Lakers At The Midpoint: Holding Together, If Barely

Feb 23, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) shoots the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka (9) during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

Over the season's first half, a chasm opened up between the off-court mood surrounding the Lakers franchise and the team's performance in actual games. At the front-office level and in the media tornado that swirls about the organization at all times, it's been bedlam since the lockout ended. A trade for Chris Paul changed the course of franchise history... for about 10 minutes, when David Stern's cowardice interfered. That set the stage for the brain-scrambling giveaway of Lamar Odom. Mike Brown's takeover of the team from Phil Jackson has been predictably turbulent, with complaints emerging about his rotations, his allocations of playing time and the intensity of his practices. In the ownership suite, a vacuum of authority has set in. Owner Jerry Buss has been out of sight since being hospitalized for blood clots in December, leaving his son Jim to mind the shop. Ken Berger of CBS Sports recently characterized the front office under Jim Buss as an "uncommunicative, rudderless fiasco" rife with "nepotism and nincompoops."

But for a team supposedly in collapse, the Lakers manage to win their share of games. At 20-14 they're nowhere near the top of the Western Conference, but they're tied for fifth and just a game and a half behind the Clippers for the Pacific Division lead. The offense has been middle of the road, the defense a touch better than that. Aside from a five-game run against garbage opponents in mid-January, there haven't been any long winning streaks of note. On the other hand, the Lakers have avoided losing more than three in a row despite having faced one of the league's tougher schedules. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum were rightly elected to start in the All-Star Game. Pau Gasol's had a strong season as well, notwithstanding persistent misimpressions about how fast and severely his game has declined. Under the circumstances, things in Lakerdom have held together pretty nicely.

In past Lakers seasons, the period from All-Star Weekend until the playoffs has generally been about getting healthy, staying interested and fighting for top seed in the conference. This year the goals are different. To begin with, a playoff spot is far from assured. Only two-and-a-half games separate the Lakers from ninth-seed Denver. Coasting is not an option. And the Lakers that appear in this year's playoffs could look a little or much different from the version we see Wednesday night against the Timberwolves. A Dwight Howard showstopper trade is possible. More likely, we see the front office attempt to patch holes in the rotation with clever use of draft picks, the trade exception left over from the Odom deal and whatever cash Jim Buss can swipe from his dad's wallet. To get our heads right for what promises to be a spellbinding home stretch, let's hand out a few first-half awards and flag some things to keep an eye on over the next couple months.

First-Half Team MVP: Kobe Bryant
His scoring efficiency is at career lows. His shooting might get even worse if Mike Brown doesn't start managing his minutes more carefully. Still, Kobe remains an indefatigable offensive weapon who can bulldoze opponents on his best days. Bynum might be the player the Lakers can least afford to lose, but over the first half of the season Kobe played 260 more minutes and therefore takes home this made-up award.

First-Half LVP: Metta World Peace
If you just watched MWP play offense, you'd assume he'd been taught the game of basketball moments before taking the court. How is this the same guy who once averaged over 20 a game in Sacramento? Who knows? That player is long, long gone. In his place is a wildly off-target chucker who's occasionally good for some adequate defense.

Most Pleasant Surprise of the First Half: Health
An old team grinding through a condensed lockout schedule seemed a recipe for injuries galore. Whether it's luck or excellent work on the part of the training staff, our fears have so far not come to pass. Kobe and Pau have played in all 34 games. Bynum's missed just four and those were due to suspension. Steve Blake, who sat out nearly a month with a rib injury, is the only rotation regular to miss significant time for health reasons.

Biggest Disappointment of the First Half: The Coaching Staff
Head coach Mike Brown arrived with a reputation for coaching defense. On his watch the Lakers have fallen from sixth to 12th in defensive efficiency. Assistants Ettore Messina and John Kuester came billed as wizardly "offensive coordinators" who'd inject variety and zip to the Laker attack. Some of the sets look different, but the endgame offense is as stale and iso-heavy as ever. What was the problem with Brian Shaw again?

Reason for Optimism in the Second Half: The Schedule
From here on out the Lakers will enjoy more home games, slightly more rest and worse opponents. Here's how their pre- and post-All Star slates compare:

Home Games

Road Games

Opponents' Winning %

3 Games In Row

Back-To-Backs

Pre-ASG

16

18

0.521

Once

10

Post-ASG

17

15

0.504

Never

7

Reason for Pessimism in the Second Half: Fatigue
Kobe and Pau both average more than 37 minutes a night. Bynum's 35-minute average is easily his career high. It's hard to spell those guys when roster slots four through 12 are the worst in the league, but Mike Brown hasn't helped matters by keeping his Big Three on the court even after games are out of reach. If this keeps up, what will the stars have left in the tank come late April?

Toughest Stretch of the Second Half: April 11-22
In mid-April, as the regular season winds down, the Lake Show will play seven times in 12 days. Three of those games are against the unkillable Spurs, owners of the fourth-best record in the league. The Mavericks, Nuggets and Thunder also drop by for visits. A nervous time awaits Laker fans if a postseason berth is still in play.

Easiest Stretch of the Second Half: February 29-March 9
Right out the All-Star gate, the Lakers have an opportunity to fluff their win total. Sure, the March 4 rematch with the Miami Heat is a brutal challenge, but otherwise this stretch coughs up the Timberwolves twice alongside gutter rats Sacramento, Detroit and Washington.

Story to Watch in the Second Half: Who's Coming? Who's Going?
Kobe, Pau and Drew are a championship-worthy core. The balance of the roster is useless. Without significant upgrades somewhere, everything about this team screams second-round exit. Standing pat isn't an available strategy for Mitch Kupchak, who's under pressure to salvage something from the Odom weirdness and save maybe the final season of Kobe's prime. It's inconceivable that he won't have made some kind of move by the March 15 trade deadline.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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