With the latest installment of "The Fish that saved Los Angeles" printed in fresh ink, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves limping into their first long road trip of the season. They boast one of the least impressive three game winning streaks in basketball history, and it comes on the heels of the franchise's first four game losing streak since returning to relevancy in 2008. Andrew Bynum still hasn't returned, and Derrick Caracter's day-to-day ankle sprain has placed the very idea of front court depth in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol is being forced to gobble up minutes like a Hungry, Hungry Hippo, and in doing so, he looks about as beat down as ... sorry, there's just no way to complete that line without an offensive attempt at domestic violence humor.
In other words, it's the perfect time to go out on the road for 10 days straight.
Phil Jackson loves a long road trip. He believes that a long road trip can force a team to lock into focus, instilling a circle the wagons mentality that will ultimately benefit everyone in the long run. His Jordan era Bulls teams usually killed during their annual Circus road trip, and in each of the last few seasons, the Lakers have used their first road trip to make clear their post-season intentions. In 2007-2008, the Lakers were 3-4 after Andrew Bynum's season ending injury, but a 7-2 nine game road trip (which not so coincidentally coincided with the acquisition of one Pau Gasol) established the Lakers as a legitimate contender. The next year, the Lakers preceded a six game road trip with one of their worst losses of the year, losing to the Charlotte Bobcats at home. They lost Andrew Bynum to another (nearly) season ending injury, and responded with a 6-0 sweep including a takedown of two prime contenders for that season's championship, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celitcs. Last year doesn't quite fit the mold, as the Lakers entered an eight game roadie on a three game winning streak, and their 5-3 performance was a relative disappointment. However, in perhaps the only relevant game on that entire trip, the Lakers once again defeated Boston in Boston, a feat they would need to duplicate in order to pick up banner #16 at the end of the season. Three long road trips, three winning records, three messages delivered to the rest of the league.
Now the only question is whether the Lakers have it in them to duplicate the feat. It goes without saying that they have the talent, as only two teams on the trip even come close to being considered difficult opponents, and no opponent is in the top 10 of the league's standings. The Lakers have done well in this situaiton, even when faced with the same depth and consistency issues currently plaguing this year's squad. And yet, until proven otherwise, something feels different about this trip, and considering how the Lakers have fared in the past, their performance has nowhere to go but down.
The front court depth, and Pau Gasol's fitness induced run of bad form, is a huge concern. If Pau couldn't recover for the 2nd night of a back to back even after 3 days off in his own bed, it's hard to imagine him being ready to suit up for the same situation having travelled from Washington to Indiana. The Lakers are very much a team in need of rhythm right now, and it's hard to see them being able to develop it as their circadian rhythm is being dragged through the ringer with not one, but two 1 P.M. EST tip offs on successive Sundays.
Andrew Bynum is scheduled to return about halfway through the trip against Washington, and one can not overstate how important he will be to the Lakers eventual title aspirations. That said, Bynum is notorious for hitting the ground at a crawl (see what I did there?), so the only immediate benefit from his return should be the decrease in Pau's minutes, which may or may not be enough to kick start Gasol's motor again. Perhaps of greater concern, at least as it pertains to wins and losses, is that the road tends to be an unforgiving place for teams who can't execute down the stretch of close games, and the Lakers' late game execution (last night not withstanding) has been pathetic over the last 7 games. It ain't easy to blow teams out in their own building, and a fair bit of last year's success away from Staples was built upon the end game ability of Kobe Bryant and friends, but this year, Kobe hasn't been up to his old tricks, and the Lakers have looked toothless on offense down the stretch.
I'm not going to lie to you and say that this trip will communicate anything about how the Lakers will fare in May and June. As two time defending champs, the only game that will deliver that message will be their last. But if the Lakers have any kind of serious aspirations towards a decent record (60+ wins) this season, this trip will need to serve as a jumping off point. Otherwise, the Lakers will likely be stuck with the 2009-2010 Boston Celtics route in the playoffs, and we all know how that might come back to bite them in the end.