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The Lakers are in ruins, and there is no easy fix

The Lakers aren't used to being this bad. Right now, it looks like there's no way out.

Almost a third of the league has begun the season with three straight losses. Those nine 0-3 teams include the Rockets, who a) are a presumptive title contender and b) have lost each of their games by at least 20 points. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bad start more dispiriting than that experienced by the L.A. Lakers.

L.A. has lost to three teams not expected by most to be a playoff factors in the West: the Timberwolves, Kings and Mavericks. The loss in Sacramento was an incredible blowout -- the other two defeats were at home. Those three teams are, along with the Lakers, expected to be among the seven lottery teams in the West.

That the Lakers are 0-3 but haven't yet played a single elite West team is a bad sign for whatever delusional playoff chase management believed possible. It's going to be incredibly tough to find wins in the West if the Lakers can't beat Minnesota at home or stay within screaming distance of Sacramento.

Somehow, the actual play on the court has looked worse than their record. The defense has been the league's third worst (again, against lower-tier teams) and the offense isn't much better.

We had an idea that D'Angelo Russell -- the promising rookie from Ohio State that L.A. took over Jahlil Okafor -- would have a steep learning curve as a point guard. Russell has a grand total of 27 points on 30 field goal attempts this season, and just five assists total.

We knew that the frontcourt would take time to jell, with young Julius Randle learning to work with fallen star Roy Hibbert, cagey vet Brandon Bass and stretcher Ryan Kelly. But the interior defense has been remarkably porous, beyond even low expectations. Neither Hibbert nor Kelly look remotely interested in stopping opponents -- at least we know the former has the ability to be good defensively.

After rejecting NBA modernity by dismissing the power of the three-pointer last season, Byron Scott has pushed his offense in the other direction entirely: the Lakers are taking more threes per game (34) than any other team. Last season, 22 percent of L.A.'s field goals came from behind the arc. So far this season, it's 38 percent. The problem is that the Lakers can't really shoot threes efficiently. L.A.'s hitting less than 30 percent of its triples.

Suspect No. 1 for the Lakers' offensive problems is Kobe Bryant. Kobe knows this: He admitted after the Dallas loss on Sunday that he's been awful, and called himself the No. 200 player in the league. He meant this to be self-deprecating and it was probably a little delusional, as he's been even worse than that. Kobe is shooting 31 percent from the floor, and has hit just six of his 29 threes this season. Yes, he's taken 29 threes in three games despite playing 27 minutes per game and despite being a career 33 percent three-point shooter.

This lowlight is indicative of the dire straits the Lakers' offense is in. Kobe sets up in isolation. His wings work their way around the perimeter, but Kobe's already decided to shoot. His only obvious release valve is Hibbert, a player whose range is about 3 feet. Hibbert is set up 18 feet from the hoop and calling for the ball. Kobe instead does ... this.

Wesley Matthews is an excellent defender, despite coming off a torn Achilles. But damn, Kobe.

* * *

There is a path out of hell for awful teams: the NBA draft. The Lakers seem institutionally skeptical of rebuilding through the draft, but they have begun down that path -- intentionally or not -- by landing Randle in 2014 and Russell in 2015. L.A. also hit the jackpot with Jordan Clarkson at No. 46 in 2014.

The Lakers are going to be awful again, it would appear, yet there's a substantial chance they will lose their lottery pick due to the Steve Nash trade years ago. Unless it lands among the top three picks after the lottery, it will go to the Philadelphia 76ers, a similarly bad team that has fully embraced rebuilding through the draft.

The Lakers do not tank. It is not in the franchise's corporate DNA. This is a team that has won more titles than anyone but the Celtics, and is a club that rarely languishes outside the playoffs. The Lakers know a lot of things. They do not know how to lose.

So, when it is apparent to just about everyone else in the league that the Lakers will be mediocre at best, when everyone understands that even good teams miss the playoffs in the West, when it's perfectly clear to those outside the Lakers' bubble that no single obtainable free agent will turn this bunch into contenders, L.A. still shoots for the stars.

