There is a term often thrown around in the NBA called a schedule loss. It’s when a myriad of circumstances like travel, altitude or simply playing too many games in too short of a time period combine to put a team at an inherent disadvantage before the ball is even tipped.
Schedule losses are ubiquitous in this league. In an 82-game schedule, there are certain times when a team just doesn’t have it, and they can often chalk it up to outside factors before moving on to the next game.
Thus far in the 2019-20 season, the Lakers don’t seem to abide by a belief in schedule losses. They believe they can be competitive every single time they take the floor, whether that’s for the fourth time in seven nights, they don’t have one of their star players in uniform, or it’s the second night of a back-to-back in a city where nightlife is a notorious problem. Every game is winnable no matter the circumstance.
The Lakers just completed their sixth back-to-back of the season against the Knicks and the Nets on Wednesday and Thursday, winning both games in disparate fashions. On the surface, neither of those two wins over sub-.500 teams is all that impressive, but in doing so, the Lakers improved their record in back-to-backs to 12-0 this year.
In games when the second-oldest team in the league could easily use the tired legs or a host of other schedule-related factors as an excuse, the Lakers instead continue to pick up victories.
“(It’s) just been a mentality,” Anthony Davis said on Spectrum SportsNet after the win over the Nets. “We just try to not fall in the trap of being tired or anything of that nature, and not having fresh legs.
“Guys [who have] been in this league for a long time know how it feels, so I think it just makes us lock in more knowing that we probably could be tired on back-to-backs, but we just try to fight through it and come up with wins.”
In addition to their success in back-to-backs, the Lakers have gone 24-1 against opponents under .500. It is all part of a philosophy the team has embodied with regards to the schedule: the regular season matters to the Lakers.
That seems like such a simple idea, but it’s almost a controversial take in this era of the NBA, when the first 82 games are regarded as a prequel to what happens in April through June. Back-to-backs aren’t important because those don’t happen in the playoffs; neither do games against teams with losing records (although there might be an exception with this year’s 8-seed in the West). It doesn’t particularly matter if the Warriors won 73 games in 2015-16 if they didn’t win a ring when the season was said and done.
But the Lakers don’t view the regular season through that lens. A franchise that hasn’t had a winning record through the first 82 for the last seven years can’t afford the luxury of looking ahead.
Championship contenders have varied approaches to the regular season. Some teams come out of the gate hot and trample through the regular season en route to a dominant performance. Those aforementioned Warriors teams or this year’s Bucks are good examples of that template.
Other squads build up to the playoffs, using the regular season as an experimental phase for the postseason. That latter model generally happens when a team has some experience together. If a group has the institutional know-how of what it takes to win, they can flip the proverbial switch, like in the second year of the Lakers’ 2000-02 three-peat.
When a team hasn’t won before, there’s no previous experience to fall back upon. This year’s Lakers are a new team, but they carry the stain of a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2013, and hasn’t won a playoff game for longer than that. The Lakers are made up of veterans who have experienced varied levels of success at their previous stops; collectively, however, they haven’t accomplished anything.
The Lakers don’t hang regular-season banners; there isn’t a Presidents’ Trophy for the team with the best record before the playoffs start. The wins the Lakers are earning now aren’t going to be memorialized at a future date. But they matter now.
This team expects to contend in April, and hopefully May and June. Those games will demand a level of preparation and execution that the regular season doesn’t, and there is no time like the present to practice for those situations. The Lakers can spend this time to learn about their roster, build winning habits and create a culture of accountability.
In recent years, LeBron James has been the poster boy for flipping the switch late in the season. He and his Cavaliers teams coasted through the regular season, easily earned postseasons berths and then locked in come playoff time. It seemed like James hoped to follow that blueprint last season, but an injury derailed his plans. He certainly isn’t letting anything get in his way this year, as he attacks the regular season with a ferocity the league hasn’t seen from him in quite some time.
The veterans on the Lakers understand that championship windows don’t come around very often in the NBA. When an opportunity presents itself, teams have to seize it. That’s why this regular season is so important for this team, and this franchise. For too long, the Lakers have been a laughingstock, a pushover for other teams in the league. They haven’t even had to worry about preparing for beyond the regular season.
Before this year started, the Lakers said all the right things about committing to the process of becoming a great team. That meant getting better throughout training camp, through preseason, and through every single game and practice during the season. They telegraphed their intentions about taking every game seriously, and they’re following through on that promise.
There have been set backs. A four-game losing streak and crushing rivalry defeats show how far the Lakers are from where they want to be. But the important takeaway is that they keep putting in the work, and they keep trying to win. The schedule gives them 82 opportunities to figure out how to make this team a champion. They’re taking advantage of every single one.