Los Angeles Lakers: Western Conference
We don't know how the games will play out*, but now at least we know the order in which they'll be played. The 2012-13 schedule was released Thursday afternoon, and as it always does, the 82-game regular-season slate provides plenty of intrigue.
Here's a quick breakdown:
Five compelling dates on the 2012-13 schedule:
1. Nov. 2 vs. Los Angeles Clippers
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.
Wednesday night, the Lakers knocked off the Clippers in what was their 19th game of a lockout-shortened 66-game campaign. For those not doing the math at home, one month in the Lakers have already completed 29 percent of their schedule.
A lot of time? No, but by this season's standard not a bad sample size, either.
Kobe Bryant and Mike Brown have been like peas and carrots.
Why 34? Because 20 isn't enough when the league lets you sit around all summer thinking about stuff. Below is that list, each with some answers.
Strap in, people. We've got a lot of ground to cover.
1. Who wins the battle between the well-rested knee of Kobe Bryant (and his ankle, back, finger and general skeletal structure) and a compressed schedule?
Knee? What knee? I thought we were worried about his wrist. (Which, by the way, we’re increasingly less worried about.) Meaning 19 games in, the answer is Bryant in a walk. He leads the league in scoring (30.2), a nearly five-point improvement over last season, while maintaining a solid shooting percentage (45 percent). Asked to carry an almost comical burden in the Lakers offense, at least as measured by his league-leading usage rate (35.9), Bryant has been outstanding. And spry. Very, very spry.
Basically, the man is a running, leaping billboard for German medical engineering.
2. Who wins the battle between the well-rested will of Bryant and the authority of Mike Brown?
The relationship between Kobe and Brown has been a success. Bryant has expressed nothing but admiration for his new coach, praising on multiple occasions Brown’s work ethic and emphasis on defense, noting the team wants to win for him because they see how much Brown wants to win, too. They know he puts in the work.
Doesn't mean the questions about Bryant's shot selection, balance, or how he's used offensively have stopped, but those would be asked whether the coach was Brown, Phil Jackson, Brian Shaw or Rick Adelman. They are, in sports terms at least, eternal.
To this point, though, one major concern -- Brown's ability to "manage" Kobe, has been a non-issue.
3. What will Brown's system look like, and how quickly will the Lakers be able to pick it up?
Not totally sure, and not very.
The question is a fairly simple one, “What’s the best-case scenario for the Lakers?”
My first thought probably didn’t answer the question but remains as true today as it was last week, when the Lakers began engaging in more talks than a nervous fantasy owner.
“The best-case scenario is Jim Buss knows what he's doing and doesn’t run this team into the ground.”
Overdramatic? Perhaps, but after seeing what has happened to the Lakers since the start of training camp it’s hard not to wonder what’s going on.
The Lakers let Shannon Brown go to the Phoenix Suns over a $1.1 million difference in salary then traded Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks for an $8.9 million trade exception. Meanwhile they have so far struck out in their attempts to trade for Chris Paul and/or Dwight Howard while teams such as the Los Angeles Clippers and New Jersey Nets have reportedly inched past them in trade talks for both players.
So the Lakers lost two of their top five players, at least statistically, to conference rivals and got nothing in return except a $10 million saving on their payroll and have yet to land one of the superstar players they coveted coming into this season.
Other than that, you know, things are going well.
- DECEMBER: Home 4, Road 1
- JANUARY: Home 9, Road 8
- FEBRUARY: Home 4, Road 9
- MARCH: Home 9, Road 8
- APRIL: Home 7, Road 7
A few of the normal caveats apply. The Lakers gain what from what amounts to two additional non-travel dates, thanks to a pair of "road" games against the Clippers. Because of the Grammy's, the Lakers always travel heavy in February, so this season's schedule is no different. Still, when you start to break things down, the challenge faced by the Lakers (and all teams across the league) with the schedule crystallize.
The Lakers have one back-to-back-to-back, and 17 of more conventional back-to-backs. Of those, only one set (March 1 vs. New Orleans, April 1 vs. Houston) includes true home games. Two more contain faux roadies against the Clips, six are split, and eight take place entirely on the road. Certainly some tough stretches stick out, namely:
- The Grammy trip (Feb. 3-12) is six games long, starting with a back-to-back at Denver and Utah, two tough places to play thanks to the home crowd and altitude. Later that trip, they get the Celtics and Knicks on consecutive nights.