The Lakers still chase Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge fruitlessly. When they strike out, they trade for limited upside Roy Hibbert, they sign 30-year-old Brandon Bass, they sign 29-year-old Lou Williams. The Lakers never had to learn how to lose in the NBA, and so they keep building like they are trying to win.

The Sixers, of course, know how to lose. For the third straight year, Philadelphia is leveraging its disinterest in competitiveness to amass assets. Instead of wasting cap space on players like Hibbert, Bass and Williams, the Sixers leave space open to soak up problem contracts for other teams. This service has a price, and the price is typically a draft pick or two. Consider this: the Lakers are spending $26 million in cap space on Hibbert, Williams and Bass. The Sixers are spending $22 million in cap space on the waived contracts of JaVale McGee and Gerald Wallace.

The Lakers didn't give up any assets (other than unleveraged opportunity cost) in acquiring the three veterans. But in soaking up McGee and Wallace, the Sixers also acquired a protected first-round pick and a swap option. This may not amount to much in the end (swap options are a bit useless right now for a team as bad as Philadelphia), but it shows an understanding of how NBA rebuilding works. Nothing L.A. has done gives confidence they understand or are willing to accept this reality.

* * *

This misinterpretation of how NBA teams rebuild has resulted in Byron Scott coaching the L.A. Lakers again. Scott was once a promising coach, someone you could imagine doing great things in the NBA. Arguably, Scott did great things as coach of the New Jersey Nets. He never recovered from his time in post-LeBron Cleveland, however.

His defensive schemes are ill-suited for the modern NBA, and he has a remarkable lack of influence on his team's offensive style, it would seem. He clearly has no rein on Kobe, although this isn't a surprise since no coach has ever really had Kobe under his control for more than a game or two.

Scott is a controlling personality, though, and it seems that, in his quest to exert his will over these Lakers, the coach is clamping down on Russell. This could work: after all, Scott coached Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving in their early years. That's not luck, that's being in the right place at the right time. Scott deserves credit for assisting in those point guards' development, and that should provide hope for Russell's future.


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Except that if this season continues barreling down the path of abject embarrassment, Scott cannot come back next year. The Lakers do not retain losing coaches, even legends. (Ask Rudy Tomjanovich or Mike D'Antoni.) Patience doesn't exist in the Lakers vocabulary. And most importantly, Jim Buss is up against a deadline. If the Lakers are contending by 2017 or 2018 (depending on which Buss sibling you ask), he'll be asked to turn the reins of the team over to sister Jeanie.

Jim Buss can't afford too much patience. He can't afford time for Scott to mold Russell into a top-flight point guard, which is time under Scott that will also be spent watching blowout losses to mediocre opponents, time spent watching teams drop 80 in the paint on the Lakers.

Scott may not survive this season, let alone enough games to actually sculpt Russell. Already Scott has put himself in the public crosshairs by going on two tremendous rants about his team's softness in the wake of the Wolves and Kings losses. Coaches of bad teams who make the news by ranting about their team's lack of preparation and resolve don't survive in the NBA. And the Lakers are less patient than the average NBA team as it is. Ask Mike Brown.

The Lakers are damned every which way this season. The only hope of retaining their desperately needed draft pick is to be a 20-wins-or-less club. Firing Scott could alienate Kobe. Keeping him would just delay the inevitable and potentially stunt the youth corps' growth. Letting Russell answer to a domineering coach who almost assuredly won't be back in a year while having to defer to Kobe, Nick Young and Williams is a horrible sort of career training and a nasty little education. Leaving Randle and Clarkson to suffer in this mire can't be great.

In a way, the Lakers have few meaningful decisions to make -- Fire Scott? Trade the vets for whatever you can cobble? Shop Kobe? Their fate has already been decided by past failures, ranging from the Nash trade to the Dwight Howard debacle to the massive Kobe extension. In a way, there's nothing for the Lakers to do but suffer.

What a time to be alive.