The Los Angeles Lakers frequently have backloaded schedules. Intentional or not, it makes economic sense for the league. The Lakers are their marquee franchise. Pushing their most important games later into the season not only heightens their drama, but avoids possible conflicts with the NFL season, which ends in February. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the Lakers will play six more nationally televised games in the second half of their schedule (24) than they will in the first (18). If that gap doesn’t seem especially meaningful to you, remember that 11 of the 30 NBA teams (almost 37 percent of the league) will play six or fewer nationally televised games in total this season.
Whether or not this was an intentional choice is ultimately unknowable, but if the NBA did want to back-load the Lakers’ schedule, they did an absolutely incredible job of it. A brief look at how the league laid out the season for the Lakers shows one of the starkest differences in first- and second-half difficulty in all of basketball. Consider the following:
The Lakers are playing 12 of their first 15 games at home. All three of their road opponents in that span are in the Western Conference, limiting wear and tear through travel. In the first half of the season as a whole, they will play 26 of a possible 41 games at Staples Center.
After opening against three playoff teams, the Lakers then enter a period in which 10 of their next 12 opponents missed the 2021 playoffs. One of those two playoff teams was the Portland Trail Blazers, whose roster is somewhat volatile considering rumblings of a possible Damian Lillard trade request. After facing three playoff teams in four games during an east coast road trip, they then get to face eight non-playoff teams in their next 12 games. One of those playoff teams, the Clippers, will presumably be without Kawhi Leonard.
According to Positive Residual, the Lakers will have a total of nine games this season in which they have a rest advantage over their opponent and eight in which their opponent will have a rest advantage over them. Seven of their nine rest advantages come in the first half of the season.
Remember, the NBA cannot just wave a magic wand and give the Lakers an easy schedule. Playing a lot of home games early on means playing a lot of road games later. The same is true of opponent quality. Eventually, these things balance out. But the easy schedule in front of the Lakers to open the season is notable on several levels.
It’s hard not to compare the road in front of the Lakers this upcoming season to the more treacherous one they faced coming off of their 2020 championship. An offseason shortened by COVID-19 gave the Lakers only 72 days of rest before their title defense began, and while the Lakers started off just fine, injuries eventually derailed their season. It could well happen again, but a full offseason combined with such a home-heavy start should help the Lakers ease into the season in a way that just wasn’t going to be possible last winter.
Of course, the Lakers probably can’t afford to ease into anything. With so many difficult games waiting for them in the spring, they’re going to have to bank wins early on against weaker opponents. Whether or not this schedule will ultimately help their regular-season positioning is debatable. There’s no question fitting Russell Westbrook into the lineup is going to take time. LeBron James knows this firsthand. He started his first season with the Miami Heat 9-8, and when he returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers four years later, they were below .500 after 39 games at 19-20. Star trios, particularly ones light on shooting, need time to get to know one another. Playing a weak schedule increases their margin for error in that process.
One could argue that is ultimately a bad thing for the Lakers. They’d probably prefer to know where their weaknesses lie early on as well as just how severe those weaknesses might be. Beating up on the worst teams in the NBA might not tell them much. It might even give them a false sense of security. Necessity is the mother of invention. The Lakers won’t be able to solve their problems if they don’t believe they have any.
An absolutely brutal stretch in late January and early February could prove to be a blessing in that sense. At least the Lakers will have seen themselves against elite competition before the trade deadline. By that point, the Lakers will have had plenty of time for lineup tinkering and will have a sense of who’s going to hold significant playoff roles and who won’t.
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The end of the regular season is going to be a nice test drive for them from that perspective. The Lakers close with Phoenix, Golden State and Denver twice (possibly with a healthy Jamal Murray) alongside a gimme against an Oklahoma City team likely to be tanking. If top seeds are still up for grabs at that point, those final regular-season tests will carry postseason intensity.
NBA scheduling is never as simple as it looks in the offseason. Some of those early opponents will be better than expected. Some of the later ones will be worse. Injuries will impact both sides of the equation, and even an extremely favorable schedule is unlikely to net a team more than a few extra wins over the course of an entire season. The Lakers are ultimately going to be as good as they were going to be regardless of who is in front of them. Teams with their talent control their own destiny.
But that doesn’t make their schedule any less fascinating. It’s almost impossible to build such a gap between the first half of a team’s schedule and the second in a high-sample 82-game season. If it wasn’t by design on the league’s part, it is one of the stranger scheduling quirks in recent league history.