- After returning home for three of four, the Lakers finish their road schedule for February with back-to-back games in Dallas and Oklahoma City.
On the other hand, given how bad things could have been, in many ways the Lakers come out of this relatively well. First, by definition playing only eight games on the road against Eastern Conference teams limits the number of long trips. Second, the Lakers get their lone back-to-back-to back out of the way early, in the first three days of the season. Only one, Christmas against Chicago, is against an expected playoff team.
They play 11 of their first 15 games in Los Angeles, allowing them to maximize valuable practice time as they try to absorb new offensive and defensive systems under Mike Brown. Generally speaking, save a swing through Florida on Jan. 19 and 20 (at Miami, at Orlando) and the aforementioned trip through Dallas and Oklahoma City, the Lakers avoid B2B's against playoff-caliber squads, particularly on the road. During one stretch of five games in six days on the road between March 6-14, separated by a home date against Boston, they'll see only one high end team (Memphis) and four potential lottery squads (Detroit, Washington, Minnesota, New Orleans). Hard to expect anything softer.
Finally, in what are likely to be key games for seeding purposes in April, the Lakers host Dallas and Oklahoma City.
So again, it's not easy, but it could be worse.
PREVIOUS ENTRIES IN OUR SCHEDULE SERIES
The five most anticipated games
Who (or rather what) is missing? Toughest stretch Easiest stretch
First, the Lakers play only three E.C. teams twice (more on that in a sec).
Home games: Chicago (Dec. 25), New York (Dec. 29), Cleveland (Jan. 13), Indiana (Jan. 22), Charlotte (Jan. 31), Atlanta (Feb. 14), Miami (Mar. 4), Boston (Mar. 11), New Jersey (April 3).
Road games: Miami (Jan. 19), Orlando (Jan. 20), Milwaukee (Jan. 28), Philadelphia (Feb. 6), Boston (Feb. 9), New York (Feb. 10), Toronto (Feb. 12), Detroit (Mar. 6), Washington (Mar. 7).
You'll notice the only home-and-home matchups this season include Boston, Miami and New York. Call me crazy, but I'm thinking this is no accident. Honestly, if the league had to stage a 10-game schedule, I suspect it would include these six games first, before the NBA's supercomputers figured out how to divvy up the last four. It's good for the game -- these are marquee matchups fans want to see -- but bad for the Lakers. With only 66 dates on the calendar, each game means that much more in the final standings. Clearly the Western Conference team drawing two dates against a set of lesser opponents has an advantage.
Other storylines we'll miss/other things we'll see:
Here are a few quick highlights:
1. The Lakers open the season Nov. 1 at home against Oklahoma City, then turn around about three weeks later and play the Thunder at Ford Center. From there, L.A. won't see Kevin Durant and Co. until March 29, and again on April 8. There will likely be a lot read into the results of the first two games, but the second pair could very well have monumental impact on the Western Conference playoff picture.
As for Christmas Day, the Lakers are still on the schedule, but no longer have the marquee game. Instead, they'll follow the Finals rematch of Dallas vs. Miami with a tilt against the Bulls later that afternoon.
2. Where last season the Lakers didn't exactly face the stiffest of competition starting the year, this season, nobody will accuse them of getting fat on a bunch of cupcakes. 13 of their first 23 games are against playoff opponents, including the pair against OKC, home games against New Orleans, Denver, San Antonio, New York, Portland, and Orlando, plus tests in Memphis, Miami, Dallas, Charlotte (where they always lose) and Atlanta. They'll also see decent lottery squads in Houston and Phoenix.
3. April is going to be burly. The Lakers finish with a potentially strong Clippers squad, a game April 6 vs. Houston, and then nothing but playoff teams from a year ago. At OKC, New Orleans, and San Antonio, home vs. Denver, Dallas, and the Spurs, then on the road against the Nuggets. Yikes.
