For those who have attempted to evaluate the Lakers over the course of the 2008-09 season, this Lakers team has been somewhat of an enigma. Capable of playing at a very high level and being tops in the league not only on offense, but also on defense, this team has dazzled at times, and underwhelmed at others.
All of which tends to leave folks with one question: How do we evaluate the Lakers?
Are they really that good? Or do they just show flashes? More importantly: Which version of the Lakers is the real Lakers? Critics would seem to be inclined to write the Lakers off because of their inconsistency, insisting that their improvements in the areas of defense and toughness have not been substantial enough to propel them to their goal of winning a championship. Fans may at times be inclined to worry, for many of the same reasons. So what gives? And are critics justified for doubting, and fans, for worrying?
The answer to these questions may surprise you in its simplicity (and, for that matter, its normality): Fear not, Laker fans — like some of their Laker predecessors, your team is simply a Flip-the-Switch team.
Rewind approximately six months. The Lakers, entering the 2008-09 season, had one very obvious goal: To succeed where they had failed four months earlier, by winning the NBA Championship. Before the season began, however, not all were convinced.
Many pointed out how very rare it has been for a team that loses the Finals one year to return and win it the next. The psychological toll of such a heavy loss and the ever-changing landscape of the NBA rarely allow it. Despite Laker fans' confidence in the mental strength of coach Phil Jackson and team captain Kobe Bryant, few outside of the Lakers' fan base seemed convinced that this team could be the exception, rather than the rule.
Until the season started.
From the moment they stepped out on the court, this Lakers team started the season with a passion and a purpose, playing as though they had something to prove. As well they should, considering what had happened last June! Suddenly, they displayed mental and even physical toughness. Even more surprisingly, they played great defense. For the first few weeks, in fact, they led the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and for much of the early season, they owned the league's best record. They weren't just winning — they were blowing teams out of the water.
That lasted about 15 games. Then, something happened that bothered many Laker fans, myself included: they began to act as though they had already proven what they had set out to prove a mere 15 games ago. Were they serious? Did they not understand that the first few weeks of the season meant virtually nothing? Didn't they understand that if they really wanted to prove something, they needed to play this way from now all the way to June?
The Lakers no longer appeared motivated. They continued to win, but they didn't dominate the way they had earlier in the season. The games were easy, and they didn't try very hard on defense — but this alarmed many of us, who felt that their particularly early schedule had given them a false sense of security. They could perhaps get by like this against the Clippers and Wizards of the world, but sooner or later, they'd have to play the Celtics, Cavaliers, Spurs, and other tough teams — and this pathetic effort, this attempt to skate by on talent alone, would not fly against such teams. Where was the passion from earlier in the season? Where was that fire, that intensity?
Then came Christmas.
Heading into their first meeting with Boston since their embarrasing of Finals loss in Game 6, the Lakers seemed fully ill-prepared to compete with a team such as the Celtics. At least, so we thought, until the opening tip-off. But suddenly, there were those early season Lakers. The intensity was palpable, the defense was ferocious, the effort was immeasurably unwavering. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol said, "Merry Christmas, Lakers fans!" and everyone else stared in shock. In a game not as close as the score showed it to be, the Lakers had destroyed the Celtics, dominating from start to finish. Where had this come from?
Unfortunately, it didn't last long. LA rode the adrenaline rush for a few games, but was soon back to its disappointing, frustrating ways. Not that it really showed up in the win column — the Lakers continued to fight for, and often control, the best record in the league. But that high intensity, high effort team from Christmas Day? They were missing, again.
Time passed, and the Lakers' first matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers drew nearer. From time to time, the Lakers came out with better than usual intesity, but by and large, they got by playing less than their best basketball. Having either forgotten about Christmas Day, or completely dismissed it as a fluke, most seemed to foresee a decisive Cleveland victory in Los Angeles. After all, the Cavaliers were just playing at a higher level than the Lakers, and more consistently.
No such thing happened. As they had on Christmas Day, the Lakers came out with effort and intensity that had been missing for the last couple of months, defensively rendering LeBron James completely ineffective, and charging off to a Laker victory that, from the early minutes of the game, was rarely in question.
What in the name of Jack Nicholson was going on??
Laker fans beamed with joy and pride, soaking in the moment. A wise approach, as once again, it didn't last. Rinse and repeat, same story as before. And then...
