Is it too early in the NBA season for a team to be facing a pivotal stretch of games? Not if that team is the Lakers.
Los Angeles lost 10 of its first 12 games this season, but it bounced back by winning six of its next eight contests. It's unclear if those victories should really inspire much hope, though, as the Lakers defeated the Spurs three times and won three more against teams missing top contributors.
The real test for this group has arrived with the calendar flipping from November to December. Los Angeles, currently sitting outside of the NBA Playoff and Play-In Tournament fields at 8-12, is at its fork-in-the-road moment roughly a quarter of the way through the 2022-23 campaign.
From the players on the court to the decision-makers in the front office, the pressure is on the Lakers to find a path to relevance.
Lakers upcoming schedule
The Lakers have a challenging month ahead of them. They start December with a six-game road trip, which features a back-to-back set against the Cavaliers and Raptors.
Twelve of Los Angeles' next 16 games come against teams with a record of .500 or better. The Lakers are 4-12 against teams at or above .500 and 4-0 against teams below .500.
Matchups with potential lottery teams like the Pistons (Dec. 11), Hornets (Dec. 23) and Magic (Dec. 27) will be important because other wins may be difficult to find.
|Dec. 2||at Bucks||15-5|
|Dec. 4||at Wizards||11-11|
|Dec. 6||at Cavaliers||14-8|
|Dec. 7||at Raptors||11-10|
|Dec. 9||at 76ers||12-10|
|Dec. 11||at Pistons||5-18|
|Dec. 13||vs. Celtics||18-4|
|Dec. 16||vs. Nuggets||14-7|
|Dec. 18||vs. Wizards||11-11|
|Dec. 19||at Suns||15-6|
|Dec. 21||at Kings||11-9|
|Dec. 23||vs. Hornets||5-17|
|Dec. 25||at Mavericks||10-10|
|Dec. 27||at Magic||5-17|
|Dec. 28||at Heat||10-12|
|Dec. 30||at Hawks||12-10|
LeBron James and Anthony Davis must be healthy and impactful
James and Davis have found their names on the Lakers' injury reports more often than they would prefer, missing a combined eight games so far. If one of Los Angeles' stars goes down, this stretch could be a disaster.
However, there is some reason for optimism. After a decent yet unspectacular start, Davis has been electric on both ends of the floor, carrying the Lakers when James was recovering from a groin injury.
Davis has averaged 29.3 points, 14.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.5 blocks and 1.4 steals in his last 10 games. He has largely left his jump shot behind and dominated the paint, destroying opponents as a roll man and on second-chance opportunities.
James has also looked more like himself following his absence, scoring 39 and 31 points efficiently in recent wins over the Spurs and Trail Blazers, respectively. Lakers coach Darvin Ham is sending out role players who aren't reliable on a game-to-game basis, so Los Angeles needs James and Davis to be consistently great.
The big question: Can they maintain that level of play?
The Lakers have little margin for error. In a close loss to the Pacers on Monday, Davis disappeared late in the fourth quarter, touching the ball four times and failing to register a shot attempt in the final three minutes, per ESPN Stats and Info. That's all it took for a double-digit lead to disappear.
"We know how good we are, but we gotta produce on the floor," Davis said after a complete effort in Wednesday's win against Portland. "We're just staying together, staying locked in and just trying to take it one game at a time."
The Lakers' front office do something with the roster
Back in October, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Lakers would wait until after Thanksgiving to make any significant moves. The timeline has already changed.
The Lakers expect more teams will be willing to engage them in trade talks after Dec. 15, when contracts that were signed in the summer are eligible to be moved, sources said. But even with more possibilities opening up, league business slows around the holidays, so the odds of any action before mid-January are remote.
Los Angeles released Matt Ryan on Thursday, opening up a roster spot and giving vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka more flexibility. But is he actually going to do anything?
The Lakers can't pretend that they are all-in on their championship chase with this roster, and they can't hope for a high 2023 NBA Draft pick because the Pelicans have the option to swap with them. Los Angeles is currently stuck in the middle — except it actually isn't even good enough right now to be considered in the middle.
Pelinka is preaching patience and giving Ham space to work in his first season at the helm, but waiting until mid-January or later to seriously consider a trade may mean missing the window to make this season matter. And it's clear Lakers players, including James, aren't interested in wasting another season.
What happens in December could ultimately shape not only this campaign, but also the franchise's future. How will the Lakers handle the pressure?