For a team with an enviable 33-15 record, the Lakers have some awfully hacked off fans. Though the anger hasn't yet reached the point where folks are taking to the streets as in Tunis or Cairo, there's nonetheless a discontent simmering in Lakerdom. After seeing the champs get pile-driven by the loathsome Celtics at Staples Center on Sunday, fans of the purple and gold are beginning to seethe over expectations unmet and the creeping fear that the squad may not be quite up to the challenges of three-peating. Is such pressure fair to Phil Jackson and his players? Of course it's fair. If you don't want pressure, demand a trade to the Wizards. But if you want the prestige, adulation and cash monies that come with being a Laker, we respectfully require that you not get run over every time you face a Boston, Miami or San Antonio.
Indeed, there are legitimate reasons for concern: a defense that hasn't displayed championship form, a Pau Gasol who seems locked in a downward spiral of ennui, point guards who can't be relied on to make open shots. Despair, however, is premature. That we're now in the second half of the regular season means we can no longer play the "it's still early" card, but some time does remain for the Lakers to perk themselves up. And in the interests of perking up their fans, I've got five reasons for optimism about a team that's not yet worth giving up on.
1. Gasol will improve. He must. He's too good a player to do otherwise. Pau's decline has been of the gradual sort, taking shape over the last couple months, and has seen him become little more than a jump-shooter on offense and a vanishing presence on D. What's the cause of his symptoms? No one's sure. Fatigue shouldn't be an issue, as Andrew Bynum has been back in action since mid-December. Pau's just 30 years old, so it's not like he's at an age when the long slog of the season should be wearing him down. Some claim he's not "mentally tough," but if that's the case, why was this not a problem the last two seasons? There's no indication of an undisclosed injury. All signs suggest a good, old-fashioned slump of the kind athletes have always endured. The smart money is on Pau snapping out of it and playing like a championship-caliber big man down the stretch.
2. The Lakers' first-round opponent isn't likely to pose any threat. Last season, the Lakers didn't have the luxury of easing into the playoffs. Their first-round opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, was a talented and hungry 50-win team that more closely resembled a five seed than a classic eighth-seeded punching bag. This spring, the bottom end of the Western Conference playoff bracket will present no such dangers. Assuming the Lakers don't finish below second in the conference standings, they'll be matched up against the Grizzlies, the Suns, the Rockets, the injury-cursed Trail Blazers, a thoroughly collapsed Utah Jazz squad or the Carmelo Anthony-less Denver Nuggets. In a seven-game series, none is a credible candidate to steal more than a single win. This will afford the Lakers an extra week or two to reactivate their postseason intensity and, just maybe, locate and flip that mythic switch.
3. The Spurs aren't as good as their record suggests. Don't get me wrong, they're very good. The gap separating their underlying strength from that of the Lakers, however, is far narrower than one might guess from the 7½ games that divide the teams in the standings. In contests decided by three points or fewer, San Antonio has gone 6-1, an indicator of flukishly good luck. Their net point differential, which we know to be a better predictor of future performance than won-loss record, is about on a level with that of the champs. Moreover, the Spurs have enjoyed an improbable run of good health: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair have missed a combined total of zero games. Odds are against this continuing. The Spurs are essentially guaranteed home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs, but if and when they encounter the Lakers in the postseason, it'll be a battle of equals.
4. Mitch Kupchak isn't satisfied. On Monday, Laker GM Kupchak made himself heard, telling reporters that a trade is something he "may have to" pursue given that his team isn't "playing as well as our talent level should allow us." Promising news, this, as it indicates that the organization's top brass isn't content to kick back, collect the gate from a couple playoff rounds and call it a season. Granted, there might not be an available deal that would improve the roster. The Lakers don't have any super-valuable expiring contracts, and young prospects Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks would, at best, bring back a usable bench piece. An on-the-fly, Orlando-style reconstruction is hard to imagine, though not totally out of the question. But even if Kupchak can't swing a major deal, his willingness to work the phones and to threaten certain players with banishment to Toronto will light a fire or two.
5. Phil and Kobe are still in charge. Who else would you trust to sort it all out? These two guys have been through every conceivable challenge and difficulty that can arise in an NBA career. They know when to panic and when not to. They know how to prepare a team for the playoffs. They've captured titles despite disappointing regular seasons. They're both hungry to pick up another ring in what appears to be Phil's last go in the coaching racket. They're not perfect -- one need only consult memories of 2004 and 2008 -- and just because the Lakers won championships the last two seasons is no guarantee they'll do so again this time. But if there's a path from here to another Figueroa parade in June, Phil and Kobe are going to find it.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.