Things are looking up for the Los Angeles Lakers. They've won their last two games, both away from the Staples Center, to improve their decrepit record to 11-14 through the first 25 games of the 2012-13 NBA season.
Nonetheless, a win's a win and two are better, even more so on the heels of a four-game losing streak. The Lakers appeared to hit rock bottom during a loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, but they managed to stoop even lower when the New York Knicks nearly ran them out of Madison Square Garden on December 13th.
Luckily for the Lakers, those bleak days of Kobe Bryant piling up 30-point games to no avail and questions about "What's wrong?" may be on the way out. The back-to-back W's have certainly helped to alleviate the pressure for now, but it's the details within those results, along with the shifting circumstances around the team, that are greater causes for optimism in Lakerland.
If you thought the Lakers' recent run of games was a cakewalk, just have a look at what they've got on tap. On December 18th, they'll host the Charlotte Bobcats, who've lost their last 11 games in a row since a quick 7-5 start.
LA will then enjoy three full days of rest (and practice) before shipping up to Oakland to take on the surprising Golden State Warriors. The Lakers might be concerned, except they already trounced the Dubs by 24 earlier this season and should have Pau Gasol back by then (more on that later).
The Christmas Day game against the sizzling New York Knicks won't be easy, but at least they'll have two days without games during which to prepare and nearly a full complement of players at their disposal (more on that later, as well).
Up until now, Metta World Peace—yes, Metta World Peace—has done his part to maintain calm amidst the early season storm.
The ferocious forward has been as consistent as any Laker this season, both with his belief in this team's talent and with his play on the court. He's averaging a steady 13.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 1.7 assists and 38.2 percent shooting from three-point range—all personal bests since landing in LA in 2009.
He was particularly impressive in Philadelphia, where he tallied a career-high 16 rebounds to go along with 19 points, four steals, two blocks and an assist. MWP's ability to defend multiple positions and serve as a facilitator from time to time has made him an ever more valuable part of the Lakers' current alignment.
So long as MWP can keep the shape with which he entered the 2012-13 season, he'll have every opportunity to be much more than just the "Fifth Beatle" in LA.
Speaking of consistency, no Laker has been as frequently spectacular as has Kobe Bryant.
Which, for the most part, shouldn't be particularly surprising. After all, Kobe is the heart and soul of this Lakers squad, is arguably one of the 10 greatest players in NBA history and is wired to score.
But 34-year-olds just don't lead the league in scoring, much less with a robust 29.5 points per game with career-high shooting percentages nearly across the board.
Moreover, Kobe has done all this while playing the point in the absence of Steve Nash (and Steve Blake) and battling through back spasms. Contrary to popular belief, Kobe can, and indeed does, share the ball. He's averaging 6.3 assists over his last three games.
Kobe doing Kobe things is nothing new or different for him, of course. But the fact that the Black Mamba is still piling up eye-popping numbers—in spite of his age and his oversized workload—and hasn't plunged into the deep end just yet are reasons enough for optimism going forward in LA.
The Lakers' bench is still one of the least productive in the league, though it has shown some signs of life of late. Chris Duhon has filled in admirably as a starter. Jordan Hill has provided tremendous energy when healthy. Even Darius Morris, the headless chicken who occasionally fills in at the point for LA, posted a career-high 15 points against the Sixers.
But the most encouraging returns among the reserves have come from Jodie Meeks. The renowned sharpshooter is finally finding his stroke, with 48 points combined over his last three games and double figures in scoring in five of his last six.
The Lakers can't count on their subs to contribute consistently just yet. However, if there's any silver lining to be found among the black cloud of injuries in LA, it's in the opportunities afforded the reserves to get themselves going after a rough start to the season.
The better the subs play, the less pressure there will be on Dwight Howard, who's still clearly not fully recovered from his springtime back surgery.
Though, on the bright side, he's appeared to have more spring in his step of late. He's among the league leaders in double-doubles with 15 through LA's first 25 games and looked significantly more spry in Washington and Philadelphia. He tallied four blocks against the Wizards despite being plagued by foul trouble for much of the game, and he followed that up with a pair of stuffs and three steals versus the Sixers.
Dwight's offense will come around in time, but the sooner his defensive effort picks up, the sooner the Lakers will stop resembling a block of Swiss cheese on that end of the floor.
Dwight's productivity should also improve as Mike D'Antoni figures out how best to utilize him on both ends.
The new coach has already demonstrated a willingness to adapt his famously uptempo system to better incorporate the skills of Howard and Bryant as post-up and isolation specialists.
Dwight, in particular, finally got the attention that he deserves during the Lakers' most recent win over the Sixers. He managed to stay out of foul trouble and, as a result, racked up 17 points (on 13 shots) while dishing out five assists and hitting all three of his free throws.
Howard's five turnovers in that game weren't particularly encouraging. Nonetheless, the extra touches seemed to energize him on both ends of the floor. The Lakers will need Dwight to be fully engaged if they're to climb all the way out of their current hole and back into the playoff hunt.
The back pain that Kobe and Dwight have experienced this season might have something to do with the hefty burdens they've had to shoulder with Pau Gasol and Steve Nash sidelined this season.
Never fear, though. According to Eric Pincus of The Los Angeles Times, both are on track to return to active duty in short order after practicing with the team on December 17th. Gasol (knee tendinitis) might be a go for LA's next game, against the Charlotte Bobcats, depending on how his body responds to the aforementioned activity.
Nash, meanwhile, will probably miss another two games, but he has his sights set on the Lakers' Christmas Day showdown with the New York Knicks. The two-time MVP has been out of action since Halloween on account of a fractured fibula and some extenuating nerve irritation.
Getting those two stars up to speed will take some time, both physically (Nash) and mentally (Gasol). But, in the short term, their mere availability will put the likes of Chris Duhon, Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison back on the bench, and, in due course, set the Lakers back on pace for bigger and better things than road wins over terrible teams in December.