Are The Lakers Flipping The Switch?

The simple answer is no.

When asked last week about the idea that the Lakers may “flip the switch” Kobe Bryant responded in a scoffing, almost disbelieving manner, “”I think it’s gradual improvement. It’s an evolution as the season goes on… It’s a gradual process. All of a sudden, you look up and we’re playing extremely well now. We must have ‘flipped the switch.’ That’s not it. It’s been a process of steps. Some steps are bigger than others. Some steps are more noticeable than others. But they’re there.”

I think Kobe has it right and also think the reason so many veteran teams have been accused of waiting half a season before “flipping a switch” is that they aren’t apt to press the panic button after a few small bumps in the road. And while overreacting to a few bad losses may be good in the short term it won’t necessarily breed success for the long haul.

Winning the NBA title is less like flipping a switch than it is climbing a mountain. The difference between teams that have won the title and the ones still trying to reach that summit is that the ex-champions already know the way. They understand what it takes to get there.

It doesn’t mean that they have to try any less hard or play with any less passion. It just means that they realize that losing three out of four in December won’t in of itself cost them the championship. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The Lakers under Phil Jackson could never be accused of being the bastion of consistency during their regular seasons. There have been many up and down moments. Yet if there is defining characteristic that carries through for all of Phil Jackson’s Lakers championship teams it is this: They never panicked under pressure.

Think back to the greatest Lakers moments of the Phil Jackson-Lakers era. Coming back in the fourth quarter against the Blazers in the Conference Finals. Down three games to two against against the Kings in ‘02 and pulling through. Same against Celtics last season.

There’s a term Bill Walton used to use when delivering one of his patented cliche ridden diatribes during NBA telecasts. Competitive greatness he called it. Playing your best when your best is needed. Is it hackneyed and sappy? Maybe. But that doesn’t make it any less true. And it is a quality the Lakers have in spades.

Still, because the Lakers seem to carry this blase attitude with them, even during long struggling stretches of the regular season, I think at times it comes across to fans as a sort of  aloofness and as a deficiency of passion. As if there is a general lack of interest in winning basketball games that aren’t of the playoff variety. Yet I don’t think that’s the case at all. In truth this is probably the Lakers greatest strength.

So don’t be surprised if the Lakers may yet stumble one or two more times this season before the playoffs arise. Surely the same commentators who are calling this the turning point switch flipping moment of the season will be the first to bemoan the Lakers lack of consistency or focus if and when they suffer a two game losing streak.

But don’t expect the Lakers to be worried too much. They know that developing the rhythm necessary for championship basketball doesn’t happen overnight, rather it is the crescendo of hard work and practice, of consistency and timing, and quite often, a little bit of luck.  And if they manage to wrangle in a bit of the latter then I have a feeling that they’ll be their in the end. Whether the pundits claimed they have flipped the switch or not.

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