BILL PLASCHKE

Lakers' great expectations become two tales of one city

Everything has fallen apart so quickly and left the team with so many questions and so few answers.

That didn't take long.

On Oct. 30, one of the presumably most powerful teams in NBA history opened its season by marching on to a Staples Center floor ringed in blinding belief.

On Sunday, one of the potentially most disappointing teams in NBA history will trudge on to a Staples Center floor drenched in despairing disillusionment,

It is stunning that the Lakers, once a model of smarts and stability, are both of those teams. It is equally startling that, even in Hollywood, this Looney Tunes twist would require only six weeks.

Remember when fans were outraged at the possibility that the Lakers games would not be carried by their television providers? Six weeks later, my die-hard Lakers fan neighbor is one of many who admits he doesn't even rush home from work to watch them anymore.

Remember when an irritated Kevin Durant pointedly refused to comment on the Lakers' potential greatness? Six weeks later, after his Oklahoma City team thrashed the Lakers in a 114-108 victory Friday, Durant actually spoke as if he felt sorry for them.

"People underestimate chemistry in this league," he said.

Chemistry? If you're talking about the explosion of glass beakers and the emission of nauseating gases, well, yeah, this is about chemistry.

Six weeks ago, Metta World Peace predicted the Lakers could win 73 games. Today, with a record of 9-11, they have only six more wins than they've had head coaches.

Six weeks ago, it was predicted the Lakers would win with smart, fundamental basketball. Today, they are last in the league in turnovers, last in free-throw percentage, and 15th in points allowed.

Six weeks ago, Kobe Bryant agreed to pass the torch to Dwight Howard. Earlier this week, on the sidelines in New Orleans, they were publicly and angrily whacking each other with that torch.

Six weeks ago … like a lingering nightmare, the differences between then and now go on and on.

Everyone was once worried sick that Howard would not re-sign here during the summer. Now, after struggling with his back injury and missing more free throws (114) than only three other players have made, it is perhaps Howard who should be worried.

Pau Gasol was once coming off a strong Olympic performance and headed for a nice twilight run with Bryant. Now he's sitting glumly on the bench and on the trading block.

Steve Nash was once the Lakers' new symbol of eternal youth. Now, well, his aging body couldn't even last two games, and his flashiest move has been the opening-night pink sweater and man bag.

Mike Brown once had a new offense and a vote of confidence. Now he's got a permanent seat at his son's Mater Dei High basketball games.

Phil Jackson was once the retired coach the Lakers kept behind glass to be broken only in case of emergency. Now that glass has been shattered and Jackson has been discarded, never to coach here again.

There are those will say it is too early for such alarm. But nearly one-fourth of the season is already complete, and none of these questions even has a whiff of an answer.

Where is the owner?

Ironically, the roots of the Lakers' chaos can be found at what once had been the roots of their stability. Where is owner Jerry Buss? He has not been seen publicly in months amid rampant and sometimes dire speculation about his health. The Lakers have politely said he's unavailable for comment, claimed that he's still running the team, and asked that his privacy be respected.

No matter what's happening, it's clear what's not happening. The Lakers aren't being run with the same calm focus that once made Buss the best owner in professional sports. It is unknown whether it is an ailing Buss who has lost that focus or whether his lieutenants are running amok in his absence, but something has changed.

It is hard to imagine that the vision that Jerry Buss used to build 10 championships would have been involved in the three biggest reasons for this team's sudden downfall: the strange hiring of Mike Brown, the sudden firing of Mike Brown and the refusal to hire Phil Jackson to replace him.

Where is the general manager?

Mitch Kupchak is one of basketball's finest minds, and against all odds has proven himself to be a worthy successor to Jerry West. He could easily fill the void left by Buss' lengthening absence. But Kupchak has been busy baby-sitting the boss' son, Jimmy Buss, in the manner that David Spade once had to mentor Chris Farley in "Tommy Boy."

There is a feeling that if Kupchak had complete basketball power, the Lakers wouldn't be in this mess. That could happen only if Jeanie Buss were given complete control of the team, which many of the Lakers partners and city's power brokers are hoping happens.

But, for now, as long as Jimmy Buss has his father's blessing as the basketball boss, Kupchak must share that throne, and the ball is dropped on hiring Jackson, and a coach who is physically struggling and systematically questionable is dropped on the bench instead.

Where is the coach?

Mike D'Antoni's offensive system will not work with this aging roster. Period. D'Antoni's defensive system has never worked at a championship level. Period. If D'Antoni doesn't alter his philosophy, the Lakers don't have a chance at a title before Bryant retires or skips town. Period.

Where is the future?

Everyone says the Lakers will be saved by the imminent return of Nash. So a 38-year-old point guard not known for his defense and no longer able to run like a kid is going to be the magic wand for this bad defense and chaotic running game? Really?

Some say the Lakers will be saved by trading Gasol for a younger and more athletic forward. So you're going to ship out a two-time champion and legitimate 7-footer who can thrive in the right system? Really?

The answer, if there is one, is in adjustments. From the coach changing schemes to Bryant giving up shots, to Howard working on free throws, to Gasol wiping that dour look off his face, to Kupchak somehow finding a better bench. Everyone is going to have realize that, while this will not be the season they expected, it's still a season that can be saved, as long as they're willing to sacrifice.

The Lakers' equipment guys also need to adjust. You know how Bryant talks about those big-boy pants? They need to order 15 pairs. Now.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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