The Los Angeles Lakers have unquestionably exceeded expectations this season, racing out to a record of seven wins and five losses. Most pundits considered the team to be one of the worst in the league, but at the time of this writing, they find themselves tied for fourth place in the Western Conference.
Along the way, they have picked up wins over quality teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets, and most impressively, the Golden State Warriors. However, the road is about to get even more difficult over the next week and a half, and it’s going to be a major test of the young Lakers’ resolve.
The schedule makers weren’t kind to the Lakers when they booked contests against the San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors (twice!), and the Atlanta Hawks over just a nine-day span. Over the course of those six games, the Lakers’ opponents will have an average winning percentage of 73 percent.
Even worse, half of the six-game mini-marathon comes against either the Warriors or the Hawks, and both teams figure to have a little extra motivation to take it to Los Angeles after suffering upset losses to them earlier this season. The Lakers snapped the Hawks’ unbeaten record and ended Warriors’ guard Stephen Curry’s streak of 157 games with a made three-pointer.
Bottom line, the Lakers won’t be underestimated by either team anytime soon.
Just to add to the gloom and doom, here are some of the players Los Angeles will have to battle in the next nine days: Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Dwight Howard, Paul Milsap. That’s just about a who’s who of the top players in the league, and while some are past their prime, they still have all the veteran know-how to exploit the Lakers.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the next six games are hopeless. Far from it. The Lakers have piqued the curiosity of so many this season largely because they have defeated teams that, on paper, they shouldn’t be able to, and this tough stretch of games provides them with the opportunity to do so again.
A lot of credit for their success has to be given to new coach Luke Walton, who has not only modified the Lakers’ style of play, but he has also changed the team’s culture. In addition to a spacing-friendly offense, Los Angeles also has a new confidence about them, a swagger that comes from believing that there is no challenge that can’t be conquered. Losses sting, but they haven’t yet dampened the spirits of this up-and-coming squad, who approach every game expecting victory.
We have seen these Lakers get outplayed, we have seen them fall to teams with more talent, but we have never seen them back down. Despite all of the naysayers, they believe, and that may be all that truly matters.
Regardless of what their record is after running this six-game gauntlet, that belief will remain intact. The Lakers will be ok.
Fans, on the other hand, are a different story. Heading into the season, nearly all pundits (myself included) spouted the standard “it’s not about wins and losses for this team” cliche. It’s still true to an extent, but with winning the expectations have slowly risen, especially now that the words “playoffs” and “Lakers” aren’t followed by fits of laughter.
Losses can no longer be met with quasi-optimistic sentiments about tanking or draft picks since that’s clearly not the path the team is on at this juncture. As excitement has risen, the numbness has washed away, but the downside is that losses can feel that much more painful.
A prolonged losing streak, therefore, could lead to a bit of discomfort in the massive Lakers fan base.
Realistically, the most likely outcome is that the next six games will hurt a bit, but patience is required. Winning is fun, and this season so far has been a blast, but it still isn’t everything. Keep an eye on how the Lakers play, on how they adapt to some of the best the NBA has to offer.
If they can meet the challenge head on, and raise their level of play to match their opponents, that in and of itself is a victory. It may sound hollow, little things like that do matter in the long run.
The next six games may not be chock-full of wins, but the opportunity for growth is tremendous. Of course, if the Lakers go on a tear and overcome the elites, celebrate the victory. It’s time for that after spending the last few seasons keeping an uneasy eye on lottery odds.
If the wins don’t come, however, enjoy the development process. Watch the young players grow, and know that the foundation is being poured for a bright future. Wins may have brought expectations, but even losses can provide opportunities for progress.