by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Last Friday, while doing our weekly guest spot on Brian Blessing’s Sportsbook Radio show (which airs live from Fremont Street) on 920 AM in Las Vegas, we were joined by the director of the race and sports book at the adjacent Golden Nugget, Tony Miller. Among the subjects broached with Miller was the NBA, and how pro hoops was treating his establishment in the first six weeks of the season.

“I’ll be in pretty good shape,” said Miller, “as long as Miami and the Lakers continue to struggle.”

Miller, and his counterparts in town, know that like the Packers in the NFL, and the Yankees in baseball, the Heat and Lakers are both very “public” teams and figure to be wagered upon heavily by the masses. And when any of those sides underachieve against the number, it’s usually good for the bottom line at the sports books.

Miami’s problems, however, have mostly not included winning outright; while the Heat have been back-and-forth against the spread, and have flashed indifferent form on many occasions (as they’ve done the past two years in the first month of the season), they’re still winning most of their games straight up and figure to be in the mix once more next spring as they seek their third straight trip to the NBA Finals (and second consecutive championship).

As for the Lakers? We’re not so sure.

A quick check of the NBA standings as of midweek ought to be at least a little bit alarming to Laker Nation (at least its rational-thinking wing). As of December 12, L.A. was sitting at 9-13 in the modest Pacific Division, closer to Sacramento and Phoenix at the bottom of the table than to the Clippers and surprising Golden State on the top end. Moreover, the Lake Show was sitting at 12th place in Western Conference, four spots beneath the cut line for the playoffs.

The consensus opinion around the league is that the Lakers have plenty of time to fix things, will eventually straighten themselves out, and get back into the playoff mix. And that sometime after New Year’s, with all of the parts finally in place and new HC Mike D’Antoni’s system having had proper time to ferment, the Lakers could even be ready to make a run at the title.

But there is also a growing faction of observers who wonder if the Lake Show is indeed going to be able to put the pieces together at all this season. And while it wasn’t even a subject to consider a month ago, the notion that the Lakers could miss the playoffs entirely seems much more plausible to objective pro hoops observers (a group in which most in Lakers Nation do not hold membership).

The fact is that distress signals from the Lakers are hard to ignore. The early knee-jerk reaction (most believe at the urgent behest of owner Jerry Buss) to jettison HC Mike Brown barely a week into the new season was hardly a sign of stability. Nothing became of the brief flirtation with Phil Jackson and his return to the sidelines; instead, Mike D’Antoni was brought in from outside the organization to succeed Brown. But such course corrections after the beginning of a season are disruptive at best, as D’Antoni would be trying to implement his new uptempo system on the fly, while the elements of the Princeton offense that Brown (with the blessing of Kobe Bryant) worked all offseason and preseason to install have been shunned to the dustbin.

Even Magic Johnson has his reservations. The Magic Man, whose official capacity is now as a partner in the new ownership group of the Los Angeles Dodgers, didn’t hold back when local scribes asked him about the plight of the Lakers after the press conference which announced the signing of pitcher Zack Greinke to Johnson’s new team. And D’Antoni’s system was in Magic’s cross hairs.

“What the coach has to do is say I have a certain philosophy, but I don’t have the players to play that scheme and that system, but what I do have is two of the best 7-footers in the game,” Johnson said. “When Pau Gasol was on that block, he averaged 18 points. He shot 53 percent. And he is the best passing big man in the game.

“But you have him at the free-throw line. That makes no sense. That’s not his game. His game is catch it on the low block, face his man and make a move to the cup. He has great moves.”

Johnson wasn’t done with his critique of the D’Antoni philosophy, and its awkward fit at Staples Center. “His (D’Antoni’s) system doesn’t fit the talent that the Lakers have,” said Magic. “You can’t run with this team. Where’s the runners? You got one dude who can get up and down the court, and that’s Kobe (Bryant). Ron (Metta World Peace), love him, but he’s slow. Both our big men are not fast guys. So maybe I should scale it back. I run if it’s there. If not, just like us, Showtime, we’d run it down. If we got the layup, good. If we don’t, Kareem, come here, bail us out.”

A recent home loss to the lowly, Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic was particularly galling. The Lakers held a seven-point lead in the middle of the fourth quarter of the December 2 encounter, but the Magic closed the game on a 36-17 run to take a 113-103 victory.

“How does the Orlando Magic score 40 points in the fourth quarter in Staples Center? Are you kidding me? That should never happen,” Johnson said.

We at TGS were a bit skeptical about all of the title coronation talk regarding the Lakers long before the regular season began, unconvinced that the additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to the mix were going to automatically catapult the Lake Show back to the Finals. Projections such as the 73 wins forecast by Metta (Ron Artest) World Peace were laughable, even though some in Laker Nation took it seriously.

