L.A. Malaise: Despite Struggles, Lakers Right Where They Want To Be

Jason HeimCorrespondent IJanuary 8, 2011

Remember Jerome James? Neither does anybody else.
Remember Jerome James? Neither does anybody else.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It's an easy pitfall when following sports leagues closely. 

The temptation to generalize, exaggerate and overreact is subtle.  

When a player comes out of nowhere to hit nine home runs in 13 games, he's an All-Star and MVP candidate suddenly.  

When a backup center averages 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds over two weeks, he's immediately worth $30 million.  

When a proven team hits cruise control and only gets as high as the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, they're all of a sudden too old and unreliable to contend.  

Remember the names Chris Shelton, Jerome James and the washed-up 2009-2010 Boston Celtics? None of them turned out even remotely like anyone in the mainstream thought, and they are just a few of the examples of this idea.  

All were judged rashly and prematurely, which leads us to today's ever-present lesson in sports: Over a long season, never judge a team/player/trend/statistic too early.

The subject of today's lesson is the '10-'11 Lakers.  If you're keeping track at home, you can probably count at least two times already this season where judging the team too early would have gotten you in trouble and set you up for surprises later.  

First, the veteran team was predicted to cruise a la last year's Celtics, get as healthy as possible, forget what happens during the season and step on the gas in the playoffs.  

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Instead, they roared to an 8-0 and then 13-2 start, in which they really looked like they were playing hard.  

If you were judging too early (like I did), you'd have been sure that the Lakers were going to steamroll every foe without struggle on their way to the three-peat.  

Pau Gasol started the season in playoff form, and Kobe Bryant looked content with deferring to Gasol and a scorching hot bench.  But right around Thanksgiving, the Lakers hit a rough patch that changed everything.  

Gasol, under the sentence of heavy playing time, started having sore hamstrings and missing the shots he didn't miss for the first month.  

As the season settled in, the hot-shooting Shannon Brown, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes cooled off, and Kobe reverted to 2006 form by trying to win games by himself.  

The invincible Lakers had become the eminently beatable Lakers in the matter of a week.

The Lakers continued their malaise over the next month.  Looking bored, lackadaisical, divided and unfocused, they fell from the ranks of the elite quickly and out of the short-sighted discussion of title contenders.

Gasol's efficiency took a hit as the offense shifted back to Bryant.  Andrew Bynum came back, knocking the effective Lamar Odom to the bench.

Not helping the team's perception were the concurrent Spurs, Celtics, Heat and Mavericks' win streaks that separated those teams from the Lakers in the standings.  

After a dreadful week at Christmas, the Lakers were in disarray as Kobe vaguely sniped at his teammates, Gasol claimed that Kobe shot too much, and Ron Artest concentrated on raising awareness for mental illness by selling his championship ring.  

Not the stereotypical look of a twice-champion or any of this year's serious contenders. 

As chance would have it, an apocalyptic prediction after the Lakers December was unwarranted as well. Since a three-game losing streak that ended in San Antonio on Dec. 28, the Lakers have won five of six games, albeit a streak against poor teams.  

The defense is responsible for the mini-turnaround: No opponent has broken 100 points in the five wins, two of which were blowouts.  

Aside from sleepwalking through the 19-point home loss to Memphis last Sunday, the Lakers look refreshed, calm and on the same page for the first time since early November.  

With Andrew Bynum in the lineup to keep Gasol's minutes manageable and protect the rim on defense, we can finally say that the Lakers are at full strength with no outstanding injury problems. The look we have at the roster right now is as clear and complete as can be.  

While the 26-11 record and current third place in the West are unimpressive, Phil Jackson knows there is nothing to worry about in early January. His team is building momentum, adjusting to new rotations and fighting complacency every night.  

Plus, Kobe has resumed all intense practices for the sake of the team's collective intensity.  With a cushy five-game schedule ahead of them, the Lakers could quickly re-insert themselves as a dangerous contender just as quickly as they left that position earlier.

There are many positive indicators for the Lakers right now.  But be careful, it's a long season.  You wouldn't want to judge them too soon.

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