It was a running joke during the ill-fated 2012-13 season. Anytime the struggling Lakers looked like they were turning a corner or had what seemed to be a breakthrough win, then head coach Mike D’Antoni (or one of his players) would proclaim in one way or another that “the season begins now.” It was a way of resetting expectations, and for the team to find a rallying point for actual, lasting change that could impact the future of their season.
There must have been a half-dozen new starts to the Lakers’ season that year, every one of them offering a renewed hope served against the backdrop of frustration and disappointment of all that had occurred to that point. But ultimately, that season will remembered for what it did not deliver rather than what it did; for injuries and bickering, and, ultimately, for failure.
For the harshest critics of this season’s Lakers, that year is the original prototype for what we’re watching today. A team that shook up its roster, pulling together a group of (current and former) stars and role players who did not quite align together, much less with their head coach. Fits and starts following the injury-stricken roster beat for beat, never quite finding its way together. An encouraging win — some might even say a turning point — followed by a disappointing loss, followed by, followed by, followed by... you get the picture.
The pessimism of this year’s team is baked into past truths already lived, and if you’re wondering why some have already written this current team off, that reality combined with the polarizing nature of Russell Westbrook — and his perceived fit, or lack thereof, next to LeBron James — are the main reasons.
I’d argue, however, that the story of this season’s Lakers has not yet been written. At least not in ink.
Like sportswriters who love to get a head-start on their deadlines, some of the ideas we’re seeing expressed lately feel like the framework of a well intentioned pre-write. They reflect the skeletal structure of a future already determined, laid out in advance. We know how this ends because we’ve seen something like it before. Or, maybe more to the point, our minds were already mostly made up and nothing we have seen to this point has obscured our perspective.
I’m not here to argue you out of this stance if it’s where you sit. I’m really not. But, allow me to channel my inner Mike D’Antoni anyway...
Even with LeBron James returning to the Lakers injury report with a sore knee and being ruled out for the team’s Thursday loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, his day-to-day status makes this the healthiest the Lakers have been since training camp. At no other point in the year has this much of the roster been available to Frank Vogel and, considering the delicate nature of this roster construction, with so much depending not just on the three stars, but on the specifics of which role players flank them, it’s hard to understate how much this matters.
Further, it’s important to understand just how much has been learned about this team over the course of the last 49 games and how much that informs decision making on how to get the most out of the group now. Gone are the days of playing DeAndre Jordan and Kent Bazemore. Even Trevor Ariza has been relegated to DNP-CD’s the last two games in favor of Stanley Johnson (and his new, two-year contract). Frank Vogel and his coaches seem committed to playing their best players more, and their worst players not at all.
Beyond that, the schematic alignment of these groups are better too. The smaller groups are switching more, the bigger groups are playing more conventional drop coverages, and the team’s offensive spacing principles are geared more towards generating as much room as possible for the team’s stars to do what they do best — attack the rim, or at least play offense without multiple defenders in their laps all game.
Don’t get me wrong, I can understand how the loss to the 76ers feels like a step back. LeBron sat, the role players stunk it up offensively, and there were enough defensive breakdowns in the third quarter that served as a not so subtle reminder of how far away this team can feel on that side of the floor. So, again, if it seems like the this season just started! vibes from after the Nets game came crashing back to earth for the 139th time this season and you’re just sick of it, I understand.
But, from my vantage point, there were some positives too. Anthony Davis looked dominant for most of the game, outplaying Joel Embiid for the majority of the time they were on the floor together. Russ looked mostly comfortable looking for his own offense (particularly in isolation), even if some of his turnover issues returned. Melo’s 3-ball wasn’t falling, but he still showed some flashes as a scoring threat against a big and physical defense, giving the team some pop off the bench.
So, in looking at the big picture, I’m not ready to simply bury this team. Not yet. Assuming LeBron’s day-to-day status turns into him being back into the fold and available to play soon, this Lakers team is finally in a position to be the best version of themselves. They’ll have their three stars, a healthy set of role players, and as much alignment as they’ve had all season between style of play and players who project to play a meaningful role.
Does this guarantee they’ll rip off a string of wins and start to play amazing? Of course it doesn’t. But, if they were to ever have a chance of doing that at all, even 50 games into the season, it would take this set of circumstances to happen.
And, for that reason alone, one might just say that a new season starts now.