The Lakers are not who we thought they were.
Or are they?
We're a quarter of the way through the season and we're still not exactly sure.
And that's the problem.
Los Angeles comes to town for Friday's game against the Thunder with a disappointing 9-10 record and a host of issues, problems that leave you no choice but to wonder whether the Lakers are contenders or pretenders.
While the jury is still out, there's no question this team thus far is not a squad most envisioned the Lakers would be when they reloaded in August.
“They're still the Lakers,” said Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha.
Historically, that means they'll be in the thick of things at season's end. Friday, though, they appear to be nothing more than a middling mired in mediocrity.
“They're still one of the best teams,” insisted Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “They made a coaching change. They're still trying to work their way through the transition, but they have some of the best players in basketball and the 9-10 record is not who they are.”
So who are they?
At the moment, the Lakers are an injury-plagued bunch searching for an identity.
Steve Nash has a fractured fibula. Pau Gasol has tendinitis in his knees. Dwight Howard still is working his way back from a back injury.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are adapting to a new system under coach Mike D'Antoni following the surprising firing of Mike Brown five games into the season. It's an adjustment period that has afforded the Lakers the benefit of the doubt while they learn a new offense on the fly. Nash is supposed to be the conductor of that offense, but he's missed the past 17 games and it's unclear when he'll return.
“It's early in the year,” said Kevin Durant. “They're a really good team. They've got so many champions. They've got so many great players. So they're going to turn this thing around pretty quickly.”
Durant, however, admitted that he's among the many who are surprised the Lakers are just 9-10. The Thunder, though, seems determined to not get caught sleeping on a slumping team.
“They're a very good team; a lot of talented players and we know what they're capable of,” said Sefolosha. “So we're definitely not going to look at it saying, ‘Oh, we're playing against a team that's down right now.' We've just got to come out and focus on us.”
The formation of the Lakers' revamped super team overshadows the fact that they went through an offseason overhaul that included the addition of six other newcomers in addition to Nash and Howard. Many of those players, namely Chris Duhon, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks, have had to figure out how they fit while acclimating to the same growing pains as the stars.
Through it all, the Lakers shockingly have assembled virtually identical production as they did in the 2009-10 season, their last championship season.
L.A.'s average points, opponent points, assists, steals, field goal percentage and point differential are nearly the same as three years ago. They're averaging more steals and blocks this season, while also holding opponents to a lower field goal percentage.
The biggest differences are turnovers and free throws. The Lakers are averaging three more turnovers this year than in 2009-10 and are shooting a league-worst 66.7 percent from the foul line compared to 76.5 percent three years ago.
So who are these Lakers?
Contenders or pretender?
“I think if you look at teams' records going into games I think you're looking at the wrong things,” Brooks cautioned. “We've always approached every game as their team does a lot of good things and we have to stop them from doing those things. And we have to do the things well for us to win.
“And the records; any given night, any team can beat any team in this league. It's who they're going to be at the end of the season (and that) is going to be a very good team, one of the best in the league.”