December true measuring stick for Los Angeles Lakers’ title potential

Having beaten up an easy early-season schedule, how the Los Angeles Lakers perform in December will tell us something about the heights they can reach.

The Los Angeles Lakers used the NBA’s first full month to jump ahead in the standings and establish themselves as one of the league’s best teams.

During the month of November, LA managed to win 14 of their 15 games, the most wins in a single month for the franchise since the days of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. They had an overall record of 17-2 coming into December, good for the best mark in the NBA, but it came with a caveat that was hard to ignore.

Of those 15 November games, 12 came against opponents currently below .500. It was one of the easier starts to the season for any team in the league, allowing a new cast of teammates to gel and thrive under low-pressure circumstances.

As the month changes to December, however, so do the challenges that lie ahead for the purple and gold.

Following a home loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, nine of L.A.’s next 13 games will be against playoff participants from a season ago including a five-game East Coast trip.

This doesn’t include another matchup with Dallas and early MVP candidate Luka Doncic, a battle with the likely postseason-bound Miami Heat or a contest with the surprisingly relevant Minnesota Timberwolves.

Being a great team includes the handling of business against sub-par squads, but more important are the games against potential playoff foes that serve as a championship measuring stick.

What would it say about these Lakers with two losses to the Denver Nuggets in one month? How about falling to 0-2 in the battle for Los Angeles with the LA Clippers after Christmas?

The Lakers are currently a comfortable 2½ games ahead of Denver for the No. 1 spot in the West, but that could all change come 2020. A sub-par December could slide L.A. down the standings if only a bit, making a potential Finals run all the more difficult if it’s unable to climb back to the top.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis form the best twosome in the league, but L.A.’s most recent loss to Dallas unearthed some flaws the Lakers covered up with every victory.

In the 14-point defeat that ended a 10-game winning streak, the Lakers made just 7-of-27 attempts from beyond the arc while the Mavericks were 17-of-49.

Keep in mind that L.A. was tied for 10th in opponents’ 3-point makes in November and 13th in percentage. They had the 10th fewest makes per game from distance.

The defensive numbers are unquestionably above-average, but the same can’t be said when viewed through the lens of a title-or-bust mentality. Similarly, a bottom-third ranking in such an important offensive category can’t possibly bode well for a team that needs to space the court for its two superstars.

However you feel about those numbers, there’s no denying they were elevated by far inferior competition, a luxury LA won’t have in the coming weeks.

The Lakers had the fourth-highest net rating in November with top-10 marks in offensive and defensive efficiency. Maybe that’s what they were supposed to do against some of the league’s lesser teams, but they can’t be at fault for the schedule placed before them before the season.

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All L.A. can do is go after the team in front of them and they managed to do exactly that rather convincingly until this point.

That shouldn’t obscure the fact their last win against a team above .500 came on Nov. 12 when the Phoenix Suns were 6-3 and the flaws present before the season haven’t been fixed, only mitigated.

Next: NBA Power Rankings

Long considered championship contenders, L.A. has yet to face a true string of challenges this season. Dallas provided a much-needed reality check. Now it’s time for the Lakers to respond with the perfect platform finally in front of them.

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