HOUSTON -- This was supposed to be a 'tweener year for Lakers. Spurned by Dwight Howard in the offseason, the organization embraced a hiccup in its run of spectacular success.
The plan was to field a team good enough to compete and placate a rapacious fan base but also maintain the financial flexibility to rebuild quickly in the next two summers.
But after the Lakers lost for the ninth time in 10 games Wednesday, 113-99, to Howard and the Houston Rockets, it has grown apparent that they accomplished only one of the two objectives.
"After a month or so, the team was so much fun to watch and we were above .500," General Manager Mitch Kupchak told the Register. "Kobe (Bryant) and (Steve) Nash had yet to return.
"So we felt the best was yet to come. And then, lo and behold, the circumstances change."
Wednesday's loss embodied the season's maladies. The Lakers committed 18 turnovers, which led to 26 points. The shooting stalled.
Nick Young led the Lakers with 25 points off the bench, while Pau Gasol recorded 21 points and 12 rebounds.
But the problems weren't with the offense.
They gave up a huge game to James Harden, who scored 17 of his game-high 38 points in the third quarter, while Howard added 20 points and 13 rebounds.
"Seems to be the same story every game," Jodie Meeks said.
Which makes you wonder just how long the Lakers can continue like this before Kupchak decides to turn the page.
The Lakers could become one of the most active teams in the six weeks leading up to the trade deadline, loaded with expiring contracts and a desire to slip under the salary cap.
The preference, of course, would be to break out of this funk and compete for a playoff spot -- however unrealistic.
Eight of the Lakers' next nine games are on the road, including a designated road game against the Clippers on Friday.
"Our schedule is clearly rugged," Kupchak said, "and if we perform well during the most rugged stretch of the season, then that bodes well going forward."
But what of the more likely scenario, if the opposite is true?
"If we dig a deeper hole," Kupchak continued, "that may affect what you may consider to be the future of the season. I think the five or six weeks leading up to the trade deadline is important."
The Lakers have a short window to build another contender before Bryant retires, likely after his $48.5 million extension expires in 2016.
While Lakers management aims for the long term, the present continues to befuddle Coach Mike D'Antoni.
"We're asking a lot of these guys," he said. "They're going out, (and) they're playing as hard as they can. They run out of steam, and other teams are a little fresher and they get us."
Two months after repeatedly battering Dwight Howard with intentional fouls paid off with a Lakers win, the Lakers went back to the Hack-A-Dwight strategy Wednesday.
Howard still can't shoot free throws, but it didn't make much of a difference as the Rockets lead ballooned from 13 when the Lakers began fouling with 4:41 left in the game to 17 when they finally gave it up less than two minutes later.
D'Antoni hasn't much budged from his opinion when he coached Howard.
"It's nothing I like," he said. "It's an ugly game, but you try to win. That's the rules, so we try to do it."
His players echoed the sentiment, with Chris Kaman acknowledging "some people think it's a gimmick."
At one point, Kaman clarified to Howard that he wasn't fouling him out of malice. He repeatedly tried to foul Howard, but when there was no call, smacked him harder.
"I was like, 'Man, I don't want to mess you up or whatever. I don't really care, but I just wanted to let you know ... this is what I'm supposed to do," Kaman said.
Two days after the Lakers waived Shawne Williams, Kupchak said it was a strategic move in case the Lakers suffer another injury and need to sign another guard.
The Lakers roster was full with 15 players and, if they needed to add another body, would have needed to waive a player with a guaranteed contract.
Kupchak called Williams "just a casualty of what has taken place in our backcourt this year and me looking out for the franchise."
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