4. Toughest back-to-backs:
- December 8 at Miami, December 9 at Charlotte
- December 27 vs. Clippers, December 28 vs. Phoenix
- January 16 vs. Dallas, Jan. 17 at Utah
- February 9 at Boston, February 10 at New York
- March 20 at Houston, March 21 at Dallas
- April 17 vs. San Antonio, April 18 at Denver (this after game April 15 vs. Dallas)
Overall, though, the b2b's aren't too bad. 17 by my count, which is a very tolerable number, and in comparison to last year, at least, would place them at the low end league wide.
5. One critical early season stretch could come at the beginning of January, when after finishing a December stretch in which they play 11 of 16 on the road, the Lakers come home for a season long seven-game homestand, including visits from Philly, Houston, Memphis, and Dallas.
In other news, the sun rose in the east this morning, and taxes are due April 15th.
Are these guys making plans for All-Star weekend? Yes for Kobe Bryant, probably for Pau Gasol... maybe for Lamar Odom. Ron's just eavesdropping.
We'll have to wait a couple years to confirm, but the writing is on the wall.
Reaching the all-time mark for ASG nods is a taller order, but not inconceivable. He'll need six more after this year's festivities to catch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who made a staggering 19 mid-season classics, missing only one in a 20 year stretch. Kobe seems like a lock to earn his way on in the next few seasons, and if he's still playing at 38, the notion he'd still garner votes isn't far-fetched, even if his on-court performance isn't necessarily All-Star worthy. Particularly if he adds a couple more rings between now and then.
Still, that's a ton of ground to cover, and honestly I'd bet against it. Does the knee hold up that long? Does his career extend that far? I can just as easily see scenarios in which he walks away once it's clear he's no longer able to be Kobe Bryant as others where he has to be dragged off the floor with some sort of tractor. All questions to add to the growing pile of Kobe queries.
Of more immediate concern are the All-Star fates of Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, and whether they'll fill two of the seven available slots for reserves on the W.C. squad- voted on by coaches in the conference- when the full teams are announced next Thursday. Earlier in the month I questioned whether Gasol was still a lock, thanks to his well-documented December swoon, but he's played well enough since to solidify what seemed automatic after first month of the year. My guess is he'll fill the spot at center vacated by the injured Yao Ming, though Gasol was too diplomatic to say so Thursday afternoon at practice. (I even asked if he thought, just between us, the starting center should be a non-seven foot Chinese fellow whose name still rhymes with "Trau." Still, he wouldn't commit, though Gasol did note his other All-Star nods came as a center.)
The signs look good.
Odom, though, could get squeezed.
It's a close call, but the majority of our experts panel see Kevin Durant and the Thunder as the team most capable of knocking off the Lakers in a seven-game series.
Our panel: Andy and Brian Kamenetzky (ESPNLA.com Land O'Lakers Blog), Elliott Teaford (L.A. Daily News), Kevin Ding (O.C. Register), Kevin Arnovitz (ESPN TrueHoop), Eric Pincus (Hoopsworld), Chris Clark (Silver Screen and Roll), J.A. Adande (ESPN.com), Darius Soriano (Forum Blue and Gold), Kurt Helin (ProBasketballTalk.com), Mark Medina (L.A. Times.com), Arash Markazi (ESPNLA.com), and Dave McMenamin (ESPNLA.com),
Which Western Conference team has the best chance to beat the Lakers in a seven-game series?
Oklahoma City- 5.5 votes
Portland- 3.5 votes
Dallas- 2 votes
Houston- 1 vote, but a lot of love as a serious dark horse
Nobody- 1 vote
My Take: Two teams -- Oklahoma City and Portland -- stand out. Both have the ability to make life difficult for the Lakers. A healthy Blazers team has backcourt strength (Brandon Roy), a stong wing defender (Nicolas Batum) and frontcourt depth (Greg Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marcus Camby, plus Joel Przybilla, if he recovers from knee surgery). We saw last season what OKC was capable of, and if the Thunder get decent play from Cole Aldrich and more development from Serge Ibaka (thus beefing up the frontcourt), I'll give them the slightest of edges over Portland, probably because it's hard for me to picture a healthy Portland team.
The wild card? Houston, with Yao Ming, Kevin Martin, Aaron Brooks, and the standard dose of Houston grit, would be no picnic to face.
So without further ado, let's get going.
