It would be a massive misrepresentation to say that people are underestimating the Los Angeles Lakers coming into this season. The Lakers have more than their fair share of pundits backing them to win a third straight championship. Some people don't think they will, as is their right, but it's not like those people think the Lakers will be a poor team. They just happen to think that another team (most likely the one from Miami) will be a better team. I don't think I've found more than a handful of people (who have the pedestal to speak on, at least) who don't think the Lakers will at least make the NBA Finals.
But there are plenty of people who are giving the Lakers' regular season pretty short shrift. We homer types are typically bullish, but there are lots of guys who expect the Lakers to be below the 60-win threshold, in some cases well below. This is not, I repeat NOT, indicative of "hate" towards the Lakers as many of these same people think the Lakers will at least make the Finals. Besides, their reasoning is sound. After all, the Lakers were only 57-25 last season, and they enter this season with even more question marks than last year. Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant are a year older, and Andrew Bynum's impact this season, especially pre-All Star break, is questionable as well. Yes, the roster is improved, but the guys who expect a poor regular-season showing basically expect the Lakers not to try very hard, taking the Celtics' blueprint (and they stole it from San Antonio who stole it from us and so on and so on), saving themselves for a strong postseason run.
You know what? Their logic is absolutely right. We don't know what Bynum will give the Lakers, we don't know how much worse Fisher can get, and we don't know how much effort Bryant and the rest of the team will give during the 82-game grind. I'm a Laker fan, and have been my entire conscious life, but I'm also a realist. This team is prone to bouts of laziness, periods in which their best effort is not guaranteed, and they will often not take an opponent seriously. I don't expect any of that to change this seas - if anything, it might be worse than it was last season. This team knows they are good enough to beat many other teams with 80% effort. The problem is, knowing that, they sometimes give 75%. It is a guarantee that this will happen at some point in the season, probably multiple points. So why do I think the Lakers record will be much improved?
Because this season, they are better equipped to win lazy.
Last season, put simply, the Lakers were a mediocre offensive team. They struggled with outside shooting, they struggled with appropriate shot distribution, and they had a bench which routinely failed to effectively hold leads developed by the starters. Their defense was pretty top notch... until the latter end of the season when they stopped trying very hard. And that, my friends, is the key to why I think this will be a more successful season.
We all know there are two sides to basketball, offense and defense. Successful offense can be mostly simplified down to execution of an idea. Whether dealing with a set play or, in the case of the Lakers, a set of principles, offense is about knowing what you want to do and then doing it. Which makes defense all about the prevention of the other guy's idea. The keys to good offense are a good plan, smart decision making, and the ability to finish the play (i.e. shot-making). The keys to defense are also a good plan, strong communication, and the energy to disrupt what the offense is attempting to do.
Even further simplified, it boils down to this. Offense is about execution. Defense is about desire. Last year, much of the success the Lakers had was based on their defense. Even when they didn't go full throttle, they won games by putting in a quarter of dominating defensive effort. Games that were not victories were often because that desire was lacking, and the offense couldn't make up for it.
It's insanely early in this young season to be making proclamations about what kind of team the Lakers will be in the 2010-2011 season, but so far the indication is that the Lakers will be much, much improved offensively. Their outside shooting has been fantastic so far (it's not likely to stay well above 40% on threes, but it's not likely to dip back down to the 34% we saw last season either), and the ball movement, especially for the 2nd unit, has been a night-and-day improvement over last year's version. It is the ball movement (indicative of a team-wide change in philosophy) more than the shooting which allows me to view this as anything other than a hot start to the season.
So far this year, the Lakers have put up two pretty poor defensive displays. The effort was there against the Rockets, but Houston is a particularly bad matchup for our aging backcourt and ring night is a tough game to play no matter what. Phoenix is a good offensive team, but last night's poor defense was along the same "keeping something left in reserve" that we've come to expect from this squad over the years. And yet, it was a comfortable win, because the offense was clicking.
Last season, the Lakers might have lost last night's game. At the very least, we would certainly not have seen the Lakers keep the Suns at arm's length, simply because last year's team would have had trouble keeping the offensive pace over the full 48 minutes. This season should see more regular-season wins than last year's squad, because this version of the purple and gold can even win the games they aren't trying particularly hard to. Winning with offense takes far less effort than winning with defense, and, on some nights, that's just the way the Lakers like it.