Of the 30 teams in the NBA, only two have a harder remaining schedule on paper than the Los Angeles Lakers (.525 remaining opponent winning percentage) do, according to Tankathon: The Milwaukee Bucks (.551) and the New York Knicks (.528).
With that level of theoretical opponent difficulty awaiting the currently 20-19 Lakers as they try to make up ground in the Western Conference standings, it is fair to prognosticate that the team has a tough road ahead. But head coach Frank Vogel said at the team’s Thursday practice that he’s not concerned, and his reasoning honestly makes quite a bit of sense, especially coming from such an eternal optimist.
“I don’t really worry about it too much,” Vogel said when asked about the projected difficulty of the Lakers’ remaining slate. “I feel like we have a group, especially when we get healthy, that is going to be able to compete with anybody in the league when we play to our ability.
“The strength of schedule doesn’t really change if that’s your mindset, that when you play to your ability that you can beat anyone,” Vogel continued. “We feel that way about our group, so we don’t really spend a lot of time focusing on that, and we just play the games as they come.”
Even if the Lakers getting healthier and continuing to build cohesion obviously won’t change the records of their upcoming opponents that factor into such SoS rankings, it will likely change the caliber of team the Lakers are going to be when they head into those matchups. And as the team has demonstrated with their recent 4-1 stretch of play in their last five games, they have been more capable of stringing wins together since embracing their new small-ball identity than they’ve shown for most of the season.
Plus, as our own Nicole Ganglani pointed out last night, with a win against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, the Lakers have a chance to move into fifth place in the West if the Dallas Mavericks also lose tonight. So it’s not like they’re as far behind as their barely over .500 record would indicate in most seasons.
There is also the fact of the matter that this season has been a total crapshoot due to injuries and illnesses. Like, maybe the Lakers’ schedule looks tough on paper, but who is to say that their harder opponents won’t be hit by health and safety protocols or injuries at exactly the wrong time? No one is rooting for that, but the point is that the possibility makes projecting much of anything in this weird season really, really tough.
Finally, semi-related to that last point, there is also just the argument that Vogel is trying make: That these Lakers have played way below what they feel like their level is for much of the season. If they continue to improve like they have in recent weeks, then they’re going to be underdogs in a lot fewer of these matchups than they would have been previously.
And if they want to win a title, they can’t be scared of those kinds of teams anyway. That’s the level of opponent they’re going to have to go through when it matters. So if their remaining schedule is really as tough as the stats say, then they’re going to get a head start on preparing for it right as they begin to get healthy.
Maybe, in the end, that could be a blessing in disguise.