Christmas Day has become the unofficial start of the NBA season during recent years, a secondary opening day when the casual fan finally tune into basketball after a fall spent with the NFL.
As a result, Christmas games hold an extra level of importance. Playing on the holiday is a status symbol for NBA teams. Even if the Knicks somehow always end up in your Christmas stocking, generally the teams who have demonstrated a measure of success earn a slot on the league’s flagship holiday.
Christmas Day is also one of first chances for many teams to showcase themselves on national television — after all, Christmas is the first time of the year when games are available on ABC, for all the world to see. That means the games invariably make a statement, regardless of how the teams in question see it.
Every Laker fan — and a number of NBA fans — have had the Lakers’ game against the Warriors marked on their calendar from the minute the schedule was released. This is year four of LeBron playing Golden State on Christmas, but the first time James will be doing so in purple and gold. When the Lakers made the marquee free agent signing of the summer, this was the goal they had in mind: Competing with the Warriors.
Step one has been accomplished, with Los Angeles moved to prime time on the Christmas schedule. Step two is seeing how well the Lakers actually fare against their foes to the north (side note: it’s weird how that now refers to Golden State instead of Sacramento).
The players, led by LeBron, have made it clear that they can’t be judged against Golden State at this point in the season. The Warriors are two-time defending champions and boast years of continuity with the majority of their core, and even Kevin Durant is in his third season with the team. There’s a level of institutional familiarity the Lakers can’t hope to replicate at this point, and that’s before considering a talent gap wider than the distance between Los Angeles and the Bay Area that exists between a team with four (and soon five) All-Stars versus a team with one.
But while this is obviously still a regular season game that counts for no more than the other 81, when LeBron James plays the Warriors, it matters. When the Lakers play on national television, it matters. When a “contender” plays the league’s defending champion, it matters.
James has been trumpeting patience since the preseason, when the teams played each other twice. Even if his end game in coming to Los Angeles is to add to his collection of titles, James knows that it might be a long process, and the Lakers have work to do before considering themselves on the same level as the Warriors.
One only needs to look at the uniforms to see the chasm that still exists between the two teams. Los Angeles will be probably be wearing its regular white jerseys while Golden State will be debuting its “earned edition” town gold uniforms, a special Nike look for the teams that made the NBA playoffs last year. In case you forgot, the Lakers didn’t make the cut.
Thus far this season, Los Angeles hasn’t resembled a championship-caliber team, at least not for consistent stretches, even if they’re only three losses behind the Warriors in the standings. If ever there were a moment for this team to prove it is more than just a mishmash roster constructed around the best player in the game (or for said best player in the game to assert his ownership of that title), a matchup against Golden State is the best opportunity.
The Lakers have played four games against teams currently with better records, and have gone 2-2, though the two losses to Denver and Toronto have come in rather horrific fashion. The Raptors are probably the closest approximation of Golden State’s talent level in the league, and Los Angeles did not acquit itself well when Toronto came to town.
There’s also the matter of the Lakers generally laying an egg when it comes to playing on the road. They’re currently 7-9 away from home, and five of those losses have come by double-digits, including three this month. The Western Conference figures to be a fight to the death for playoff positioning, and every single victory counts, especially if tiebreaker scenarios come into play down the line.
Let’s also not forget that this is a chance for Los Angeles to show off its roster to two of the prime free agents in the class of 2019. Landing Kevin Durant would be the ultimate validation of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka’s grand plan, and Klay Thompson would be an enormously popular and productive second choice.
Everyone in the NBA is building their team for the chance to take down Golden State. The Lakers hired their head coach away from the Warriors, allured by not only his Laker ties but also the experience he gained from helming one of the most successful rosters of all time. The new front office looked at the model that Golden State had created and tried to combat its weaknesses by assembling a roster with multiple playmakers.
So regardless of whether James sees this as “a measuring stick”, a Christmas Day contest against the Warriors will have implications for how the Lakers view themselves and their potential going forward. There are other teams to worry about in the west, but make no mistake, this is the test L.A. has been preparing for. They’ll get three more chances, but it would be nice to make this one count.
Editor’s Note: The Lakers tip off against the Warriors at 5:00 PST on ABC, and this will serve as the preview and thread. Enjoy the game everyone, and happy holidays.