The Los Angeles Lakers reached the midpoint of the season as undisputed champions of failed expectations.
It is not just that they are playing poorly, it is the disarray of a foundering team expected to contend for a championship. Coaches, stars, role players, all unhappy and not hesitant to mention it.
A team blessed with, in theory, four superstars (Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol) was expected to contend for a title but are 18-25 after 43 games of an 82-game season. If the play-offs were to start today, the Lakers would be watching at home on their super-sized TV screens.
The season is turning into a soap opera, with hourly drama and denunciations. It hearkens back to the club's 2004 Days of Turmoil when Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant were at loggerheads.
Just five games into the season the Lakers fired coach Mike Brown. They replaced him with run-and-gun aficionado Mike D'Antoni, who seems unable to fit two elite big men (Gasol, Howard) into his system.
Gasol has complained he needs to get the ball close to the basket. Howard has complained he does not get the ball enough. There have been cries to trade Gasol, then new cries to trade Howard. Gasol wants to start again. Bryant has to shoot less. Metta World Peace needs to shoot less. There is tension between Bryant and Howard.
The only constant is the failure of a highly talented team to win consistently, despite the fattest wage bill in the NBA, at US$100 million (Dh367m).
Several times someone in the club has declared that "the season starts for us on (fill in the blank)". Which has always been followed by more defeat.
"Have you ever watched an All-Star game? It's god-awful," D'Antoni said in a moment of candour. "Everybody gets the ball and goes one on one and then they play no defence. That's our team. That's us. We're an All-Star team."
Last week, they tried a team meeting to clear the air, then went out and lost to the Memphis Grizzlies. When the team returned home on Thursday management felt compelled to give D'Antoni the dreaded vote of confidence.
Then came a whisper of hope. The Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz on Friday and, in their most significant victory of the season, beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. In each game, Bryant reverted to being more of a facilitator, handing out 14 assists in each win.
"I think we've found our identity," Bryant said.
Bryant has experienced brief bouts of sharing the ball in the past, but always found it difficult to control his "shoot-first" impulses.
"We just have to learn to play together," Howard said. Time is running short to find answers.
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