Los Angeles Lakers: Road Trip Will Determine Team's Relevance and Place in West

Howard RubenContributor IFebruary 3, 2012

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 19:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on January 19, 2012 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers left the cozy confines of Staples Center yesterday, heading out on the road for a grueling six-game, 11-day trip—the basketball equivalent of going to the moon and back in a week.

And while this critical trip will not define the entire season for Los Angeles, it will go a long way in determining just how relevant this year’s team is.  And it will set a tone. 

Go 4-2 or better, and the Lakers come home brimming with confidence, knowing they can play with anyone in the league.  Come home 2-4 or worse, and this team will not look the same—meaning, change to the roster, maybe even while traveling.

The Lakers are the Jekyll and Hyde of this not-so-young NBA season.  At Staples Center, they look like a team that could make significant noise in the playoffs, thus far compiling an 11-2 record.  On the road, Mike Brown’s team is a woeful 2-7 and have yet to beat an elite team away from Los Angeles.

Between today and February 12, the Lakers will play at Denver (14-8), Utah (12-8), Philadelphia (16-6), Boston (11-10), New York (8-14) and Toronto (7-16).  There are no easy games on this schedule, with the first four in particular being against teams with a combined record of 53-31. 

The Lakers have an opportunity to get off on the right foot, as wins against the Nuggets and Jazz would give them momentum heading into Philadelphia to play the surprisingly strong Sixers who are playing extremely well on offense and defense.

Just how ready are the Lakers to face teams like Denver (15-7), who likes to run and averages over 105 points per game?  The two teams traded victories at their respective homes on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  Denver has been as steady on the road (8-4) as they are at home (7-3).  Last night, they trounced the red-hot Clippers in Los Angeles, 112-91. 

Six players average double figures for the Nuggets, including Danilo Gallinari (17.4), Ty Lawson and Al Harrington, each scoring 15 a game.  Add in Nene (14), Andre Miller (14), Arron Afflalo (10.8), Rudy Fernandez (8.9) and Corey Brewer (7.9), and you can see that Denver will be a formidable first test.  I think the Lakers start their journey getting tripped up in the Mile High City.

When asked about the upcoming swing, Mike Brown told Lakers beat reporter Mike Trudell, "I’ve never been the kind of guy who says we need to get so many wins on the road.  Let’s get Denver, let’s win that game and then go from there, one game at a time."

With a glean in his eye and brandishing that Cheshire Cat-like grin he brings out prior to doing battle, Kobe Bryant said to Trudell, "We need to play with a sense of urgency.  But we’ll be OK regardless, I am not really worried about it."

Kobe’s word are calming but also telling.  Playing with a sense of urgency is his way of telling the rest of the team they need to step it up a notch or two, play with passion for 48 minutes each game and make plays.

Coming off a 33-point blowout of the Charlotte Bobcats earlier this week, no one on the Lakers seemed to be too worried about how this trip will go.  I think they should be worried—it’s time for this team to play with a "sense of urgency."

If nothing else, these six games will serve as a barometer for how much fight Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have in them and how well the team will defend against the pesky point guards they will face, from Ty Lawson and Devon Harris (Denver, Utah) to Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo (Sixers and Celtics). 

I think the Lakers believe they can take care of business. 

I’m just not so sure the passion or depth is there.