You couldn't pen a worse start to the season for the Lakers.
With a 2-10 record after their first 12 games, and the star pair of LeBron James and Anthony Davis both experiencing early ailments, the team’s initial hole in the standings felt insurmountable even before the league’s race finished the first leg.
The outlook was not only bleak, but the bottom kept proving more steep. As the losses piled up and manifested themselves in different ways, a feeling of claustrophobia began to seep out from every missed shot, rotation, and chance. The team was enclosed from all sides by their own minuscule margin for error, and the bright preseason aspirations they once had began to dim into simply a distant flicker.
Fortunately, the Lakers began to climb. Sitting at 7-11 now as of this article, they’ve almost ascended out of their pit behind exceptional play from Davis, timely contributions across the board, and the slow emergence of good health. Things are finally beginning to look up for the team that was only sinking.
However, if November represented the team’s rose period, December has the markings and dangers of transitioning right back to blue. Behind not only a more difficult slate of games, the upcoming month also pushes the Lakers closer to the much discussed fork in the road that is a potential trade. And with it, the possible ramifications to their long-term trajectory.
Although it is best to view the NBA season through a macro lens, how well the team can weather the storm both on and off the court during this micro phase could prove to be the stretch that ends up changing the course of the season.
What follows is a closer look at the critical month ahead.
A schedule filled with landmines
A win is ultimately a win regardless of the opponent. This is especially the case for a team that struggled as much as the Lakers had to start the season. That said, it should also not be overlooked that the team have recently benefited from a softer schedule when analyzing their turnaround of late.
With three wins coming against the Spurs alone in their last four games, the squad have fortunately taken advantage of the cushy portion of their calendar, because their upcoming slate will likely be more challenging for a myriad of reasons.
For one, according to Positive Residual no other team in the league will face a tougher strength of schedule than the Lakers will in the month of December.
There will be very few “easy” ones coming up. The Lakers will have 11 games against teams who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, and a few of those “non-playoff” matchups are against the likes of Luka Doncic’s Mavericks and the always feisty Miami Heat.
Because of this, the team will undoubtedly need to prove able to rise to the level of their competition if they hope to stay afloat.
Beyond the difficulty of the opposition the Lakers will have to withstand in December, the team will also have to prepare themselves for the sheer volume of competition and travel pitfalls that awaits them.
The Lakers will play 16 games in December, which is tied for 2nd most in the NBA. Of those games, 12 will come on the road (the team is 2-6 away from home this year), which is more than any other team in the month.
To perhaps make matters even worse, the team will face three back-to-backs during this stretch and will travel 10,000 miles in the month — a number that only the Clippers will surpass — according to Positive Residual.
This smörgåsbord of obstacles will assuringly be taxing both physically and mentally. Fortunately, the team has already showed capable of bouncing back from hardship and will need to do so again if they plan to take a respectable record into the New Year.
The unofficial start of trade season
Outside of James and Davis, the most common talking point surrounding the Lakers continues to be whether or not they make a trade. This topic of conversation stems all the way back to last season's trade deadline and has since only exponentially grown with a new rumor emerging on what feels like a near daily basis.
While the hypothetical deals have varied in shapes and sizes, the one crux of the reported discussions continues to be Russell Westbrook.
Despite his improved play and acceptance of a bench role, the simple math revolving Westbrook’s contract represents the team’s sole ability to net a significant — singular or multiple — pieces back to help shore up the holes currently present on the roster.
Although nothing has drastically changed on the Westbrook front, December’s arrival does introduce and open up new options that may finally pave the way for a deal to transpire. If for no other reason, it coalesces with the reported timetable the team has laid out for itself.
Despite the exact dates and verbiage changing since then, this is what ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski shared regarding what the team’s internal thinking was when it came to shaking up the roster back in October:
“I’m told to expect Rob Pelinka and the Lakers to wait until post-Thanksgiving, 20 games into the season and see what teams may start pivoting, who don’t start off well who decide that they may start to unload players and perhaps get involved in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes to get down in the lottery.”
With Thanksgiving come and gone, and the team about to quickly surpass the 20-game mark, there has been little in the ways of traction of a potential more. However, more details have since emerged about the Lakers’ plans which essentially revolve around waiting until at least December 15th before deciding to pull the trigger on any potential deals
According to Dave McMenamin, the team is circling this date in particular, because it marks the opening in which contracts that where signed in the offseason can be included in trade.
While pushing the can further down the road toward may feel arbitrary, as McMenamin pointed out, waiting until December 15th does allows them to canvas a larger pool of players across the league in which they can target.
This also gives the team the ability to utilize their own talent in a potential trade, perhaps including one of the rare non-minimum contracts on the roster like Lonnie Walker to match money for example.
With all that said, fans would probably be wise to not furiously check their phones the second December 15th rolls around expecting a trade. However, the added optionality does make a potential move easier in theory, and with more games to still be played between then, the added clarity of what landscape of the league is may present new avenues for the Lakers that were previously unexplored.
Although December will only account for 16 games out of 82, the direction of the Lakers’ season feels to be on the precipice of taking a critical turn. Was their poor first stretch of the year the precursor of a rough campaign? Or was it an illusion, with their recent encouraging play more indicative of their true talent?
Not everything will be crystalized come the New Year, but things tend to change in the NBA as quickly as a fast-break possession.
How well the Lakers can play between now and then will ultimately not only impact their chances at the postseason, but also alter the calculus of how willing the front office will be in deciding to part with the club’s two future first round picks in a potential trade.
One way or the other, we will learn a lot about the Lakers in the upcoming weeks. The harshness of Winter is looming, and now is the time for the team to fortify and prepare to take shape.