By Ric Bucher
FOX Sports NBA Writer
I told you the Los Angeles Lakers were not championship contenders. I told you in July, again in August and once more in September. Every time the topic came up, I said the same damn thing: It’s not going to work.
It wasn’t just that they’re too old and have too many subpar defenders and ball-dominant stars. It was also the competition. There are younger teams with better chemistry and better defenses standing in the Lakers’ way.
But now some of you are taking it too far the other way. Some of you have them not even making the playoffs, and some are calling for an insurrection. Trade everybody. Fire Frank Vogel. Depose GM Rob Pelinka. In December … OK, late December, but still.
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It’s as if the volatility of the new sponsor for the Lakers’ home arena — a cryptocurrency barterer — has taken over the sensibility of the fan base and much of the media.
Granted, it doesn’t look pretty right now. Despite the Lakers’ schedule being super soft to this point, they are a game below .500. They just snapped a five-game losing streak by squeaking out a victory over the conference’s worst team, the Houston Rockets, and were downright giddy about it. They’re also tied with New Orleans for the second-toughest schedule the rest of the way, and the opponents listed as “easy” include three teams — the Thunder, Blazers and Kings — that L.A. has lost to at least once already.
But I get it. If you had the Lakers winning 70 games, as some over-their-skis prognosticators predicted, they have been a colossal disappointment. As it stands, 60 or even 50 wins is not in the cards, either. So what? Having the league’s best regular-season record was never at the top of the Lakers’ agenda.
Considering how I’ve felt about the Lakers from the start, my bullish stance might come as a surprise. But my assessment of the Lakers actually hasn’t changed as much as my view of their competition.
Besides the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and maybe, just maybe, the Memphis Grizzlies, who looms as unbeatable for the Lakers at full strength? What team outside of the elite isn’t one injury away from sliding out of the playoff picture? Formidable is not a word anyone is associating with the Western Conference as a whole.
The Lakers are already dealing with their major injury in Anthony Davis, who is out for at least another few weeks due to a sprained knee ligament.
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Despite that and their five-game skid, as of Wednesday, the Lakers were the seventh seed in the West, a half-game behind the star-bereft Clippers and a game behind the almost as wobbly fifth-seeded Denver Nuggets. Much has been made of the Lakers’ 4-9 record against winning teams this season, but the Nuggets are actually worse, at 3-9.
Certainly, there’s no reason to be thrilled about how the Lakers have looked so far. But there’s also no reason to believe they’ve dug an inescapable hole for themselves.
It’s not as if there are juggernauts surrounding them. The Blazers are showing no signs of making their usual late-season run. The Mavericks are still far too dependent on Luka Dončić. The Clippers remain without Kawhi Leonard, and now Paul George has a sprained ligament in his shooting elbow.
The looming uncertainty of this season, with teams scrambling to have enough players just to play a game, should be viewed as favorable for the Lakers as well. It puts a crimp in that whole strength-of-schedule obstacle, seeing as there’s no way to know from night to night whether any team is going to be anywhere near full-strength. That includes the Lakers, of course, but it already seems like their lineup has been one big roulette wheel since the start of the season.
Now, the entire league is once again in uncharted waters, and which teams will navigate them best is a crapshoot. All I know is this: The Lakers dealt with a season turned on its head by the pandemic two years ago and emerged as champions. If anyone has proven that they can set a successful course in unpredictable times and unforeseen circumstances, it’s Vogel and LeBron James.
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I’m aware that any intimidation factor the Lakers had coming into the season — with four players among the league’s all-time 75 greatest — has evaporated. The Rockets’ Kevin Porter Jr. having the audacity to bury a 3-pointer over LeBron and then stare him down is certainly proof of that.
But I see this potentially working in the Lakers’ favor as well, reflected by how LeBron responded — angrily attacking the rim and scoring the Lakers’ next six points, including a strong layup off a sweet feed from Russell Westbrook, to put the game away. At this stage of his career, an angry LeBron is the best LeBron.
The Lakers’ defense is still a concern; the Rockets are the quintessential pick-up squad, taking turns going one-on-one, yet they shot a robust 53% from the floor, including 45.7% from beyond the arc, thanks to a steady supply of uncontested corner 3s because the Lakers couldn’t be bothered to rotate out and defend them. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit, but I don’t see that happening in a playoff game.
The Lakers also have yet to have Davis, Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard, arguably their four best defenders, all available. I’m willing to wait and see what that looks like before concluding that this team’s defense is a fatal flaw.
Don’t misunderstand: I still don’t have the Lakers reaching the conference finals. At some point, they’re going to run into the Warriors or the Suns, and I don’t like their chances against either. But if the regular season “is a young man’s game,” as an Eastern Conference GM told me, referring to the Lakers’ struggles against the league’s youngest squads, the playoffs are an experienced man’s game, and the Lakers have plenty of those.
So, for now, let’s refrain from sticking a fork in the Lakers’ chances of being in the postseason or threatening to win a playoff series. I’d bet on the former, and they’re still fully capable of the latter.
I’m not counting on much more than that. Nobody ever should have. But at this point, there’s also no reason to count on anything less.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” the story of NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds,” the story of NBA center Yao Ming. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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