Lakers Thankful for the Eastern Conference

Normally, an 8 game road trip in the NBA would appear on the surface to be an extremely daunting task.  For many teams, the difference between how they play at home and how they play on the road is night and day.  Take Denver for example, The Nuggets are 21-3 at home, 10-11 on the road.  Charlotte is 18-5 at home, 4-17 on the road.  Hell, the Lakers are 23-3 at home and 12-8 on the road.  There are other examples, but you get the point.  So, with the Lakers in the midst of an 8 game road trip, you might expect them to be fighting for their lives every night.  You might think that any trip over .500 would be considered a success. 

If you are thinking any of that, you are forgetting one thing.  This road trip is against the Eastern Conference.  And the Eastern Conference is terrible.

Don't get me wrong, there are some fine teams in the East.  Cleveland certainly appears to be the class of the league right now, and the Lakers will have to wait until the playoffs to have a chance to re-claim that mantle.  Boston is hurting, but they are still a championship threat if they get healthy at the right time.  Atlanta and Orlando are both fine teams as well.  But, from top to bottom, the Eastern Conference is absolutely horrible.

You want evidence?  If the playoffs started today, there would be three Western Conference teams on the outside looking in.  If those three teams were in the East, they'd be the 5-7 seeds.  In other words, there are 11 teams in the West better than all but 4 Eastern Conference teams.  If the playoffs weren't decided by the different conferences, and instead by overall league record, the East would only get 5 representatives.  But that's just exhibit A, and it has been true for a long time now.  The West has had more good to very good teams than the East since the dawn of time ... or something like that.  By itself, this might look convincing, but is misleading.  Take last year for example.  Phoenix missed the playoffs in the West, 10 games over .500.  The Pistons made the playoffs in the East, 4 games under .500.  So clearly, the East was even worse last year than this year (where they at least have enough teams at .500 to avoid a loser in the playoffs), right?  Not so.

Last season, the league had a very strange version of parity.  Going just on regular season record, here's how the conferences broke down, from best to worst.  1 East, 1 West, 2 East, 7 West, 1 East, 1 West, 10 East, 5 West, 1 East, 1 West.  That doesn't really visualize very well, so let me break it down for you.  The West had 8 of the 11 best teams, but they also had 6 of the worst 7 teams.  The East had 3 of the top 4 teams, but only 5 teams above .500.  But they also had all but one team win at least 30 games.  Both conferences were the average of extremes. 

This year, the disparity at the top goes all the way down the conference.  Again, 11 of the top 15 teams are in the West, and this time, the rest of the East is just plain bad.  There are 7 teams with less than 20 wins in the East, only 3 in the West.  The East has the worst team in the league by far (the Nets are still in the conversation for worst team in the history of the league).  There is no way to dress it up, the East is significantly weaker than the West this year, from top to bottom.

And the Lakers tend to agree.  L.A. is 20-8 in conference, which means their record against Eastern teams is 15-3.  All of this explains why this road trip was never going to be truly horrible.   Except for the start and the finish, the Lakers aren't exactly running the gauntlet here.  They can't be, because it's the East.  An Eastern gauntlet could only last 4 games.

Enter tonight's opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers.  The 76ers are every bit as bad as the last two teams the Lakers have beaten badly without even trying very hard.  Their starting lineup is a sad mix of has beens (Iverson, Brand) and never was (Dalembert, Iguodala, who was never the star he was supposed to be).  They're a pretty poorly constructed team, built around the Brand of 4 years ago who unfortunately never made it to Philly.

And that's really all the analysis you need.  The 76ers are equally mediocre at both offense and defense.  Ironically, the Lakers won't be able to just out big the 76ers, because Dalembert is a legit center (at least in terms of size) and Brand won't get out muscled, though Pau should be able to shoot over him without consequence.  The only thing the Sixers do well is board the offensive glass and cause turnovers.  If the Lakers focus on limiting 2nd opportunities and giving the ball away, they'll win by 30.  Otherwise, they'll win by 10.  With sterner competition on the way, another easy win is exactly what the Lakers need.

Lakers

76ers

RECORD

35-11

15-30

NET POINTS PER GAME

+7.1 (1)

-2.8 (21)

PACE

93.9(8)

91.3 (7)

OFFENSIVE RATING

109.5 (9)

106.3 (17)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

12.1% (2)

13.4% (14)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.217 (23)

0.219 (21)

Free-Throw %

77.9 (7)

77.5 (11)

Effective FG% (Off.)

49.9 (16)

48.7 (21)

True Shooting% (Off.)

54.1 (15)

53.0 (23)

Off Rebounding Rate

27.3% (12)

28.5% (4)

DEFENSIVE RATING

102.0 (3)

109.3 (22)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

13.3% (18)

14.3% (5)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.194 (1)

0.227 (17)

Effective FG% (Def.)

47.4 (3)

51.6 (26)

True Shooting% (Def.)

51.3 (1)

55.6 (26)

Def Rebounding Rate

74.4% (9)

72.7% (20)

All statistical terms defined here. Parentheses indicate league rankings. Numbers are courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.

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