Q: Yo Kamenetzky Bros! I'm splitting season seats for Lakers/Clippers/Kings this year, and I have to go to this draft next week to select my games. Its a snake draft but I wanted to have my picks ready to go. So for time's sake, can you at least give me your guys top 10 games of the season, in order from best to worst? Also I really don't want to pick any Clipper games in the top 10, but do you think I need to select Clippers/Heat that early?
A: Clearly Danny doesn't want to be tracked down.
Without knowing exactly where you draft, here are the 10 games/opponents I'd target (keeping in mind that if you decide you want to go to a Clippers game... let's be honest, you'll be able to find tickets) in some sort of vague, totally debatable order:
1) Oct. 26 vs. Houston: Opening night/ring night. I realize there are higher profile opponents on the way, and it's by definition early in the year, but the spectacle and energy of ring night is a must for fans. High profile games don't always meet the hype, but watching a banner go up will never disappoint.
Kobe vs. Wade (and LeBron and Bosh) on Christmas is the Glistening Shiny Jewel of the '10-'11 schedule, but there are 41 other home games to think about. Which are the best?
2) Dec. 25 vs. Miami: If I need to explain this to you, why are you in the draft?
3) Jan. 30 vs. Boston: The rivalry, the addition of Shaq, two Finals meetings in three years, and a very underrated chance at a third, despite all the Miami hoopla.
4) March 20 vs. Portland: If healthy, the Blazers represent a major challenge to the Lakers in the Western Conference. This is their last visit before the postseason.
5) March 14 vs. Orlando: The forgotten team in the Eastern Conference, the Magic (rightly) think they're being unfairly discounted. Howard and Co. will show up motivated to beat the west's best.
Of course, that left the little matter of the other 79. Today, the NBA released the full slate of games, and at first glance, things appear to set up reasonably well for the Lakers. Here are five things to look for:
Last year, the Lakers were among the league leaders in B2B's, with 20. This year, the number drops to 15, and a pretty cushy 15 relatively speaking:
1. Nov. 2, 3- vs. Memphis, at Sacramento
2. Nov. 16, 17- at Milwaukee, at Detroit
3. Nov. 30, Dec. 1- at Memphis, at Houston
4. Dec. 7,8- vs. Washington, "at" Clippers
5. Dec. 14, 15- at Washington, at Indiana
6. Dec. 28, 29- at San Antonio, at New Orleans
7. Jan. 4, 5- vs. Houston, at Phoenix
8. Jan 11, 12- vs. Cleveland, at Golden State
9. Jan 16, 17- "at" Clippers, vs. Oklahoma City
10. Feb. 10, 11- at Boston, at New York
11. Feb. 13, 14- at Orlando, at Charlotte
12. Feb. 22, 23- vs. Atlanta, at Portland
13. March 31, April 1- vs. Dallas, at Utah
14. April 5, 6- vs. Utah, at Golden State
15. April 12, 13- vs. San Antonio, at Sacramento
The three sets in February are tough. The Knicks should be better this season, and even if they're not, playing one night after what is guaranteed to be a physical, emotional game against the Celtics won't be easy. The opponent is almost irrelevant. Orlando will be very good, and the Lakers never win in Charlotte. Atlanta is a solid Eastern Conference playoff team, and a Portland squad ought to be an elite group out west. Dallas to Utah is a challenge as well, and visits to Memphis and Houston will provide an early season test. But for every tough sequence, the Lakers get a break. Twice they draw the Clippers as the "road" team in the home/road split, and they play the Kings and Warriors a combined four times on the back end, as well as the Pacers and Pistons, and the aforementioned visit to Utah is the only time L.A. will play the second half of a B2B at altitude.
Could be a lot worse.
2. Early balance.
In the battle of starting centers, Andrew Bynum has lagged behind Robin Lopez. Should Phil Jackson sit him down Tuesday night?
In Game 1 against Phoenix, Bynum logged a mere four points and four boards in 19 minutes (off). He followed that with 13 points and seven boards on a perfect five-of-five from the floor in Game 2 (on).
Sunday night, though, had to mark his low point for the postseason. Two points, two rebounds, and four fouls in eight minutes. He picked up his second foul three minutes into the first quarter, his third three minutes into the second, and his fourth barely a minute into the third. (As C.A. Clark of Silver Screen and Roll put it, "Travis Knight thinks that's awful.") As a result, L.A.'s rotations were scrambled from the start, a problem only exacerbated by Lamar Odom's foul trouble.
