There is perhaps no team in the NBA who can better appreciate the current predicament of the Los Angeles Lakers than tonight's opponent, the Dallas Mavericks. Trying to build a contender around an iconic but aging superstar? Check. Spurned by Dwight Howard? Check. Planning many years in advance to have the cap space with which to pursue big time free agents? Check. Entering this season with a mediocre team, not good enough to truly compete for a title, but not bad enough to compete for a top 5 draft pick? Check.
In many, many ways, looking at the Dallas Mavericks must seem a lot like looking into a mirror for the Lakers. The situations are not exact parallels, however. Since whiffing on Dwight Howard (sound familiar?), Dallas has not rested on its laurels, or on the cap space they planned on giving to Dwight. Instead, they've brought in some interesting new players to build around Dirk and Shawn Marion as franchise cornerstones. Enter Mont'a Ellis and Jose Calderon, the Mavericks' two marquee free agent signings of the summer, both signed to long term deals. The Lakers, on the other hand, decided to try to make this season work with the kinds of bit part players that could be signed on one year deals only. They didn't have the kind of options that Dallas did, because the Lakers were over the salary cap even after Dwight Howard's departure. That said, even if they weren't over the cap, one gets the impression the Lakers would still have done everything in their power to enter 2014 with a completely blank slate.
Still, both the Lakers and the Mavericks enter this season with similar goals. As Kirk alluded to in today's Q&A, the Mavericks' best case scenario is simply to make the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference, which sounds an awful lot like the most ambitious target for the Lakers as well. The Lakers probably need a lot more to go right for them health-wise to compete than do the Mavericks, but these teams are in roughly the same weight class. Which means tonight's game is of greater importance than most, in terms of its effect on the overall success or failure of the season.
A win tonight would be a clear early statement from the Lakers that they do, in fact, intend to be competitive this year. It would announce that the Lakers may not be capable of running with the big boys, but they can more than hold their own against everybody else. Beating teams like Dallas is exactly what a team like the Lakers needs to do in order to make the most of their relatively low expectations. A loss wouldn't exactly be devastating. In fact, a loss may be the expected result, because this is a road contest, and all things being equal (as they more or less appear to be between the two teams) the home team usually wins.
At the very least, we should hope for the Lakers to improve on their only other road performance of the season, in which they were annihilated by the Golden State Warriors. Golden State is much better than the Mavericks are, and more prone to sudden bouts of annihilation, but it would be nice to see the Lakers prove they won't just fall apart on the road this season, because the players which have made the difference in games this season, both good and bad, has been the bench. The bench is filled with a lot more youth than we're used to, which means the Lakers may be far more susceptible to the good at home, bad on the road dynamic that many other teams suffer from.
We'll get another clue tonight. It's a winnable game for the Lakers, against a team that will be their direct competition for one of those final Western Conference playoff spots, but it is not one we can expect them to win. Dallas has slightly more talent, and they have the home court advantage. But, a competitive showing or, even better, a victory, would go a long way towards proving the Lakers have what it takes to make a run at the postseason.