Home Court Advantage Is Still A Pipe Dream

LINGFIELD, ENGLAND - MARCH 26: Jim Crowley riding Beaubrav (2nd L) win The sportingbet.com Supports HEROS Handicap Stakes at Lingfield racecourse on March 26, 2011 in Lingfield, England. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/ Getty Images)

Not so long ago, the concept of Home Court Advantage being a motivation for the Los Angeles Lakers down the stretch of the regular season seemed a pretty laughable concept.  After all, the San Antonio Spurs had effectively lapped the field.  HCA was theirs, and other teams' only recourse would be to take it from them in a seven game series.  Now, the Lakers are winners of 15 of their past 16 games, and San Antonio is going through something perilously close to their doomsday scenario.  Tim Duncan has missed a few games with injury, and now Manu Ginobili has picked up a thigh bruise bad enough to potentially keep him from playing for a game or two.  The Spurs have lost three straight, and that insurmountable lead now looks pretty surmountable (whatever the hell that means).

So, do the Lakers have a chance of ending up with the best record in the league?  Sure, but those chances rest firmly in the Anything Can Happen! category, a category which should be pretty much exhausted with the title "Back-to-Back Final Four participant" being attached to Butler's name.  Do I say this because I don't think there's a chance for the Lakers to catch the Spurs?  Not at all.  The Spurs have a tough run in, with 5 playoff teams in their last 9 games.  Duncan's injury has left them severely short (handed) in the front court, and if Manu misses any time at all, it will be games against Portland tonight and Boston on Thursday, two teams you really don't want to see when you are down.  So why don't I rate the Lakers chances very highly?  Because they aren't the only team the Spurs can make out in their rear view mirror, and the other teams involved have a much easier path.  After the jump, we'll highlight the pros and cons to each team's chances.

The San Antonio Spurs

Total losses: 16

Remaining games: 9 (5 home, 4 away, 4 playoff, .54 win percentage)

Despite all of San Antonio's struggles, they still remain the odds on favorites to win the Supporter's Shield (oops, wrong sport.)  They still have a 3 game cushion on the Chicago Bulls, and their three easiest games down the stretch (against Sacramento, Utah, and Phoenix) are at home.  Remove those three games from the equation, and the Spurs must lose 3 of 6 against Portland, Boston, @Houston, @Atlanta, @Lakers and @Phoenix.  And that's just the absolute baseline to allow other teams a chance.  I could easily see them losing to the Lakers and Portland, but Boston is currently slumping, the Hawks are currently laughable, Phoenix has nothing but pride left to play for, and Houston might be in the same situation by the time the two teams match up on Friday as well.  They only play 4 teams which are likely to make the playoffs, and they haven't lost to a non-playoff team this calendar year, so any chance other teams have of catching the Spurs resides in a major, major slide and some large upsets booked by teams that don't have much motivation to seek such an upset.  My guess?  The Spurs lose 4 of 9, leaving the door open just a crack.

Odds of Home Court Advantage throughout the playoffs: 60%

Likely number of rounds with HCA: 4

The Chicago Bulls

Total losses: 19

Remaining games: 10 (5 home, 5 away, 4 playoff, .42 win percentage)

If the Spurs do slip up, there is little doubt in my mind that the Bulls will be the team to make them pay for it.  Chicago is playing tremendous basketball of late, leaving a trail of battered foes in their wake.  They've won 12 of their last 13 with an average margin of victory north of 13 points/game.  Coach Tom Thibodeau seems to have located his team's killer instinct, and he has been providing said instinct with copious amounts of electro-shock therapy whenever he senses his team letting up.  Chicago is already poised with the 2nd best record in the league,
and a 2-3 game cushion on the rest of the Eastern Conference, and they also happen to have one of the easiest remaining schedules of any of the contenders.  The only game on their schedule that looks remotely difficult right now is a road date against Orlando on April 10th.  Besides that, they play Philly at home, Boston at home, and New York on the road, and everybody else on their schedule has nothing left to play for.  A sweep through the rest of their season seems unlikely, only because winning that many games in a row is a rare thing, but a 9-1 record down the stretch is entirely within the realm of possibility.  My guess is they'll drop two down the stretch and fall just short of San Antonio.

Odds of Home Court Advantage throughout the playoffs: 35%

Likely number of rounds with HCA: 3

The Los Angeles Lakers

Total losses: 20

Remaining games: 9 (5 home, 4 away, 5 playoff, .56 win percentage)

The home team Lakers are the hottest team in the NBA right now by a fair margin. They've lost only once since the All-Star break, they have an average margin of victory of just under 9 points/game, and what makes this stretch much more impressive than the Bulls' similar run is that it has come against a bunch of very good teams.  The average winning % of Laker opponents during their 15-1 stretch is .532 compared to the Bulls' .475 over their 12-1 streak.  It's pretty clear that the Lakers are capable of beating anyone, anywhere right now.  But, their early and mid season foibles have left them with too much of a mountain to climb, and they boast the toughest run in of any of the prime contenders, with 5 playoff teams (all from the Western Conference I might add, where being a playoff team actually means something) left on the docket, no one has a bigger challenge down the stretch of the season, at least on paper.  There may actually be inherent advantages to this (which we'll address later), but it makes the necessary win total for HCA tough to see.  All that said, if the Lakers continue to play with anywhere near their current form, I do expect a strong run to finish the season.  All of those games against playoff opponents will be played in Staples Center save one (a road game in Portland, the only remaining game that looks truly difficult for the Lakers to win), and if they can go 15-1 against mostly good teams post-All-Star break, there isn't any reason (other than the normal difficulty associated with such things) that they can't go 8-1 in their final 9 either.  The problem is that 8-1, while amazing, probably still won't get the job done, and the concept of the team losing just once after the All-Star break is too immense to comprehend. If I'm honest, while I won't say it's likely that the Lakers catch the Spurs, I don't think they are the main obstacle to HCA, because if the Spurs falter enough for the Lakers to be able to catch them, my guess is that it will be Chicago who takes advantage.  In any case, my guess (once again assuming the Lakers continue their good form, which is about as predictable as the shelf life of a gallon of milk) is that the Lakers drop two down the stretch, good enough to sneak in for a very surprising 60 win season, but not enough to improve their playoff positioning.

