The Los Angeles Lakers have played 69 games so far this season. Only 13 regular season contests remain. Over those 69 games, the Lakers have compiled a mediocre 36-33 record, and mediocre has only recently replaced terms like horrible, terrible and disastrous. It has not been a good season, and has not been anywhere near the season which was expected when the Lakers trotted out that All-Star lineup of theirs in Game 1.
Of course, there are reasons for that, chief among them that the All-Star lineup has so rarely materialized. Steve Nash has missed 24 games this season. Pau Gasol has missed 33. Dwight Howard has missed 6, but has also been a shell of his former self until recently. And Kobe Bryant has missed two games, which might not sound like much, but is probably more surprising than the games missed for any of the other guys. Hell, Steve Blake missed 37 games, and while Steve Blake isn't particularly important in the grand scheme of things, his 37 missed games coincided with Steve Nash's, which means the Lakers played 20+ games with a point guard rotation consisting of two guys so bad, Mike D'Antoni would rather run a seven man unit in back to back games than play either one of them. The Lakers have had a great many problems this season, and quite a few of those have been of their own making, but they've also been swarmed by a plague of injury bugs. So much so that I'd say its fair to think we have no idea what this team might be capable of.
It's time to find out.
Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant will both be in the starting lineup tonight after short (2.75 games for Kobe) and long (24 games for Pau) absences. They join Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, except this time, either because of re-commitment to the team or because he is finally getting close to being fully recovered from back surgery 12 months ago, Dwight Howard once again looks like Dwight Howard. This team was always built to be a top-heavy, star-laden unit, and the struggles as those stars have missed time or not been themselves have been telling. But the Lakers now have an opportunity to put the trials and tribulations of this difficult season firmly in the rear view mirror. They have 12 games left. It's not enough time to drastically alter their playoff fate, which will (at best) require a road that leads through every tough team at the top of the Western Conference if they intend to do anything special. But 12 games is more than enough time to develop a rhythm, establish some momentum, and give this star-studded cast a real chance at getting to know what it is like to play with one another.
Which brings us to tonight's opponent, the Washington Wizards. The Wizards are an intriguing team. They are not what you would call a good team. But they are also not nearly as bad as their record would indicate. At 24-43, you might think the Wizards would be easy fodder for anybody, but just as the Lakers have dealt with injuries which changed the team dynamic, so too have the Wizards. They were without point guard John Wall to start this season, and they responded to his absence with a 4-28 start to the season. If you do the math, that means the Wizards are actually 20-15 over their last 35 games. 35 games is not a small sample size. It's damn near half the season, which means that, for half the season, Washington has been playing like a borderline playoff team.
That doesn't mean the Lakers shouldn't be considered heavy favorites. As is the way with most young teams, the Wizards are terrible on the road. They have just six wins outside of Washington, a number which no amount of injuries could help to explain or mitigate. But, if the Lakers are foolish enough to look at themselves (a whole team) and look at their opponents (a team with a bad record) and decide not to bring forth the desperate effort which has been responsible for their recent success, they can still get beat.
Obviously, the Lakers can not afford to do so. Their playoff position looks strong, if only because the Utah Jazz are imploding more impressively than an meteor over Russia, but their place in the second season is nowhere near secure. They also have an opportunity for further improvement of said position. They remain 1.5 games back of Houston for the 7th seed, and 2.5 games back of Golden State in 6th. Perhaps most importantly of all, if the Lakers are to make a shocking playoff run of any kind, they will need the practice of maintaining intensity in every single game. The Lakers can afford no more mistakes. No more injuries. No more problems. No more setbacks.
Do that, and this Lakers team might just be made whole after all.