They are Vulnerable: Throughout the last month, the majority of the NBA world has been concerned and apprehensive about the Lakers state of mind, and their state of play. Make no mistake: the defending champions are not playing like anything befitting that title. They are an incredibly pedestrian 15-11 since the All-Star break, and were a feeble 5-9 against the five other division winners, suggesting they may not be able to rise to the challenge the league’s elite will throw at them for the next month and a half. Most Laker diehards chalk these struggles up to the team viewing the regular season as insignificant. To some degree they have a point, since this team will always define success in terms of NBA titles, not regular season winning percentage. But even beyond their lack of urgency and execution down the stretch, their roster still has an abundance of weaknesses. These frailties – having maybe the worst point guard corps in the league, having a bench is that is laughably inconsistent, having serious nagging injuries to their stars, having tired legs from having played deep into the spring two years in a row – make the prospect that Los Angeles could fall flat and be ushered out before the Finals real possibility.
…But They’ve Been Here Before, in More Ways Than One: Yes, the Lakers should have had a better regular season. Before this year began there was serious talk that this team could win 70 games, and they have been presumed to be the West’s top seed since training camp. And while their failure to even get back to 60 wins is a red flag in some corners, the team is quick to remind everyone that this isn’t their first rodeo. They struggled mightily in last year’s earlier rounds, particularly against Houston during a series which lead us all to believe they had no chance of winning it all. Their inconsistent play against the Rockets even carried over into the first few games of the Conference Finals against the Nuggets, and it seemed to tell us they hadn’t learned anything from the beating Boston gave them. They still simply didn’t seem to want it bad enough. Yet they won the Finals, and did so going away. That is why their fans are so sure the team’s struggles will end once the games truly matter. No team can really turn it ‘on’ or ‘off’ on command, but their collective experience of winning, and of doing so by coming from behind ‘the eight-ball’, should see them through to the Finals for a third consecutive season.
They Still Have Kobe: Kobe Bryant is no longer the best basketball player alive. His hold on that particular (unofficial) designation ended at least a year ago thanks to LeBron James’ continued assault on the laws of nature and reason. James is the game’s greatest singular talent now, but Bryant’s game has still hardly lost a step. He is still the game’s greatest closer, and its most fiery competitor. Pair that with his sustained defensive intellect and overall offensive excellence – despite his injuries he still put up 27 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists a night – and you have a player capable of carrying his team single-handedly for a game-long stretches. There will come a time in the years ahead where this is no longer true. But for this spring, it still is, and the Lakers are the better for it.