After the game, Phil Jackson said he's considering resting Bynum for Tuesday's Game 4. Bynum acknowledged the weak showing Sunday night, but wants to stay on the floor. "(Sitting out) is not going to do anything," he said. "The surgery is going to do something." Bynum has already made it clear he'll put off any procedure until the end of the season.
I have respect for the way Bynum has approached the injury. He badly wants to contribute to a title run in any way he can. He understands the value of his presence, even if he's not fully able to do what he's otherwise capable of. This isn't about focus or misplaced priorities or anything else for which Bynum has been criticized to this point in his career (save criticisms he's injured all the time). The guy is hurt, needs surgery, and after two years of non/limited participation in deep playoff runs, is trying to give something to his teammates while proving something to himself.
Even Kobe Bryant showed this season discretion can be the better part of valor, but if Bynum begged out or made excuses, it would be a lot worse.
Almost none of the hand-wringing over Bynum is related to the current series with Phoenix, where Drew's presence is more luxury than necessity (though he's hardly incidental), but has everything to do with a potential Finals matchup against the frontcourt heavy, physical Celtics. Memories of 2008 . . . linger. Lakers fans look at Bynum's absence as a major reason L.A. couldn't get over the hump against Boston. This year, things can be different, if Bynum is capable.
So should the Lakers shut him down, and save whatever he's got left for the presumed trip to the Finals?
Not by any stretch. The Lakers are good. Very good, providing plenty of reasons to be confident in their chances to repeat, 20 of which are laid out below, free of negativity. I'm not getting bogged down in that. This is a happy list, a reason to smile on a Tuesday.
Enjoy, and add your own below:
You will need a comprehensive guide. We're here to help, from A to Z.
A is for... Avulsion. It's also for ankle (apple, aardvark, and artichoke, among other things), and while the latter forced Kobe Bryant to miss three games before the break and Tuesday's tussle against Golden State, the avulsion fracture to Kobe's index finger is more likely to play havoc with the Lakers over the stretch run. It's become reasonably clear the offending digit won't completely heal until the offseason, though hopefully the 10-day ankle induced layoff helped a little. Still, the fracture has the potential to be a factor game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter, shot-to-shot.
B is for... Bynum. Three faboo games without the big center left some questioning his spot in the starting lineup (or perhaps on the team, given the proximity to the trade deadline). But for all the hand-wringing over how he plays with Pau Gasol or if he's reaching his potential, Andrew Bynum is averaging 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds in just over 31 minutes a night, sports a healthy PER of 20 and, at least relative to last year's team, still has more transformative power over the roster than any of his teammates.
C is for... Chase. As in, chasing down Cleveland for the NBA's best record and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. L.A. currently sits two games behind the Cavs, and since Cleveland owns the tiebreaker thanks to a sweep of the regular season series, the Lakers will have to pass them to gain the advantage.
It could happen, but the Lakers don't have much margin for error.D is for...Denver. The Mavericks made the first big move, but assuming good health, George Karl's gang is and will be the main competition in the Western Conference. Denver is a monster offensively, and play enough D these days to get the job done. Last season's loss to the Lakers in the W.C.F. made the Nuggets hungry, two big blowout wins over the Lakers this season added confidence. Thus the final two meetings this regular season (Feb. 28 at Staples, April 8 in Denver) are officially affairs of high importance.
E is for... Eleven. Both the top level for the amps in Spinal Tap and the number of titles I believe Phil Jackson will have by the end of the playoffs.
Or anything beyond "honorable mention" on Yahoo's All Snub team, for that matter.
It's certainly tough for Bynum to argue he's more deserving than the guys who did get the nod. Except, perhaps, for Gasol. I believe Pau is among the league's elite big men. It's hard to overstate his importance to the Lakers. He needs to touch the ball far more often than he does. But as I wrote yesterday, 17 games is just too many to miss and still be on an All-Star team over qualified candidates who have put in more time. It's a math problem, not a judgment on the quality of Gasol's play.
Clearly, Western Conference coaches disagree. Do you? Dig out your special voting mouse and click away, then explain your decisions in the comments below.