Andrew Bynum went down. Eight to 12 weeks was the prognosis, and this was bad news for Los Angeles. And right before a grueling six-game road trip — one that would feature games in Boston and Cleveland, no less!
Then, Kobe Bryant went off for 61 points in New York, breaking every scoring record in Madison Square Garden and leading his team to a solid victory. A rallying cry for his teammates, it was, and the Lakers won a couple more road games before heading to Boston. Bynum was missing, the Celtics were intent on defending their home, and to make matters worse, Bryant struggled offensively.
But there it was again, appearing as if out of nowhere — mental and physical toughness, defensive tenacity, relentless effort and focus, and playoff intensity, as the Lakers again beat the Celtics. This one was much tougher, much closer, and every bit as gratifying, as the Lakers took the Celtics' best shot and kept on coming.
The very next game was in Cleveland, and in truth, most Laker fans would have been okay with a loss. Consecutive games against the Celtics and Cavaliers, on the road, without Bynum, at the end of a tiring six-game road trip, of which they had already won the first five — it would be an acceptable loss. No team is perfect.
But the Lakers didn't miss a beat. Carrying over the focus, intensity, and defensive effort from the previous night, they again forced LeBron James into a bad night and walked away with a convincing victory.
Cleveland and Boston: Two teams playing at a higher level than the Lakers, more consistently, and beating teams more thoroughly. Except when they met. And the Lakers had swept the regular season series with both clubs. What could explain this?
Though none as dramatic as those four games against Boston and Cleveland, there have been similar examples of occasional Laker dominance throughout the season. In their first game against the Spurs, they seemed to underestimate their old Western Conference rivals, who won the game. But in their next meeting, they came out in full force, leaving no question from the moment the first whistle blew. In the end, they finished but a game behind Cleveland in the race for the best record in the NBA, despite playing their best game only on select, rare occasions.
This, apparently, was the Los Angeles Lakers. One of the most successful regular season teams in league history despite rarely playing up to their potential.
In fact, the truth about this team goes back to that psychological issue discussed at the beginning of this post. You see, for most teams, losing in the Finals is so psychologically damaging that they struggle to get back to that level the next year. The grind is too long, the discouragement too insurmountable. For the Lakers, it seems they were only more emboldened. They are going back to the Finals; in their minds, that is simply a non-negotiable. And in their focus on that goal, they were often bored by the regular season.
They had been there, and done that. What they hadn't done was win in the Finals, and that was what motivated them. For a team with such unwavering intent on being present once again in the Finals, is it that surprising that a regular season game against the bad-to-mediocre teams of the league would fail to inspire them? Should it be any surprise that a team with such lofty goals as the Lakers sometimes simply isn't very motivated when the Bobcats come to town?
So this is the Lakers — what I like to call a Flip-the-Switch team. That defensive effort and intensity, that unwavering focus and drive? It's there, at the tip of their fingers, like a switch waiting to be flipped. When they feel they need it, that's exactly what they do. It is why it hasn't been uncommon to see lesser teams take a solid lead over the Lakers midway through the second quarter, only to have the Lakers "turn it on" and blow them out of the water in the third, walking away from what had seemed like a dangerous game with a surprisingly easy win.
Sure, it has probably resulted in a few losses to lesser teams that shouldn't have happened. But then, Cleveland and Boston are more consistent in their approaches, and they, too, have dropped their share of games that they should have won. Who's to say these should-have-won games that the Lakers lost weren't games they would have lost even if they had played with maximum effort and intensity, all year long?
And who's to say that coasting through large chunks of the season on less than 100% effort won't leave them with more energy in store in the 2009 Finals, when the real challenge presents itself?
As a Laker fan, it has to make you a little bit nervous. What if, once they reach the Finals, they reach for that switch — only to find that they aren't able to flip it as easily as they were in the regular season? By all means, this could backfire!
But like it or not, this is the reality of the 2009 Lakers. The good news? The Lakers are even better than they seem at the moment, because we have rarely seen them at their best. The better news? They're not the first Laker team to take this approach. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers that won three titles in a row were often the same way. I'm okay with how that turned out.
So when the critics question whether this team really has the defensive focus, the effort and intensity, to win a likely Finals matchup against Cleveland, remind them that they've rarely seen this Lakers team as good as it really is — as good as it is likely to be, when summer rolls around.
Then cross your fingers, and hope the switch flips easily when that time comes.