The Los Angeles Lakers are at the quarter pole of the arduous 82-game NBA season, and through the first 20 games, they find themselves at the top of the standings with the best record in the league.
It's simple for fans to point at the Lakers 17-3 record and think that this team is destined to raise their 17th banner in franchise history. However, we're here to inform you to pump the breaks, and proceed with caution before you crown them Champions.
The Lakers have been living on easy street to start the season. According to Power Rankings Guru, the Lakers had the second easiest schedule through their first 20 games of the season.
Granted, you can only play the teams on your schedule, and the Lakers have done a tremendous job of taking care of business. Entering Sunday, the Lakers were riding a ten-game winning streak, albeit all against teams with a losing record.
It's quite the strenuous task to run off 10 consecutive wins in the NBA, regardless of the opponents record. A streak of that magnitude requires intense focus and a consistency that most teams in the league lack.
For example, the Los Angeles Clippers, a team that many expect to be in the NBA Finals come June, just lost by double-digits to the San Antonio Spurs (7-14) with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the starting lineup. Less than a week ago, the Lakers beat those same Spurs on their home court, 114-104.
It's human nature to overlook an opponent, or have a slip up once in a while. The Lakers deserve credit for their mindset ahead of each and every game, and their uncanny ability to never let go of the rope, even when they find themselves down by double-digits in hostile territory.
"That's been our mindset from the beginning," said LeBron James. "Every month is it's own challenge. We played great in November [14-1], and we want to play great next month as well. We have to focus on what's here right now. We want to have a championship mindset every time we step on the floor."
The Lakers can have a "championship mindset," but in order to become champions they have to beat the best teams in the league, and as of now, they have yet to prove they can beat the better teams in the NBA on a consistent basis. As of the publication of this story, the Lakers have played just six games against teams currently with a .500 record or better. They are 3-3 in those games.
By comparison, they have played a total of 14 games against teams who are currently under .500. They are a perfect 14-0 in those games.
"I think we were tested. There wasn't a lot of games going in with teams with winning records, but this is the NBA. Teams can play above their current record and we saw that several different times this month," said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. "Teams give us their best shot and you can get beat in those situations. To our guys credit, they handled that level of adversity and were able to overcome those games and kept getting W's."
Despite his coach clearly looking at the records of his opponents, LeBron James says he and his teammates don't pay attention to the standings.
"We're not paying attention to records. Not ours or the opponents," said James. "We're just going out and playing and trying to get better every game. We can't worry about what the record is or who we are playing. "
Ironically, until today, the Lakers best win of the season was a double-digit comeback against the same Mavericks team that manhandled them on Sunday.
"We knew they wanted to get some 'get-back' after we beat them on their floor," said James of the loss. "Now they've beat us on our floor. That's a very good team, they're very well coached."
Now, the Lakers will be tested. PRG believes the Lakers have the sixth toughest schedule the remainder of the season. Outside of the Minnesota Timberwolves who have the toughest schedule, the other teams ahead of them all have losing records. That means that all the top teams chasing them in the standings have much easier roads ahead than the Lakers do.
Nine of the Lakers next 14 games will be against teams with a winning record. That includes road games against the Nuggets (13-4), the Jazz (12-8), the Heat (14-5), the Pacers (12-7), and the reigning Eastern Conference leaders, the Bucks (17-3).
"We'll know a lot about our team after the next few games," said Lakers guard Quinn Cook. "We'll just take it one day at a time. We get everybody's best shot, so we can't take a night off. It doesn't matter if a team is at the top or the bottom of the West or East. So we have to come out prepared and come out hungry. It's easy to get complacent, but our leaders and coaches won't let us do that."
On Sunday, after a double-digit loss at home to the Dallas Mavericks, the leaders of the Lakers locker room talked about not losing two games in a row this season. That's easier said then done with the schedule ahead of them. It's not a matter of if the Lakers will face adversity this season, but when, and when that time comes, how will they handle it.
"Our whole thing is we don't want to lose two in a row, ever," said Anthony Davis emphatically. "We will always have a bounce back game. We don't need a loss to redeem ourselves, or try and pick ourselves back up. We can do that with a win, and we've done that.
Obviously, its a little bit more challenging with the teams coming up. We're confident in our abilities. Any time we step on the floor we feel like we can win each game. It's going to be fun the next couple weeks."
Veteran forward Jared Dudley is probably the only Lakers player waiting for that suffering to happen.
"I can't wait to see this room then," Dudley said when asked about the possibility of tough times ahead.
Good thing for Dudley, he shouldn't have to wait much longer.