We’re going to learn a lot about the Los Angeles Lakers over the next five games.
Forgive me for not overreacting to an eventually-comfortable win over the 8-39 Orlando Magic at the Amway Center. That said, the Lakers needed to beat Orlando at the end of a chaotic week that included the best win of the season, reports of Vogel’s impending demise, and a debacle vs. the Indiana Pacers that culminated in Russell Westbrook’s benching. LeBron’s comments notwithstanding, Orlando has the worst record in basketball (it showed), and the Lakers, frankly, didn’t separate themselves until late in the third quarter. Plus, each time Los Angeles seems to make any progress this season, they follow it up with immediate regression.
“We understood that this was going to be a tough game to start the road trip,” LeBron said. “Any time you start that six-game roadie away from home, it’s always the toughest game.”
I see LeBron’s point, but there’s zero chance a matchup against the Magic will be tougher than each of the upcoming five contests. Still, it’s an encouraging start to what could be a season-defining trip that could alter the direction of the franchise by the time the Lakers return to Los Angeles.
“We started it off right with a win tonight,” Westbrook said. “It’s a big trip for us. A good bonding and togetherness trip for our group and finding ways to be able to come together and come out with some wins and create some rhythm, some confidence in our group that we can be the team that we all know that we should be.”
Here are five other reasons why this trip is important to the Lakers to a degree that’s hard to overstate.
1) Strength of schedule
The Lakers’ upcoming slate features four playoff teams and last season’s Eastern Conference finalist.
They’ll enjoy a Saturday off in Miami (uh-oh) before facing the Heat (uh-oh) on Sunday. Next, they’ll take on the Brooklyn Nets who, without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, as they will be on Tuesday, handled the Lakers on Christmas. On Thursday, the small-ball Lakers will try and deal with Joel Embiid before a matchup the next night with the upstart Charlotte Hornets. They’ll wrap things up with the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday afternoon.
That’s five tough games in seven days. The Lakers’ record against current top-7 seeds teams is 6-12. They’ve often looked overmatched when facing cohesive, competent squads. Let’s see if the Lakers can raise their game to these opponents.
2) The Russell Westbrook situation
Westbrook responded positively to his benching. His comments on Friday to both ESPN and reporters were disciplined and team-oriented. On the court, he played a sturdy all-around game (besides for a few glaring bloopers), posting 18 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, and 3 turnovers in 35 minutes.
“I think he let last game go and he was focused for this game,” LeBron said. Vogel agreed.
“He came in very focused and played efficient offensively and brought a pure energy to the game,” Vogel said. “He just wanted to impose his will, play his part and played a hell of a game.”
“We still believe in what we can be. It’s been bumpy throughout the course of the year. But we’re committed.
The tension hasn’t dissipated. Westbrook re-iterated that he was “upset” about the benching, despite, in his opinion, having done everything the coaches have asked of this since his arrival in Los Angeles. There was a disconnect between what Vogel and Westbrook said about their communication over the past 48 hours (see thread below).
In this clip, Russell Westbrook says he had "no conversations" w/ Vogel about the benching.
Here's what the Lakers coach said pregame when asked about coaching Russ post-benching: "Just communicate…You try to overcommunicate in those situations, and this one's no different." https://t.co/N5mbobgHTj
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) January 22, 2022
Here's what Russ said to @mcten postgame about the communication between him and Vogel: pic.twitter.com/JU21m10P68
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) January 22, 2022
Politics aside, Westbrook simply needs to play better, more consistent basketball in order for the Lakers to truly “turn the page”, to borrow a phrase both he and Vogel used postgame. The Magic may not be the stiffest competition, but at least it’s a start.
3) The Frank Vogel situation
Beating Orlando won’t get Vogel fired, but it won’t cool his seat, either. The Lakers were reportedly evaluating him on a game-by-game basis prior to the Pacers loss, which couldn’t have helped his cause.
To Vogel’s credit, his team responded with solid energy after a debilitating loss and news cycle. Vogel pushed the right button at halftime, starting the third with Stanley Johnson instead of Dwight Howard, which ignited a 19-2 run for the Lakers.
Los Angeles’ effort has been up and down this season. This road trip presents a crucial opportunity for Vogel to rally his ballclub. A few respectable losses to good teams probably won’t cost him the gig — unless he makes some glaring mistake, the tension with Westbrook boils over, or the Lakers lose the next five games. Another embarrassing dud — a la the 37-point blowout to the Denver Nuggets — might.
4) Anthony Davis’ return
The Lakers expect Anthony Davis will return at some point on this road trip.
Vogel declined to provide an update on the All-Star big man before the Orlando game. His last update came on Monday, when he said AD had been cleared to ramp up his on-court work with contact. Davis was spotted getting shots up pre-game at the Amway Center.
AD getting some post reps going against assistant Jon Pastorek … and having a little fun. pic.twitter.com/R9HJFBSA85
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) January 21, 2022
The Lakers need him back, like, yesterday, especially considering their place in the standings, the state of their defense, and some of the teams they’re about to face. The Lakers have been in limbo without him. Once he returns, they’ll be out of excuses.
5) The trade deadline
Meanwhile, the trade deadline is coming up. The Lakers may have an offer involving Russell Westbrook via the Houston Rockets. They’ve reportedly offered Talen Horton-Tucker/Kendrick Nunn and a first-rounder for Jerami Grant. By all accounts, the Lakers are working the phones seeking upgrades. However, the value of their only tradable active player — THT— is a debated topic around the league.
How Horton-Tucker and the Lakers perform against quality competition, especially if AD returns, will serve as a useful barometer for a front office whose lone goal is to contend for a title (and, apparently, shave luxury tax money) — and for teams assessing the Lakers pieces.
Other than all of that, all is quiet on the Lakers front as the team travels East.
“We try not to pay attention to the chaos: It is what it is,” Carmelo Anthony said. “People are going to talk. Me personally, I don’t really know what people are saying. I try to stay away from it. That’s how I cope with it. But for the most part, I think we do a great job of just staying together in that locker room. That’s what’s important, that we never waver. We never lose our confidence.”