To say the Lakers have had a miserable start to the season is as big of an understatement as saying our country’s national debt is just a few bucks here and there. This season has been an epic disaster that I won’t bother recapping because it is simply too depressing. Last night’s loss has only further encouraged the mass of Lakers followers to jump off the bandwagon (notice I used the term "followers" and not "fans" because true Lakers fans never get off the ride). This season has turned into one of the darkest ever, but the light has not gone out yet. There is still reason for hope in Lakerland.
For all the bad breaks the Lakers have caught (see C.A. Clark’s piece today), he failed to mention one gigantic break that may salvage the Lakers’ season: The Western Conference only has seven good teams. C.A. stated that the Lakers need to win 2 out of 3 games the rest of the way to reach the win total of the average 8th seed in the West over the last few years. While that statement is accurate, he is assuming that the requirement for post-season play is the same as prior years. It is not. In fact, odds are that the 8th seed will only need a .500 record to get in.
To see what I am talking about you only need to look at John Hollinger’s playoff odds. He shows seven teams reaching 48 wins (Clippers, Spurs, Thunder, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Rockets, and Warriors). Unless the Lakers go on a run and start winning two out of three games, they won’t catch any of these teams. Where it gets interesting is the 8th seed. One glance at the teams fighting for that final spot and it becomes quite clear the Lakers may in fact have the inside track on that position.
There are four teams fighting for that spot: Lakers, Timberwolves, Blazers, and Jazz. Relative to this group, the Lakers' odds don’t seem so dim and making the playoffs may still be more likely than not.
Minnesota currently sits at 16-16, only 2.5 games ahead of the Lakers. Their margin of victory is -0.3 points per game, further supporting them being a .500 team. The biggest detriment to their playoff hopes is the recent injury to Kevin Love. The Timberwolves' best player will miss 8 to 10 weeks after re-breaking his hand. The best the Wolves can hope for is continued .500 basketball and a quick glance at their schedule over the upcoming few weeks suggests that will be a long shot. What may help the Lakers is that they play the Timberwolves twice during that span (Feb 1 and Feb 28). Two Lakers wins would significantly tilt the odds towards the Lakers finishing ahead of Minnesota. Hollinger projects them to be a 39 win team and I don’t see how they would exceed that.
Portland currently sits in the 8th spot in the West with a 19-15 record, 4.5 games up on the Lakers. Many would take a quick glance at this record, the winning percentage of 0.56 and project them to be a 46 win team and thus the required record to make the playoffs. Unfortunately for Portland (and fortunately for LA), their record is overstated and they won’t continue to win games at that pace for two big reasons: they aren’t as good as their record indicates and they have feasted on an easy schedule.
Margin of victory is more strongly correlated with future performance than win-loss record. While Portland is four games above .500, they have been outscored by two points per game, a margin typically reflective of a 35 win team. If Portland plays like a 35 win team the rest of the way, they would finish with a .500 record. It isn’t quite that simple though because no team in the West has benefited from an easier slate of games than Portland. Portland’s opponents have had an averaging winning percentage of only .470, By comparison the five other Western Conference teams with the easiest schedules so far (with opponent winning percentage) are: OKC (.494), Dallas (.498), Phoenix (.498), Golden State (.498), and Utah (.501). Basically if you are in the Western Conference then you have played against .500 teams on average. Portland meanwhile has played a schedule so light, most teams in the East are jealous. It doesn’t bode well for a team that has been outscored during a super soft schedule to finish above .500. Given that their next 4 games are against Miami, Golden State, Oklahoma City, and Denver, they could be back down to .500 by Tuesday. Hollinger projects them to win 39 games and I agree.
Utah represents the biggest challenge to the Lakers post-season aspirations. They are currently 19-18 (three games up on LA), with a margin of victory of -0.3. By all accounts they are a 0.500 team. In fact, Hollinger projected them to finish 41-41 yesterday before their win against Charlotte last night bumped them up to 42-40. They have been virtually injury free all year. They have played an average strength of schedule, and have a remaining schedule that is more difficult than LA’s. I see no reason why the Jazz would suddenly become a much better team and finish more than a game or two above .500.
It should be evident that the Lakers still have a good shot to make the post-season as an 8th seed. The Lakers have played the toughest schedule to date of the four teams – in fact the Lakers have played the 8th toughest schedule in the league and after Friday’s contest against OKC they will have played the 5th toughest. The Lakers' margin of victory suggests they are a better team than their record indicates and they have been ravaged by injuries. If any team has the potential to improve their performance over the latter half of the season it is LA. The Lakers are only three games back of Utah with 47 games left. If they win the final head to head match-up (Jan 25th in LA) they will only need to make up 2 games the rest of the way. Hardly sounds like the insurmountable odds that some have portrayed.
At this point the Lakers simply need to get healthy and give effort. A trade may be needed to shake up the roster if the Lakers want to compete for the title, but as for making the playoffs the odds are still in their favor. Don’t turn the lights off yet.