OCT. 26: RING NIGHT
If you’re a Laker, your first responsibility to open the regular season is to accept your 2010 championship ring from NBA commissioner David Stern. Sounds like fun, right? Well … unless you’re Steve Blake, Matt Barnes or Theo Ratliff, free agent acquisitions mandated to sit and watch as Ron Artest did last Ring Night. Meanwhile, those in attendance will be the first to hear PA announcer Lawrence Tanter belt out the following in his silky baritone:
And now… on your feet. Time to greet the home team. Celebrating their 51st year in Southern California and 63nd year in the NBA … The franchise with 16 NBA titles … The most wins in NBA history … The two-time defending NBA champions … Yourrrrr Los Angeles Lakersss!
In Los Angeles to try and spoil the occasion are the Houston Rockets, armed with expectations of mammoth center Yao Ming’s return for the first time since he broke his foot on the STAPLES Center floor during Game 2 of the 2009 Western Semi’s. Also back is ’09 Lakers champ Trevor Ariza, who will watch the ring ceremony from the visitors bench.
Etc.: The Lakers went 3-1 against the Rockets last season with a team including since-departed players Josh Powell (Atlanta), Adam Morrison (free agent) and DJ Mbenga (free agent), who may have the chance to return and claim their respective rings.
NOVEMBER: BALANCED LIKE LAMAR’S DIET
Remember how much mileage we got out of Lamar Odom’s penchant for candy consumption – with little room for fruit or veggies – during L.A.’s 2008-09 title run? Last season, however, Odom was just as likely spotted housing anywhere between one and four oranges before a game or nibbling on a banana on the team plane, even if a routine team flight also included some REESE’S Pieces and a Welch’s Grape soda.
Just as Odom’s diet balanced out on the periphery, so has the Lakers’ schedule. This November features eight home and seven away games, after a split of 12 home and four away the previous season. In fact, 17 of L.A.’s first 21 games were at home in 2009-10, while this season delivers a split of 12 and nine. The Lakers opened the 2008-09 season 14-1, and 2009-10 at 18-3 thanks in part to a STAPLES-heavy diet. But with only nine of the team’s first 21 opponents playing .500+ basketball last year, not to mention yet all that talent on Mitch Kupchak’s roster, yet another a scorching start won’t surprise anybody.
Etc.: The Lakers were among the league leaders in back-to-back games last season with 20, 11 of which came in the road-road variety. This season, L.A. has only 15 B2B’s, including just six in which both are away from home. The first of the season comes on Nov. 16-17 at Milwaukee and Detroit, followed by a Nov. 30/Dec. 1 duo at Memphis and Houston. Needless to say, the fewer the B2B’s the better for Phil Jackson and his veteran squad.
DECEMBER: TRIP TO THE WHITE HOUSE, PART 2?
Back on Jan. 25, 2010, President Barack Obama trash talked Magic Johnson in perhaps the funniest segment of his address to the champs in the East Room of the White House. While detailing his excitement about meeting Phil Jackson – who of course coached Obama’s Chicago Bulls to six titles – Obama asked Magic if he remembered when Jordan’s Bulls defeated his Lakers in the 1991 Finals, even pantomiming MJ’s right-hand-to-left-hand layup.
Fast forward to Monday, December 13, 2010, when the Lakers will find themselves in the nation’s capital with an off day scheduled right in the middle of the first extended road trip of the season. Beginning in L.A. with the Clippers* on Dec. 8 and concluding 11 days later in Toronto, the trek marks the first of three lengthy trips on the season. While a second consecutive visit to the White House has not yet been confirmed or detailed, the Lakers have had “preliminary discussions with the White House about a visit to commemorate the 2009-10 championship,” according to team spokesman John Black.
**OK, so it’s more like a six-game road stretch.
Having already gone after Magic, whom might Obama needle this season?
Etc.: L.A. played eight home games to seven roadies in December of 2009, but the 2010 version will bring much more snow than sun: just five games come at home, and of the 10 on the road, six come in places more than likely to have snow (CHI, NJ, WAS, IND, PHI, TOR). Note to self: pack winter coat, glove, hat, Vujacic-style scarf (just kidding) and passport.
