This year, as it was in 2011-12, it’s not simply a Battle for L.A., but for the Pacific Division. Both teams enter the season having improved, at least on paper, with the Clips adding Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, and Jamal Crawford to the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin core. How will this tweaked Clippers lineup match up with the Steve Nash-led Lakers? Not surprisingly, the answer might revolve around Odom. Lakers fans can certainly give Clips loyalists a tutorial in the whole “L.O. as X factor” thing.
The home opener (Oct. 30 vs. Dallas) is always a huge deal and will give Staples Center its first look at Nash in home colors, but this is the first game against an upper-tier foe. (Interestingly, the Lakers and Clips basically bookend their seasons, playing the last game in the season series on April 7, a day that could have major playoff implications.)
2. Dec. 25 vs. New York
The Knicks certainly have questionable ownership and this whole Melo/Amare thing isn’t working out quite as planned, but we’re still talking Knicks vs. Lakers, Christmas Day. L.A. vs. New York. Aesthetically, it might be a little cooler if they scheduled this one at the Garden -- snowy day, big beauty shots of the tree at Rockefeller Center, ice skating and all that -- but palm trees are nice, too, and the Knicks represent a little twist to recent Xmas opponents.
3. Jan. 17 vs. Miami
We won’t know yet if the Lakers are truly a championship-caliber team, but that won’t keep anyone from projecting this as a potential preview of the Finals, particularly if the Lakers enter with a strong record. It’s always intriguing to see how the Lakers defend LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but the big question is how efficiently L.A. scores the ball. In the Big Three Era, Miami typically has smothered the Lakers. With Nash guiding the offense and a still-sizable (ha!) advantage in the post, can the purple and gold flip the script? A great measuring stick game against an elite defensive team, and also likely more meaningful as a point of comparison because the Lakers’ visit to Miami (Feb. 10) comes at the end of a season-long seven-game road trip.
4. Jan. 30 at Phoenix
The reconstructed Suns -- with Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, and Michael Beasley running with Marcin Gortat,Channing Frye and Jared Dudley -- likely won’t be very good, but that’s not the point here. Nash plays in Phoenix wearing another uniform for the first time since he left Dallas following the ’03-’04 season. It will unquestionably be an emotional evening for L.A.’s new point guard. (Note: I’ll resist the temptation to add March 12 in Orlando, but it doesn’t take a scientist of rockets to figure out why that one might matter.)
5. March 6 at Oklahoma City
L.A.’s last trip to OKC, and a chance to see how it has progressed against the prohibitive favorites in the Western Conference following an early-December visit to the Great Plains, along with two January dates at Staples Center. If the Lakers are going to advance to the Finals, they’ll almost certainly have to win games at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Can’t hurt to win the final dress rehearsal at a time both teams, at least in theory, are starting to peak ahead of the playoffs.
Save a date with the Thunder in Oklahoma City (Dec. 7), the 76ers in Philadelphia (Dec. 16) and the Nuggets in Denver (Dec. 26), the month of December is generally pretty kind to the Lakers. It opens against the Orlando Magic on the Dec. 2, and whether Andrew Bynum or Dwight Howard is its center, that team is not going to be very good. Neither will the Rockets nor Hornets, faced on the road in what's not a terribly intimidating back-to-back on Dec. 4 and 5. The Jazz visit on the Dec. 9, then Cleveland hosts on the Dec. 11. The Knicks and their ill-constructed roster are met twice, the second on Christmas Day at Staples. There's a trip to D.C. (Dec. 14), and the Wizards are on a decided rebuild. The Bobcats arrive on Dec. 18, and with all due respect to Ramon Sessions, his "revenge game" isn't a terrifying prospect. Oracle Arena is a tough arena (Dec. 22), but the Lakers are considerably better than the Warriors. And finally, a rebuilding Trail Blazers squad arrives at Staples for the last December game (Dec. 28), and they rarely beat the Lakers in L.A.
This is a month the Lakers should feast on.
February closes out pretty tough to open a challenging start to March. The Lakers will visit Dallas on Feb. 24, and while these may not be the 2011 championship Mavs, the additions of Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand will keep them competitive, especially at home. The very next day features a battle against the Nuggets and Denver's thin air. On Feb. 28, the Lakers play host to the Timberwolves, a potential playoff team. March then opens with the Hawks in L.A. on the 3rd, and then the Thunder in OKC.
Five pretty challenging games in a row. Thankfully, they'll be in New Orleans on March 6 to recuperate.