Turnover, turmoil and tanking. Those are three adjectives that have historically been associated with one of the tenants of the Staples Center.
Just not this one.
For the first time since the Clippers moved to Los Angeles in 1984, there is no question that the Lakers are second-class citizens in their own building. Chris Paul, the Clippers' superstar, returned. Dwight Howard, the Lakers' perceived superstar of the future, turned down an extra $30 million and bolted to the Houston Rockets.
With Kobe Bryant still on the mend, Pau Gasol's production dipping for each of the past three seasons and Steve Nash officially arriving at Old Man on the Court status last year, the Lakers seem likelier than not to miss the playoffs for just the third time since the Gerald Ford administration.
They replaced Howard with Chris Kaman and brought in a motley crew of minimum-contract veterans, including Nick Young, whose acquisition led to perhaps the greatest Photoshop moment of 2013:
It's all sobering and completely understandable. The levees break in today's NBA. Teams are smarter with draft-pick protection, better at playing this never-ending game of roster shuffling and asset collection until they can pounce.
The Lakers spending their June days hoping the ping-pong balls go a certain way is always going to be a strange sight. But it's a reality of today's NBA. Every major franchise—look up to your northeastern rivals if you want comfort, Lakers fans—is going to have a retooling/rebuilding phase under this collective bargaining agreement.
Howard's decision just made it abundantly clear that this will be that season in LakerLand. That said, the purple and gold have one of the NBA's most rabid fanbases, so Tuesday's announcement of the complete 2013-14 schedule via NBA.com came with no less anticipation than a year prior.
So with that in mind, here is a complete look at the Lakers' schedule for next season, while taking an in-depth look at a few notable games on the calendar.
2013 Los Angeles Lakers Schedule
vs. Los Angeles Clippers
@ Golden State Warriors
|Nov. 1||vs. San Antonio Spurs||10:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 3||vs. Atlanta Hawks||9:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 5||@ Dallas Mavericks||8:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 7||@ Houston Rockets||9:30 p.m.|
@ New Orleans Pelicans
|Nov. 10||vs. Minnesota Timberwolves||9:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 12||vs. New Orleans Pelicans||10:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 13||@ Denver Nuggets||9 p.m.|
|Nov. 15||vs. Memphis Grizzlies||10:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 17||vs. Detroit Pistons||9:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 22||vs. Golden State Warriors||10:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 24||vs. Sacramento Kings||9:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 26||@ Washington Wizards||7 p.m.|
|Nov. 27||@ Brooklyn Nets||7:30 p.m.|
@ Detroit Pistons
|Dec. 1||vs. Portland Trail Blazers||9:30 p.m.|
|Dec. 6||@ Sacramento Kings||10 p.m.|
|Dec. 8||vs. Toronto Raptors||9:30 p.m.|
|Dec. 10||vs. Phoenix Suns||10:30 p.m.|
|Dec. 13||@ Oklahoma City||8 p.m.|
|Dec. 14||@ Charlotte Bobcats||7 p.m.|
|Dec. 16||@ Atlanta Hawks||7:30 p.m.|
|Dec. 17||@ Memphis Grizzlies||8 p.m.|
|Dec. 20||vs. Minnesota Timberwolves||10:30 p.m.|
|Dec. 21||@ Golden State Warriors||10:30 p.m.|
|Dec. 23||@ Phoenix Suns||9 p.m.|
|Dec. 25||vs. Miami Heat||5 p.m.|
|Dec. 27||@ Utah Jazz||9 p.m.|
|Dec. 29||vs. Philadelphia 76ers||9:30 p.m.|
vs. Milwaukee Bucks
|Jan. 3||vs. Utah Jazz||10:30 p.m.|
|Jan. 5||vs. Denver Nuggets||9:30 p.m.|
|Jan. 7||@ Dallas Mavericks||8:30 p.m.|
|Jan. 8||@ Houston Rockets||9:30 p.m.|
@ Los Angeles Clippers
vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
@ Phoenix Suns
|Jan. 17||@ Boston Celtics||7:30 p.m.|
@ Toronto Raptors
@ Chicago Bulls
|Jan. 23||@ Miami Heat||5 p.m.|
@ Orlando Magic
@ New York Knicks
|Jan. 28||vs. Indiana Pacers||7:30 p.m.|
|Jan. 31||vs. Charlotte Bobcats||7:30 p.m.|
@ Minnesota Timberwolves
@ Cleveland Cavaliers
|Feb. 7||@ Philadelphia 76ers||7 p.m.|
|Feb. 9||vs. Chicago Bulls||2:30 p.m.|
|Feb. 11||vs. Utah Jazz||10:30 p.m.|
|Feb 13||vs. Oklahoma City Thunder||10:30 p.m.|
|Feb. 19||vs. Houston Rockets||10:30 p.m.|
|Feb. 21||vs. Boston Celtics||10:30 p.m.|
|Feb. 23||vs. Brooklyn Nets||9 p.m.|
|Feb. 25||@ Indiana Pacers||7 p.m.|
|Feb. 26||@ Memphis Grizzlies||8 p.m.|
|Feb. 28||vs. Sacramento Kings||10:30 p.m.|
Most Intriguing Matchups
Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers
When: February 19
Circle your calendars, folks. Or don't. Or get halfway through your circle, realize you did it in permanent marker and then desperately search for a new calendar while you decide whether or not to finish your circle.