SUPERFRIENDS COMING FOR CHRISTMAS
What’s the nickname of choice for the newly-formed trio of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, anyway? Superfriends? Miami Thrice? Run-DLC? The Bermuda Triangle?
No matter what you call ‘em, The 3 Miamigos will be bringing their Miami Heat to Los Angeles for the NBA’s marquee regular season game. It’s the two-time defending champions against a team riding the wave of a crazy offseason into the most anticipated regular season in recent memory. The pure basketball matchup is enticing on paper: Kobe Bryant on Wade, Ron Artest on LeBron and L.A.’s three elite posts (Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum/Lamar Odom) on a Miami frontcourt headlined by Bosh. The Lakers make it extremely hard to double-team either Bryant, Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum, and the Heat should be able to do the same with The Superfriends thanks in part to Mike Miller’s ability to rain threes. Yet where the Lakers have an advantage is no different from their advantage against every NBA team: the paint.
The only question will be how much the game means to respective teams. The 2008 Christmas game saw the Lakers take vengeance on the Celtics from the previous season’s Finals loss, but 2009’s X-Mas defeat to Cleveland lacked a similar sense of urgency. After two straight titles, will the Lakers feel like they have less to prove in the regular season, or will they want to show the Heat which team they’ll have to beat should they get out of the East? How many days until Christmas, anyways?
Etc.: December is L.A.’s easiest month of the season from a strength of schedule standpoint as only four opponents made the playoffs last season. Kobe Bryant’s MVP chances should also start to magnify: James and Wade should cancel some of each other’s votes, and if Miami rushes out ahead of Orlando, limit those for Dwight Howard as well; Kevin Durant’s chances will ride with whether or not Oklahoma City is able to match increased expectations; and players like Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams must find a way to vault their teams above L.A. Alas, after an offseason spent resting and building up his body, don’t bet against the ever-hungry Kobe.
JANUARY AND FEBRUARY: CALLING THE BENCH
The high-profile free agents from the Superfriends to Amare Stoudemire (PHO to NY) and Carlos Boozer (UTA to CHI) got their deserved buzz in the offseason, but the Lakers quietly improved with the free agent acquisitions of Steve Blake and Matt Barnes. If L.A. had a weakness throughout its last two campaigns, it was getting steady and reliable play off its bench. As such, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak moved his chess pieces around to snag two players that should benefit Jackson’s rotations both physically and mentally.
Blake is almost a perfect fit on paper for a triangle offense point guard given how his upper echelon hoops IQ and team-first attitude come with shooting skills (39 percent from three in his seven-year career), table-setting ability (6.1 assists in just 26 minutes for the Clippers) and capability to defend the league’s best ball-handling guards (he’s an elite athlete).
Barnes, meanwhile, earned Kobe’s respect by refusing to back down throughout a well-traveled career, most notably in L.A.’s narrow loss at Orlando last season***. The player who takes over Josh Powell’s role as most-heavily tattooed is a willing shooter who hit an efficient 48 percent from the field with the Magic, and joins Bryant and Artest to form the league’s top trio of feisty perimeter defenders.
***You had to love Kobe’s anti-reaction to Barnes’ fake inbounds pass.
Why does this matter particularly in January and February, you wonder? First, the schedule starts to get tough: Oklahoma City, Utah, Boston, San Antonio and Atlanta all come to STAPLES, while the Lakers’ nine road games in a brutal February stretch include visits to Boston, Orlando, Portland and Charlotte (the Bobcats may seem out of place on that list, but L.A. has gotten crushed by double digits two straight times). Second, mental fatigue generally starts to creep in as the proverbial dog days begin, the shine of a new season starting to wear off when a veteran team can’t wait for the playoffs to begin. Enter Barnes and Blake to provide not just their skills and more rest for Bryant, Artest and Derek Fisher, but also to infuse the bench and by extension the team with their collective first-championship-seeking energy.
