The Lakers aren't taking anyone for granted says the headline for J.A. Adande's latest piece on ESPN.com. It's been a familiar refrain over the past few weeks as the Los Angeles Lakers have gotten off to a fast start. With a relatively easy schedule to start the early season, no one is surprised to see the Lakers start the season with 12 wins out of their first 14 games, but the fashion in which those victories have been attained is surprising. As Adande points out, 8 of the 12 victories have been by double digits. The Lakers have the highest point differential in the league, by a healthy margin. Kobe Bryant is playing only 32.6 minutes per game, and his percentage of the total Lakers offense is at its lowest mark since the beginning of the Shaq/Kobe dynasty. The starters have skipped the 4th quarter entirely a few times already this year, something which was a true rarity last season.
The message being delivered is clear. The Lakers are finally playing like true professionals. The experts all say so, whether pointing out how the Lakers aren't playing to the level of their competition this season, or talking about how all the hype behind the Miami Heat has given the Lakers motivation to show the world how good they are. The team says so, with Kobe saying stuff like "It's all about winning every single night ... Your job is to play and your job is to win." and Barnes saying (of his flagrant foul last night) "I went for the ball. I wasn't looking at the score, I was looking at the wide-open layup." Even the coach was at a loss for words at last night's presser, admitting that the Lakers may have had a couple lapses, "But I've never complained about their hustle." We've been asking for the Lakers to play like this for years, but now that they are playing with energy (almost) every night, it's caught us all by surprise. That's why most season win total predictions you saw for this team were in the high 50s instead of the high 60s. Nobody was prepared for a Lakers team that looks like they might actually give a damn about the regular season. You know, because of how professionally they've been acting. That's the message.
The message is wrong. I've seen the Lakers play with professionalism, and nothing else. I've seen them win a championship with professionalism, and nothing else. This team isn't playing with professionalism. This team is playing with joy.
When I think of professionalism, I think of a person who's punching the clock. They aren't going through the motions, because not putting effort into your work is unprofessional. Instead, a person exhibiting professionalism does not allow their mental state to negatively affect their work. From the time they clock in to the time they clock out, they work hard, and then the work day is over. Rain or shine, whether there's a baby at home or trouble in one's personal life, the hours spent at the office are generally free of laziness, surliness, or other negative forms of emotion. That's professionalism.
Last year's Lakers were, by and large, professional. I was the first person to tell you that there were times last year when the Lakers did not play with the requisite energy to win basketball games, but more often than not, their failure was not a matter of a lack of professionalism. You will not find two players who exude professionalism more than Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, and that didn't stop those two gentlemen from being a big part of the Lakers' problems last (regular) season. There were unprofessional elements to last year's squad (here's looking at you, Jordan Farmar), but execution and effectiveness were much bigger problems for the Lakers last year than effort ever was. In the area of basketball in which effort shows itself the most, defense, last year's Lakers outperformed this year's squad so far. An even more telling example would be the 2010 Boston Celtics. The Celtics threw out a combination of regular season injuries, bad execution, and lax effort which led them to a 50-32 record that would barely have qualified them for the playoffs in the Western Conference. Despite all of their failure, and all of their suffering, they put it all together in the playoffs and damn near won the NBA championship. You really want to call that team unprofessional?
When I look at the Lakers this season, I don't see a group of professionals making sure that the effort is there regardless of how they are feeling. I see a bunch of friends who are playing with high energy because it's so much fun to play together. They aren't playing like a team who wants to rest the 4th quarter so that the 2nd night of a back to back won't be so difficult. They are playing like a group of guys playing pick up who know that one loss would mean the end of their fun. Steve Blake isn't exhibiting professionalism when he throws passes off the backboard, or 60 foot lobs . Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher (and Matt Barnes and Steve Blake and and and) aren't acting professionally when they turn down open outside shots in favor of making the extra pass (or three) which lead to a dunk instead. When Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom turn the paint into a Harlem Globetrotters game, that's not professionalism.
I don't know why this year's Lakers enjoy playing with each other so much more than last year's squad, but they do. I don't know what has caused Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown to stop taking ill-advised shots in favor of a couple of extra passes and a much better shot later, but they have. I don't know if Kobe Bryant figured out he couldn't survive another season like last year's, where he tried to do too much and picked up all those injuries along the way, and so he's decided to let his teammates carry him for a while. I don't know if Steve Blake and Matt Barnes have infected the rest of the team with joy, or whether they are just riding the wave. I don't know if the coaches really got through to the entire team about the importance of ball movement, or a complete lack of need for any individual to "get theirs" (nobody in the Lakers rotation is without a contract next season) has led to a teamwide lack of individual desire to take shots. All I know is that the entire team (outside of Sasha Vujacic) is playing like all they want to do is keep playing with each other.
That chemistry, that joy, is what is fueling the Lakers early on in this season. Professionalism is performing at a high level no matter the circumstances. There will come a time when basketball will not be fun for the team. Whether on a long road trip, or when they start picking up injuries, or when they play 4 games in 5 nights, there will come a time when the Lakers will be fully conscious of the fact that playing basketball is their job. That is when the Lakers professionalism will be put under the microscope.
In the meantime, the Lakers are too busy having fun for their professionalism to even be considered.