Hating on the Lakers: Do they deserve it?

The Lakers are struggling a bit of late. But does that mean they deserve to be counted out?

As a Yankee fan, I’m certainly accustomed to having everyone around me hate my team because of its immense success. In that regard, the Lakers stand out as the NBA’s Yankees. Competitive every year, they win because they have assembled a roster with no intention of staying anywhere near the salary cap. And believe me: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Sasha Vujacic are among my least favorite players in the entire league.

Right now, having lost three games on the road in the past week to the Hawks, Hornets, and Thunder, the Lakers are under intense scrutiny. Many analysts are starting to doubt whether it’s a championship-caliber team anymore. The team that was the slam-dunk favorite from the Western conference (and to win the title) at the beginning of the season is now, according to the media, incredibly vulnerable.

Despite my disdain for the bearers of purple and gold, I’d like to quell some of the suggestions that the Lakers don’t have what it takes to make the NBA finals anymore.

It’s true — the Lakers are not as good on the road as they are within the friendly confines of the Staples Center. In fact, they are 32-5 in Los Angeles and only 22-16 away from home. That’s been clear for most of the year. However, so much emphasis is being placed on specifically the most recent road-trip defeats, and it shouldn’t be all that important. After all, those three losses are their only ones in their last ten contests.

The Lakers’ schedule was frontloaded with home games, so as they won again and again at the beginning of the season (playing many more games at home) people started to take notice — their immaculate play in November and December must indicate that they’re destined to repeat, right? The Lakers are definitely good, but they got overhyped because of all their home games. Now that they lose a few on the road, it’s such a stark difference from what fans saw earlier that it’s shocking and causes panic. But they should be expected to lose more games during the toughest parts of their schedule.

It draws a parallel for me to the BCS and college football. A top team loses a game in the early part of the season, and no one really worries all that much about it; more importantly, its ranking isn’t affected all that dramatically. Lose a game at the end of the season, though, and the ranking pundits castigate the team much more brutally. That’s what the Lakers are experiencing here.

I understand that it may appear to be setting up a trend for them to be losing on the road, but consider the specifics of this most recent road trip for the Lakers. Two of the three teams they lost to will be in the playoffs and will probably advance past the first round. The third is New Orleans with Chris Paul back. Let me tell you: the Hornets would have a much more impressive record if Paul had been healthy all year (even though Darren Collison is filling in better than he could have been expected to). And the Lakers have a well-known weakness to quick point guards like Paul whether they’re playing in Los Angeles, in New Orleans, in Cleveland, or on Mars. It’s not all that surprising Paul tore them up.

Moreover, they’re missing Andrew Bynum and Luke Walton. Let me be completely blunt: with Bynum out with injuries, Lamar Odom is forced to start in Pau Gasol’s place who slides to the center to fill in with Bynum — they lose a negligible amount of production from the starting five. However, take Odom off the Lakers’ bench and it is probably the worst set of reserves in the entire NBA. Jordan Farmar? OK. But the rest of them belong in the D-League if you ask me.

With respect to the playoffs, both those guys should be back and healthy. Furthermore, if the Lakers hold on to the top spot in the conference (which seems highly likely) they’ll have home-court advantage for every round prior to the NBA Finals. They won’t necessarily have to win on the road. And if you think they’ll get swept as the guests by any of the teams they face anyway, you’re mistaken.

So have faith, Lakers fans. And continue to hate, non-Lakers fans. They’re absolutely not throwing in the cards yet. A few losses on the road won’t discourage them, so they shouldn’t discourage anyone else.

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Game of the Day: April 1

Orlando Magic at Dallas Mavericks — 8 PM eastern, telecast on TNT

The season’s starting to wind down now, as essentially all teams have fewer than 10 games remaining on their schedules, and the playoff picture is beginning to take form. Two of the teams who have already assured their participation in the first round of the postseason are the Orlando Magic from the Eastern Conference and the Dallas Mavericks from the West.

Orlando has played very well this season and of late, going 8-2 in its most recent 10 contests. Dallas is riding a modest three-game win streak and has closed to within four games of the conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers, who have lost three road games in the past week.

The Magic have benefited from the consistently dominant play on both ends of the floor from Dwight Howard while getting contributory performances from Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, and even Matt Barnes to close out the rest of the lineup.

The Mavericks, too, are dominant across the board, with court general Jason Kidd running the show and the best shooting power forward in the game in Dirk Nowitzki. Their trading-deadline acquisition of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood has energized them with toughness they previously sorely lacked and a new found commitment to defense.

Accordingly, this matchup should be excellent. Dallas is one of the few teams that has the bodies up front to potentially hinder D12′s production. But Orlando is so deep in both the front court and the back court that the Mavericks will unwillingly face another powerful opponent in fatigue.

The last time these two teams played, the Magic emerged victorious 95-85 on February 19. Howard lit up the box score with 29 points and 16 rebounds. Surprisingly, Erick Dampier received a DNP-CD in that game. Presumably Rick Carlisle will act differently and try to get Dampier’s fresh legs on the court in relief of Haywood to try and slow down Superman.

I’m very torn on this game, and the winner hinges on whether Carter can suit up and play. He wants to, but Van Gundy has stated he’s questionable for the game. It’s this simple: if he plays, the Magic win, and if he doesn’t, the Mavericks win. He’s too critical a component of the Magic’s offense that they won’t be able to defeat the Mavericks without him. However, if he’s there, the crunch-time success and game-influencing of VC will push the Magic over the top for the season sweep.

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