Etc.: Heading to New Jersey along with Jordan Farmar will be his X-Box and flat screen TV’s that he nicely lugged along and then set up on the team’s longer road trips … this could be an issue. Farmar would often team with Lamar Odom to face Adam Morrison and Luke Walton in FIFA soccer, but with Morrison – by far the best gamer – also departing, who’s going to step up? This most certainly needs to be figured out prior to the longest trip of the year (Feb. 5-16).
ALL-STAR BREAK IN LOS ANGELES
While only injury could keep Bryant or Gasol out of the All-Star game in their own arena (go ahead and knock on wood … can’t hurt) for the third straight time, Andrew Bynum is likely the only other Laker with a legit chance to get in. The 22-year-old center had a legitimate argument to make last season’s West roster before losing out to Stoudemire, and while Amare’s heading East, vote-getting-machine Yao returns. The rest of Bynum’s opponents – Chris Kaman and Al Jefferson, I guess – wouldn’t want to match up with him in the post.
Bynum quietly completely dominated stretches of time for the Lakers in each of the last two seasons when healthy, routinely going for 20 and 10, and was much better than will be remembered while battling a debilitating meniscus tear in his right knee throughout the 2010 title run.
Whether or not he cracks his first All-Star game, the break comes at a good time for the Lakers, who’ll be coming off that seven-game trip that concludes on Feb. 16 at Cleveland.
Etc.: Phil Jackson isn’t the biggest fan of coaching All-Star games. The 13-time champ says it’s primarily due to the extra travel during a much-desired break, and was happy to stay home last season thanks to the NBA’s policy that coaches can’t go in back-to-back years. His team could very well put him back on the bench at All-Star this season by posting the West’s best at-break record for a third straight season … but since plane flights won’t be necessary, it would only be fitting for the league’s greatest ever to coach its best players once again.
MARCH: SPRING (SCHEDULE) BREAK IN L.A.
Last spring, the Lakers did their breaking all over the country, staying home on the Pacific for only four games. But this March, they can set up purple and gold tents from Malibu to Laguna, thanks to a favorable schedule that features eight home contests to five roadies, and not even a single back-to-back.
Furthermore, L.A. gets all five road games out of the way by the 12th, even if the visiting hotel stretch includes the toughest four-game stretch of the season — through San Antonio, Atlanta, Miami and Dallas. But after the southern swoop come seven straight home games spread across 18 days, meaning Kobe can sleep in his Newport home night after night, Lamar can hang out with wife Khloe and Pau can eat sushi at his favorite restaurants. And while the home stretch is anything but easy – the Magic, Blazers, Suns and Mavs all come to downtown L.A. – the Lakers have lost only 12 times at home in the past two seasons. Should they be able to run off a nice home stretch and clinch the West as was accomplished the past two seasons, they could very well make their eight difficult games in April far less important heading into the playoffs.
Those games include four on the road (@ UTA, G.S., POR and SAC) and four at home (DEN, UTA, OKC and S.A.), which are just difficult enough to make the Lakers focus on Jackson’s message to stay in the moment in March.
All things considered, L.A.’s 2010-11 schedule is far more balanced than the home-early, away-late 2009-10 version, and offers the Lakers a considerable advantage with only 15 back-to-backs, compared with 20 last season and 19 in 2008-09. Securing home court advantage for the playoffs has always been a Zen Master priority, and anything less than the top seed in the West would be a disappointment to the Lakers, one that would have nothing to do with scheduling.
Etc.: Each season, NBA teams play opponents from the other conference twice, and opponents from their own conference four times … with an exception: each team plays four teams in its own conference only three times. This season, Denver (April 3) and Dallas (March 31) – arguably the second- and third-best Western teams – come to STAPLES only once apiece, while the Lakers go to Oklahoma City (Feb. 27) and Houston (Dec. 1) just one time each.
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
- @ Phoenix, Oct. 29: A rematch of the WCF, with Amare out and Hedo Turkoglu in.
- @ Denver, Nov. 11: The Nuggets’ first chance to show that they’re still a title contender.
- vs. Miami, Dec. 25: Obviously.
- vs. Boston, Jan. 30: L.A.’s first chance to boo the Celtics since the dramatic Game 7.
- vs Dallas, Mar. 31: Potential West playoff seed implications in the last of L.A.’s big home stretch