We weren’t even thinking that Mike Brown might be canned a week into the season. Instead, among other things, we pointed out durability issues with both of the new acquisitions, citing the increasing number of games the aging Nash has missed in recent seasons, and the fact Howard was returning to action from serious back surgery.

While Howard has slowly worked his way back into game shape (though observers say he’s still playing at probably 80-85% of capacity), Nash has been sidelined since the first week of the season with a lingering shin injury that threatens to keep him out for at least another few weeks...and perhaps longer. Meanwhile, Gasol has missed action over the past week as he deals with knee tendinitis. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant has been logging more minutes than he has at this time of the season for the past few years. Considering some of Bryant’s more-frequent physical breakdowns the past few years, the Lakers are at even greater risk as their most prized commodity seems in added jeopardy of injury due to his heavier workload.

A popular theory at Staples Center is that all will be fine once Nash returns to active duty, given his comfort with the D’Antoni system that he orchestrated with such aplomb a few years ago in Phoenix. Indeed, a vintage Nash would seem the perfect triggerman for the D’Antoni offense. But the “vintage Nash” was last seen in the middle of the past decade, not the 2012-13 season; the fact is that Nash has been a decreasing force in the league the past few years, which is not unexpected for a point guard not too far from his 40th birthday. D’Antoni had also surrounded Nash with several racehorses in Phoenix that were well-suited to the uptempo system. Not so with the Lakers.

There are more problems than Nash’s injury, as backup Steve Blake has also been sidelined by a strained abdomen. Now there is word the Lakers are considering signing veteran G Delonte West and his considerable baggage (remember, this is a guy the White House couldn’t grant security clearance when West’s Dallas Mavericks were invited to celebrate their 2010-11 NBA title with President Obama). We’d say the potential addition of Delonte West looks more than a bit like an act of desperation.

Perhaps more than any offense in the league, D’Antoni’s requires functional point guard play. Minus Nash, and with Blake hurting, the Lakers might be as weak at the position as any team in the loop. No wonder GM Mitch Kupchak is inquiring about Delonte West.

At the moment, the Lakers’ offense is a hodgepodge of post-ups and isolation sets for Kobe, neither of which are hallmarks of the D’Antoni system. Although team defensive stat numbers are not so terrible (ranking near the middle of the league in many categories), shrewd observers know better; backcourt penetration would be a problem with Nash, Bryant and an aging Metta World Peace around as the primary perimeter defenders. The return of Nash, while theoretically helping the D’Antoni offense, would cause the coach to do more camouflaging for Nash’s deficiencies on the stop end. The Lakers are modest at best, suspect at worst, as a defensive unit.

Still, the idea was that with Gasol and Dwight Howard protecting the rim, the defense would be good enough to allow them to win games with their offense, but Gasol’s absence and indifferent form have scuttled those plans, too.

There is also a sneaking suspicion that the talent on hand was spectacularly overrated, that the Lakers, despite their collection of stars, are not a great collection of athletes. There are several components well over 30 years of age, and the team simply doesn’t run that well. In fact, they’re slow. Showtime, this ain’t.

Now, about the playoffs. Already it would seem as if Oklahoma City and San Antonio are far over the horizon in the West. Ditto for Memphis. And probably the Clippers, too, as short of injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, the “other” L.A. team looks destined to achieve the 53 to 57-win category.

Most diehard Laker fans are now thinking that the fifth spot in the West is the most-likely landing spot for the postseason, but even that might be a bit, or more than a bit, ambitious. Golden State has been a revelation in the early going and entered Thursday with a 15-7 mark after a shock win at Miami. And remember that the Warriors have been doing their damage the past several weeks minus C Andrew Bogut, who figures to return sometime after New Year’s. Within closer reach are Utah and Dallas, although both have already won at Staples Center, and the Mavs are ahead of the Lakers in the standings despite Dirk Nowitzki having yet to take the court this term. The Mavs figure to be much better when big Dirk returns.

If you’re counting, that’s seven teams in the West playoff queue, and we haven’t yet mentioned the Lakers. And there are four others (including Denver, Houston, Portland, and Minnesota, now with Kevin Love back in the fold) which as of mid-December were all ahead of the Lakers in the conference table.

Those aren’t all of the concerns for the Lake Show. The schedule broke very kindly in the first quarter of the season, with 13 of L.A.’s first 21 games at home, yet they’re only 7-6 SU as host. The slate will get tougher. Moreover, lightweights Sacramento, Orlando, and Cleveland have all beaten the Lakers. They’re only 2-6 SU on the road entering Thursday night’s game at the Knicks.