Either way, let's hope you make up your mind in time for what will arguably be the most anticipated matchup of the entire 2013-14 season. Howard's decision to bolt for Houston and a pairing with James Harden is the overarching spark behind the Lakers' trip to doom-and-gloom lane. His introduction over the loud speaker at Staples Center should come with about the positive Q-rating of Chris Berman at the Home Run Derby.
Every time Howard touches the ball, the entire crowd will have two hands cupped around the sides of their mouths, booing until boo birds become an actual animal and descend from the rafters. Well, every fan except Jack Nicholson, who will probably sit there, arms folded, legs crossed and hope to accidentally pull a Larry David.
Sure, it won't quite have the level of vitriol that LeBron James' first game back in Cleveland did in 2010. James' decision to leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat—and the way he did so—was a soul-crushing blow to a city and franchise that had viewed him as the Messiah. He was the man who was supposed to end the years upon years upon years of misery bestowed upon all Cleveland sports.
Howard was merely supposed to help be the transitionary figure from one era of NBA dominance to another. His decision to leave was a major disappointment, not a descent into the hell pit of the NBA's forgotten franchises. The Lakers still matter, unlike the first post-LeBron Cavs, who looked like and were one of the most dreadful teams in basketball.
That being said, malevolence may be at an all-time high at Staples when Howard comes into town. He made the right basketball move and likely the better one for him personally. It will just be interesting to see whether Howard's first visit back to LakerLand will look Jamesian in the worst or best way possible.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers
When: October 29
The luster this matchup carried last year is mostly gone. At this point a year ago, the first meeting between the two Los Angeles organizations was seen as a potential Western Conference Finals tussle.
We covered a bit of what happened since in the intro. Paul, who was once destined to be a Laker, is still a Clipper, and Howard went elsewhere.
The byproduct of that dichotomy is what makes this Lakers-Clippers rivalry suddenly more interesting than even it was a year ago. Players are suddenly taking discounts to go to the Clippers, while the Lakers are in Nick Young territory—a spot Clips fans know all too well. While the historically frugal Los Angeles franchise will be paying Doc Rivers the highest salary of any NBA coach next season, the historically flush one was using its amnesty provision to cut a still helpful Metta World Peace.
Enough with the Freaky Friday scenarios. This is the geeky little brother who never had a girlfriend coming home on his 30th birthday with Kate Upton after becoming a billionaire in the tech boom. Meanwhile, all of this is happening while the polished, well-spoken jock who has been well-to-do ever since graduating from college comes home at the same time, bankrupt after his now-ex-wife laundered all of their savings to a foreign checking account and ran away with Gary from work.
Things will be a tad awkward when the Clippers ask the Lakers to pass the yams at this year's dinner table. That's especially the case after the Clippers swept the purple and gold for the first time in franchise history last season—even before all of this offseason insanity went down.
We're talking about two franchises in two different places. And that's fine. But it's at least going to be interesting to see how the Clippers handle their newfound, unquestioned power next season.
