Bruised and beaten, but finally together.
The Los Angeles Lakers are a franchise unfamiliar with the notion of being considered a heavy underdog. The reality is, unless you're a Miami Heat fan, your team is an underdog in 2013. Strangely enough, despite many years of inspiring league-wide admiration, this Lakers team can take advantage of its new persona.
Fans have come to accept nothing less than perpetual greatness from one of the NBA's most storied franchises. At the same time, expecting dominance is justified: The Purple and Gold boast 16 NBA Finals victories and two in the last four years.
On top of nearly unparalleled success in the postseason in NBA history—only the Boston Celtics possess more titles with 17—the Lakers have showcased some of the NBA's greatest all-time talent. We're talking NBA legends ranging from Wilt Chamberlain to Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson to Kobe and coach Phil Jackson.
When management paired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash with an already proven duo of the Bryant and Pau Gasol, many penciled L.A. in for a deep playoff run that culminated in a Finals bout with Miami.
To call this season anything less than a reality check for Laker Nation would be an understatement. However, the team that takes the floor every night under coach Mike D'Antoni is one of the most entertaining and relatable bunches that have adorned Lakers colors in years.
More than any time in recent memory, Lakers fans and players alike have had to experience legitimate adversity. Adversity reaching all the way from the decisions within the organization (ahem, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchack) to the Staples Center parquet. This especially tumultuous season has included health and coaching concerns, identity crises and resulted in just three more wins than losses.
Breathe, Lakers fans, and review this season as a refreshing reminder of the things you love most about your team. After all, the best time to stand behind your franchise is when everybody else counts them out.
This year more than any time I can remember as a basketball fan, players, coaches, analysts and fans can see that the Lakers are significantly inferior to a handful of teams in the NBA. Talk of a super team and a title run has quickly faded behind clouds of coaching and personnel controversy.
When was the last time you remember a Kobe-led team having to put together a scratch-and-claw run to edge out the eighth seed in the playoffs? Aside from missing the playoffs entirely in 2005, Bryant has led the way to 15 appearances in 16 years.
How far can these Lakers go?
This year has a new flavor to it. It may be an acquired taste to fans intent on excellence and only excellence. But, the struggle that the Lakers have endured since the end of the 2012 summer has made the team search for a significant piece of the puzzle: character.
Maybe the limelight of playing in Los Angeles initially distracted the Lakers' stars from humbly pursuing their main goal. After being kicked around for the better part of this season, it seems as though a resurgent attitude has overcome D'Antoni's men.
Let's look ahead.
The talent on the Lakers' front line is as good as nearly every starting lineup they may face. Bench depth is another story, but can be easily disguised if the big names produce at expected efficiency.
The coming together of four superstars under the Los Angeles spotlight did not yield immediately successful results. Yet, maybe getting a brutal taste of rock bottom has re-instilled an appreciation for the sweetness of victory.
The players who win titles are the players who truly understand the glory of what they pursue. Just ask King James, who finally found his calling just last season with comrades Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh after being previously consumed by individual hype and achievement.
The Lakers have been tested enough this season to leave all participating members with a salty attitude and chips on their shoulders. Those ingredients, combined with an eventually healthy lineup that many projected to be strong enough to contend for a title—quick nod here to the injured Jordan Hill, who would have added a tremendous boost in interior defense and rebounding off the bench—are a considerable advantage for the Lakers when the important basketball games are played.
"Rule number 76. No excuses. Play like a champion" Vince Vaughn. Wedding Crashers.— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) March 6, 2013
Although they likely will not make it far enough to face an Eastern Conference foe for the title, opposing teams should still treat new underdog L.A. with extreme caution once postseason time hits.
If nothing else, fans should remain hopeful that overcoming the mental strength test of this season will keep the younger players and management of the Lakers franchise on track once its lead warrior hangs 'em up.