says, “once Steve (Nash) comes back everything will work itself out.” It may well turn out that way, with the Lakers going on a 15-1 run. But what if it doesn’t? What if Nash gets hurt again? His age increases the probability that he will be injured again this season, and when that happens, what’s to prevent the Lakers from imploding again? As great as Nash is at running D’Antoni’s offense, he shouldn’t have the fate of the season put on his shoulders. Time for D’Antoni to convince the rest of the guys they can win with or without Nash — especially since they might have to at some point.
2. It’s time for Kupchak to scour the free-agent market for a lights-out shooter. Not a lot stands out right now, but a former Laker might be worth taking a look at — Adam Morrison. A former NCAA Player of the Year, Morrison has been a bust in the pros. But they’d better find somebody who can put the ball in the hole — and he would come cheap. This would be a risk-reward situation that would benefit the Lakers all the way. If he can’t play, it’s a relatively small investment. If he can, he’ll add another dimension to the offense.
3. Metta World Peace is not only having one of his better all-around seasons in recent years, he’s become an interesting interview for the media. Not the goofy/crazy interview he has been in the recent past, but a thoughtful, accessible player giving straight-up answers and expressing meaningful opinions about anything he’s asked to comment on. He’s a go-to guy on and off the court now. Of course, there’s always one thought in the back of your mind: When will he go Metta on somebody? As the target of one of his Twitter tirades last season, I know he can get a bit personal. But everyone deserves a second — or seventh — chance, and for MWP, so far, so good.
Quotes of the Week

“I have to take care of my responsibilities. I have to minimize my mistakes. I don’t go home and look at it and say, ‘Well, we missed 20 free throws and that’s why we lost the game.’ I look at my mistakes and try to correct those.”  — Bryant after committing 10 turnovers in a two-point loss at home to Indiana.
“Geez, offensively that was not nice. That was ugly.”  — D’Antoni on scoring just 77 points against the Pacers.
“It’s taking a while for this team to be where it needs to be. We have the talent, we have all the tools, but we have to learn how to use that together. We have to learn how to play as one. That’s the only way we’re going to win.”  — Dwight Howard when asked if he feels the team is progressing through the ups and downs.
News and Notes
• Every day talk seems to get around to “The Steves” and when they’ll return. Blake is reportedly out for at least two more weeks, but after practice Thursday he was shooting and moving around a bit. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back in less than 14 days. As for Nash, small fractures can easily turn into large, lingering fractures — ask Bill Walton. The Lakers have to be ultra-careful with Nash, who still has a lot of discomfort each time he tries to ramp up his workouts. He’s listed week to week, but he’s seemingly not close to returning.
• While struggling through probably the worst 15-game stretch of his career and the nuisance of ever-present trade rumors, Gasol said he’s happy that D’Antoni is showing public support of his power forward. “It’s a big plus,” Gasol said Thursday. “It’s important that your coach trusts you, wants you to be a big part of what he’s trying to do and respects your game.”
• Many fans are wondering why the Lakers didn’t re-sign Derek Fisher, now with the Dallas Mavericks. Simple: none of his current skill set fits in with a Lakers team that is trying to move the ball rapidly and shoot it better. Up-tempo and D Fish don’t blend well at this point in his career.
What’s Next?
Friday vs. Denver, Sunday vs. Orlando, Tuesday at Houston and Wednesday at New Orleans.

Sunday night’s game against Orlando will be the first for Howard against the team that drafted him into the NBA. During the few times he’s talked about his days with the Magic, he’s reiterated one point each time — he doesn’t regret forcing a trade to the Lakers. “It’s what I had to do to make things better — in basketball and in my life.”

Prediction: Howard has his best all-around game of the year against the Magic at Staples Center.
Tower of Power?
MWP said it best: The Lakers are a 7-8 team — and playing like a 7-8 team.