Kobe Bryant's Return Game
After everyone gets bored of talking about the Howard nonsense—which should have happened, I don't know, 17 months ago—Bryant's return to the lineup will become the prevailing story of this Lakers season.
If Bryant is somehow able to make a superhuman comeback and be on the floor for the team's opener, well, things will be mostly business as usual. Medical experts will be interested in Kobe's healing process while the X's and O's folks will look closely at how the Achilles healing process is affecting his already-waning defensive effectiveness and effort, but it would mostly feel like business as usual.
Assuming Bryant is out of his superhuman cat lives—a safe assumption considering Kobe himself thinks he'll be out until November or December—this storyline could engulf the conversation surrounding this team. If Nash, Gasol and the other remaining core of players aren't able to keep the ship somewhere around the .500 mark through the first month or so of the season, what happens when Bryant comes back?
There may be a "take all the time you need" sentiment in the Lakers organization if the team starts out poorly. And considering that Nick Young is the probable Kobe replacement in the starting lineup, a wretched start is not outside the realm of possibilities.
When will Kobe Bryant return?
The thing we know about Bryant, though, is that he's not the type to take his time or be complicit in a semi-tanking effort should that opportunity arise. Kobe is a maniacal winner. He's the most competitive player the league has seen since Michael Jordan. He's also someone who knows his legacy, has the all-time scoring record in his sights and may not stop chucking until he gets it.
That's part of what makes Bryant's return date and how he plays when he comes back so interesting. The last time MambaVino was part of a likely lottery team—other than last year, a season where no one expected the Lakers to struggle so mightily—he went, um, something that rhymes with grape spit. He scored a career-high 35.4 points per game, crushed the Toronto Raptors to the tune of 81 points and jacked up 27 shots a night.
That was eight seasons ago, but one has to wonder how Bryant will react once he returns. One also has to wonder whether he'll even be able to react. We have enough Achilles research to know it's possibly the worst injury to suffer as an aging player. Players generally come back slowly and hardly ever find their pre-injury form even after being given the A-OK.
Game 1 won't give us the final answer for the last chapter of Bryant's career, but it'll make for an interesting first page.
Early Season Prediction
Having any sort of concrete thoughts about the Lakers or any other team at this juncture rests at the corner of inane and clinically insane. No one has even finished their summer vacation yet, let alone figured out what they're wearing on Halloween. To ascribe any pound-on-the-desk narrative to anything at this point is silly.
Seeing as the NBA is inherently the most predictable of the four major sports leagues, though, it's fair to have a tentative idea of how things will play out. Most of the free-agent dominoes have fallen, leaving only a few roster spots—most of which are to mid-rotation players—to be etched out for competing teams.
We have a pretty good idea that the Heat, Clippers, Rockets, Pacers, Nets, Thunder and Spurs all have a chance at making the Finals. If you want to get frisky, go ahead and throw the Grizzlies, Bulls, Knicks and Warriors into the circle as well. That's 11 teams that if you squint your eyes and turn your head sideways enough, you could see them somehow getting a few fortuitous bounces and winning a championship.
The Lakers aren't one of those teams. Regardless of whether Bryant comes back on opening night or Game 81, this team is not winning an NBA championship in 2013-14. Anyone you speak to privately would openly admit that as fact. The team is too old, has too many injury questions and barely squeaked into the postseason a year ago.
With just two spots that seem "up for grabs" in the Western Conference playoff race, it's fair to say they're in that five-team hunt to fall anywhere between seeds No. 7 through No. 12. The Pelicans have made major strides, Portland's bench isn't an abyss anymore and the Timberwolves should contend for a trip to the dance as well.
Questions linger for Dallas and Denver, but both are at least good enough on paper to finish somewhere between 38-45 wins.
Where the Lakers fall under this prism is hard to say. Much of it probably depends on when Kobe returns to the lineup. If he's not back at the All-Star break, then Los Angeles probably ranks 12th. If he's back and is at least a reasonable facsimile of his former self, the No. 8 seed is a possibility.
Twist my arm and club me over the head with it, I'll take the middle ground. So for now, with the major caveat that anything can happen between now and Halloween, welcome to No. 10-seed category, Lakers fans.
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