Odds of Home Court Advantage throughout the playoffs: 5%

Likely number of rounds with HCA: 2

The Miami Heat

Total losses: 22

Remaining games: 9 (3 home, 6 away, 2 playoff, .37 win percentage)

Despite having more losses than the Boston Celtics, Miami comes next on this list on account of the laughable nature of their remaining schedule.  That .37 winning percentage remaining is not a typo, and nothing would be more like the Heat than go on a huge tear heading into the playoffs by beating a bunch of scrubs.  If the Heat excel at one thing, it's beating the Lakers, but if they excel at two things, the second is beating the life out of this league's dregs.  They are 32-5 against teams below .500, winning by an average of more than 10 points/game.  You might think their six road games are a disadvantage, but those teams have combined to win roughly 30% of their games.   The only two "good" teams (Boston and Atlanta) left on their docket are limping to the finish line.  Actually, I take that back, Atlanta isn't so much limping to the finish line as they are passed out on the side of the road and praying the finish line comes to them.  Yes, the Heat have struggled with Boston in all three meetings so far this season, but can't you just see the hype surrounding a 14 game end-of-season winning streak including them finally overcoming the nemesis Boston Celtics, even though Boston already feels confident they can beat the Heat when they want to and don't seem to be trying all that hard right now.  I sure can, and I expect the Heat to run the table.  No team in this league is better at creating, and destroying, hype.

Odds of Home Court Advantage throughout the playoffs: 0%

Likely number of rounds with HCA: 2

The Dallas Mavericks

Total losses: 21

Remaining games: 9 (4 home, 5 away, 4 playoff, .52 win percentage)

The Dallas Mavericks continue to chug away under the radar, but their chances of passing up either of the teams ahead of them in the Western Conference seem low.  Of Dallas, L.A., and San Antonio, the Mavericks have more really tough road games remaining (@LA and @ Portland), and they are also currently in the middle of a six game road trip, so there is every possibility that two losses in the next week will end any attempt they can make to overtake the Lakers and Spurs.  They are also only 7-5 in their last 12 games, so if current form is any indication, they might not have the horses to keep up in this race.  Of course, that 7-5 stretch followed 8 straight wins, so we have even further proof that form is a fickle beast.  In any case, their chances of improving their playoff positioning seem to rest solely on Thursday night's tilt against the Lakers.  The Lakers will have had three days rest prior to that game, and Dallas will have had none (though their back to back includes the Clippers, so at least the travel schedule won't be too rough).  We won't have to wait long to find out whether the Mavericks have either the ability or the motivation to mount a challenge for the Lakers' home court advantage, but there's no chance they catch the Spurs.  My guess?  Two to three more losses, unless they decide to tank in an effort to avoid the Lakers in the 2nd round (or for that matter, Denver in the 1st).

Odds of Home Court Advantage throughout the playoffs: 0%

Likely number of rounds with HCA: 1

The Boston Celtics

Total losses: 21

Remaining games: 10 (4 home, 6 away, 6 playoff, .50 win percentage)

5-6 over their last 11 games, and with one of the toughest stretches of games to close the season of anybody on this list, the Celtics don't appear to be in position to fend off anyone on the list in terms of regular season record.  The combined winning percentage of their opponents is less than all three Western Conference teams (hmmm, go figure), but Boston has by far the toughest list of remaining games to win, with road tilts in San Antonio, Chicago, and Miami.  All that plus Rajon Rondo can't shoot, the team will be re-incorporating a very out of shape Shaquille O'Neal, and team chemistry seems to be at an all time low post-Ubuntu.  The lessons of last season prove the Celtics are a threat in the playoffs no matter what they look like going in, but this post is about what they look like going in, and it doesn't look good.  I think Boston loses at least four more games this season, but I doubt their 3 seed keeps them out of the EC Finals, to say the least.

Odds of Home Court Advantage throughout the playoffs: 0%

Likely number of rounds with HCA: 1

So there you have it.  The HCA race has been officially handicapped.  What does this all mean for our hometown team?  Based on my projections, the guess here is that the Lakers will have the two seed out West, and 3 seed overall.  One positive of the Lakers tough remaining schedule is that they are likely to have quite a few "playoff atmosphere" contests with which to acclimate themselves to the post season environment, though no team in the league needs this acclimation less.  Home Court against the Mavericks makes that series a little less interesting, and the lack of HCA against the Spurs has been an inevitability the Lakers have been dealing with for months.  The only question that truly remains is whether L.A. can catch Chicago.  In my opinion, Chicago with HCA is a bigger threat than San Antonio with HCA, so it's definitely in the Lakers' best interests to keep the pressure on the Bulls.  Unfortunately, Chicago has both the current edge, and a much easier path to season's end, so this is one race I don't think the Lakers will win.

Good thing it's not the one that counts.

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