And then there are some other issues lingering behind the scenes. Gasol’s role on the team seems up in the air, not only with his knee problems, but also rumors that his relationship with Bryant is again damaged, and trade rumors floating (the Raptors and T-wolves reportedly interested).

Moreover, Kobe’s peculiarities make chemistry dicey even in the best of situations (indeed, the Lakers have often bordered upon dysfunctional when Kobe’s single-mindedness hasn’t been check-mated by the pervasive influence of Phil Jackson, who at times couldn’t even solve the Kobe riddle). There are indicators that Howard’s relationship with Kobe is chilly, and big Dwight (still slated to be a free agent after this season) has already dropped some hints that he might be looking to move elsewhere in the offseason. Many NBA insiders are not surprised, reckoning that a presence like Howard is not going to want to continue taking a back seat to Bryant. And Kobe himself is prone to petulance; remember his one-time trade demands, which became very audible in the offseason prior to 2007-08. More than a few NBA observers believe Kobe could easily decide to reignite the trade talk if convinced the Lake Show is headed in the wrong direction, making his sixth title (of which sources say Kobe is obsessed to attain to put him on equal footing with Michael Jordan in the ring count) look unlikely in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, while ol’ Doc Buss was said to be behind the urgent dismissal of Mike Brown in early November, he has been rarely seen lately amid rumors that his health might not be well. And son Jimmy, whose role in the organization has increased with his dad receding further into the background, has demonstrated little front-office acumen, and is said to not see eye-to-eye on many things with GM Kupchak.

We’re looking real hard to find some positives in the current plight of the Lakers, but other than the fact that things could improve when Nash finally returns to active duty, and there still remain 60-some games to find their traction, it takes a glass half-full sort to foresee any positives with the Lake Show. And that overlooks the biggest development of all.

The Lakers just don’t look like a very good team right now. And that’s never a good sign.

Following are a handful of other NBA “trouble spots” we would watch as the schedule moves into mid-December.

Charlotte...The Bobcats reached their 2011-12 win total of seven by Thanksgiving weekend. But they haven’t won straight up since thru December 12 (losing nine in a row) and have covered just 4 of their last 12 overall. Although improved from last season’s 7-59 train wreck that was also partially caused by a spate of injuries, and the roster has been fortified by serviceable additions such as Gs Ramon Sessions & Ben Gordon and Kentucky rookie F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Bobcats have stopped playing defense, allowing 100 points or more in their last seven losses thru Dec. 12. Charlotte isn’t as easy a touch as it was a year ago, but at best the Bobcats look a spoiler in the East. The playoff talk has quieted quickly at Time Warner Cable Arena.

Phoenix...That was a big win for HC Alvin Gentry (left) on Wednesday night when the Suns outlasted visiting Memphis, 82-80. It broke a debilitating 7-game losing streak for Phoenix and temporarily quieted the war drums that were beating loudly for Gentry’s ouster and prompted a vote of confidence from owner Robert Sarver (not the sort of guy we’d want to trust) earlier in the week. The Suns had not looked good in their 7-game skid, with a loss margin of over 12 ppg and being outrebounded almost 7 caroms pg in the slump, and the defense continues as one of the NBA’s worst (allowing 103 ppg). Gentry has been trying different lineup combinations, and has moved explosive sixth-man Shannon Brown into a starting role, but we’re not sure how many answers are on the current roster. Most suspect that Gentry, who has steered the Suns to only one playoff berth in his previous three seasons, remains on the hot seat.

Toronto...We feel a bit sorry for HC Dwane Casey, whose Raptors appeared to be an improved bunch in the first week of the season, especially with new Gs Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields appearing to provide a dynamic combination on the perimeter. But injuries to both have stunted Toronto’s progress, and subsequent injuries to frontliners Andrea Bargnani and Linas Kleiza have further thinned the ranks. In fact, Casey was down each of those four plus swingman Alan Anderson for last Wednesday’s game vs. Brooklyn, which was Toronto’s sixth straight loss (the first five on an extended Western road swing). Without all hands on deck, Casey has had little chance to get his lineup healthy and together at one time, which has been an extra problem with new faces Lowry and Fields not getting enough work with their new teammates. The season is quickly spinning out of control at Air Canada Centre, and Casey’s status could soon become an issue if the bleeding doesn’t stop.

Washington...The Wizards have cobbled together a few wins, but the offense remains on short rations as long as catalyst G John Wall remains sidelined with knee problems, and now the Wizards are minus their best defender with Trevor Ariza on the shelf with a strained calf. The recent return of frontliner Nene has provided a spark, and the team continues to play hard most nights for HC Randy Wittman, but the suspicion around the league is that the entire regime at Verizon Center likely gets blown up after the season, with GM Ernie Grunfeld first in the line of fire.

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