Are the Los Angeles Lakers Better Than We Thought?

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterOctober 30, 2013

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Let's get one thing straight: the Los Angeles Lakers are not going to win more games than the Los Angeles Clippers this year, despite what the former's 116-103 win over the latter would suggest. The Purple and Gold aren't going to enjoy the privilege of playing at home every night, nor can they be counted on to consistently knock down 48.3 percent of their three-point attempts.

And while we're at it, let's get another thing straight: the Lakers' bench is not going to be the best the NBA has to offer. It's great that LA's reserves scored a whopping 76 points—including all 41 of the Lakers' fourth-quarter points—but you're not going to see the starters tethered to the pine in crunch time from game to game.

But—for one night, at least—the Lakers looked pretty darn good, and may well wind up being more competitive than a lot of folks (including yours truly) initially thought.

Mike D'Antoni's knack for turning other teams' trash into his own treasure shone through in a big way on Tuesday, particularly with the play of Xavier Henry. The fourth-year swingman out of Kansas poured in a career-high 22 points, with six rebounds, two assists and a steal to boot.

More importantly, Henry gave his head coach license to sit Nick Young, who hit just 3-of-10 shots from the field in his Lakers debut.

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D'Antoni once again had the "audacity" to "bench" Pau Gasol—a move for which the coach was so often maligned last season—but not before the slender Spaniard slipped into the starting lineup at center, and only after he'd chipped in 15 points, four assists and a game-high 13 rebounds in just 24 minutes.

The depth the Lakers displayed on opening night was always going to be part of the plan, though. D'Antoni has said, time and again, that he plans to consistently play 10-to-11 guys, at least until he's sifted through all of his options and sorted out a shorter rotation.

Lo and behold, 11 Lakers saw time on the court against the Clips. For the most part, they all hustled, they all fought and they all contributed in one way or another. Even Wesley Johnson, who missed 10 of his 11 attempts and racked up more fouls (four) than points (three), put his length and athleticism to good use on the defensive end.

That collective effort was unlike anything the Staples Center crowd had seen from a much more ballyhooed group last season. Gone was the bickering, the infighting, the whining and complaining, the clear lack of heart. In their place was a younger, scrappier bunch, one made up of guys who are playing not just for new contracts, but for new beginnings as pros, with the easing of expectations giving way to greater chemistry.

In many ways, this opener between the Lakers and the Clippers—which marked the Purple and Gold's first win in the Hallway Rivalry since the 2011-12 season—was entirely reminiscent of the last TNT season opener to be played under the spotlights in downtown L.A. On one side was a championship hopeful trying (and failing) to skate buy on the strength of superior "on-paper" talent alone. On the other, a motley crew of waiver wire warriors and aging veterans coming together as one, despite the absence of its signature star.

October 30, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Dallas Mavericks power forward Elton Brand (42) fouls Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) in the first quarter of the game at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

I'm referring, of course, to the Lakers' 99-91 loss to the Dallas Mavericks to tip off what amounted to the most disappointing season in franchise history. L.A.'s "Fab Four" of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Gasol was no match for the Mavs' pack of misfits, who came away with a shocking "W," even with Dirk Nowitzki saddled in street clothes.

Chris Kaman was with Dallas at the time, but didn't play in that game on account of injuries of his own. The former long-time Clipper looked plenty fit this time around, against his old team no less. He contributed 10 points, eight rebounds, a pair of blocks and a steal to the cause on behalf of his new running mates.

Perhaps Kaman's Lakers could be this year's version of what Kaman's Mavs were last year. Perhaps they can stay afloat atop their assemblage of salary cap flotsam until Kobe comes back. And, perhaps, they can make a mad dash for the playoffs once he does, not unlike the one that the Mavs nearly capped with their 13th straight postseason appearance this past spring.

Even if the Lake Show falls short of their ninth straight playoff berth and into just the sixth "shortened" season in the team's storied history, this squad might actually be one worth watching. They shoot the ball from everywhere, they hustle like there's no tomorrow and they play with a combination of joy and energy that hasn't been seen in these colors since the last time Kobe and Pau celebrated their Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics in 2010.

Jordan Farmar was there, too. He turned down a more lucrative contract in Turkey so he could recapture that magic with his hometown team.

In many ways, he did just that. Farmar played superbly in his first action as a Laker in more than three years, with 16 points, six assists and four rebounds to show for his effort. He captained the second unit, with drives to the hoop and dishes to his teammates of the sort that were rarely seen from him when Phil Jackson was still roaming the sidelines.

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This team won't come close to replicating the feats of Farmar's previous Lakers squads—not without more than a few miracles, both on the court and in the front office. There are still too many questions about the health of Bryant and Nash, the efficacy of Young and Johnson, and the defensive acumen of this group as a whole over the course of a grueling 82-game campaign.

But, before the Lakers turn their attention to their next Herculean task (i.e. beating the Golden State Warriors on the road on the second night of a back-to-back), let's get one more thing straight: these Lakers, devoid of squabbles and internal struggles (for now, at least), will be more fun to watch than last year's train wreck.

Whether they maintain their long-standing stranglehold over the Staples Center or not.


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