We've already touched on three big games for the Lakers this season, as the NBA released their opening night (Oct. 26 vs. Houston), Christmas (if you need me to repeat the location/opponent, congrats on surviving your coma), and MLK Jr. Day (vs. Oklahoma City) schedules last week.
Of course, that left the little matter of the other 79. Today, the NBA released the full slate of games, and at first glance, things appear to set up reasonably well for the Lakers. Here are five things to look for:
Last year, the Lakers were among the league leaders in B2B's, with 20. This year, the number drops to 15, and a pretty cushy 15 relatively speaking:
1. Nov. 2, 3- vs. Memphis, at Sacramento
2. Nov. 16, 17- at Milwaukee, at Detroit
3. Nov. 30, Dec. 1- at Memphis, at Houston
4. Dec. 7,8- vs. Washington, "at" Clippers
5. Dec. 14, 15- at Washington, at Indiana
6. Dec. 28, 29- at San Antonio, at New Orleans
7. Jan. 4, 5- vs. Houston, at Phoenix
8. Jan 11, 12- vs. Cleveland, at Golden State
9. Jan 16, 17- "at" Clippers, vs. Oklahoma City
10. Feb. 10, 11- at Boston, at New York
11. Feb. 13, 14- at Orlando, at Charlotte
12. Feb. 22, 23- vs. Atlanta, at Portland
13. March 31, April 1- vs. Dallas, at Utah
14. April 5, 6- vs. Utah, at Golden State
15. April 12, 13- vs. San Antonio, at Sacramento
The three sets in February are tough. The Knicks should be better this season, and even if they're not, playing one night after what is guaranteed to be a physical, emotional game against the Celtics won't be easy. The opponent is almost irrelevant. Orlando will be very good, and the Lakers never win in Charlotte. Atlanta is a solid Eastern Conference playoff team, and a Portland squad ought to be an elite group out west. Dallas to Utah is a challenge as well, and visits to Memphis and Houston will provide an early season test. But for every tough sequence, the Lakers get a break. Twice they draw the Clippers as the "road" team in the home/road split, and they play the Kings and Warriors a combined four times on the back end, as well as the Pacers and Pistons, and the aforementioned visit to Utah is the only time L.A. will play the second half of a B2B at altitude.
Could be a lot worse.
2. Early balance.
The Lakers rather famously opened the '09-'10 season with 17 of their first 21 at Staples. This season, things are far less skewed, with nine road games among the first 19. There's also decent balance in the quality of opponents. Early tests against Houston, Portland, and Chicago at home, with Denver, Milwaukee, and Utah on the road. Two games apiece against Phoenix and Memphis potentially add to October and November's degree of difficulty, if the Suns find a formula without Amare Stoudemire and the young Grizzlies- above .500 for much of the season until a late swoon- make a leap.
On the other hand, before December 1 they'll see Golden State and Minnesota twice each, plus the Pacers, Pistons, and Raptors. All told, it's a healthy combination of cupcakes and contenders, enough to make a veteran team work hard... but not too hard.
3. Road trip!
Should you need to track down ESPNLA.com's Lakers beat writer Dave McMenamin between about February 4 and March 13, don't bother calling his land line. Of the 17 games the Lakers play over that stretch, 14 are somewhere other than Staples, constituting about 34 percent of the team's total road schedule. Tack on a few tough home games on either side, and it represents the most difficult part of L.A.'s '10-'11 docket. Between January 17th vs. Oklahoma City and March 20 vs. Portland, the Lakers play 21 games against teams either in last season's playoffs or ones that ought to contend for a postseason spot this year. If you're willing to be a little liberal with the definition of "playoff contenders" (or at least "potentially competent teams")- enough to include New Orleans, Memphis, and Clippers out west- the number rises.
Or look at it this way: Over that time, the schedule only provides four games against teams appearing to be mortal locks to lose more often than they win.
Generally speaking, the second half of the schedule is pretty tough.
4. Late season double feature.
Should the top seed in the W.C. still be in doubt come early April, a pair of games could have a major impact. On April 8, the Lakers visit the Blazers at the Rose Garden, followed by a potentially critical game against the Thunder at home on the 10th. Either could preview a potential Western Conference Finals.
5. A different kind of All-Star break.
For the first time since 2004, the All-Star Game returns to Staples. If all goes well, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Phil Jackson are likely to be participating. Perhaps this is the year for Andrew Bynum, as well. Derek Fisher and Theo Ratliff will likely have some form of labor meetings that weekend, too, and the NBA isn't shy about plucking home town guys to participate in the other skills-y events. In short, expect a heavy dose of Lakers.
On the one hand, having the festivities so close means less travel and strain. On the other, everybody and their uncle will be hitting up players for hook ups to this and that, and demands on local players are often a little higher. The contingent most likely to rep the purple and gold are used to the All-Star circus, but it'll be interesting to see if it's more or less draining.