Will the Lakers win the championship? Will the Lakers win the Western Conference? Will the Lakers have home court advantage in the postseason? Will the Lakers be able to win four series in a row on the road?
Will the Lakers make the playoffs?
There's been a sad, slow degenerating line of questions toppling from August of last year to late January. The once title-tilted Lakers now find themselves in a nightly quest to beat anyone, let alone the class of the NBA.
LA finds itself in an unfamiliar spot: looking up in the standings and finding 11 teams ahead of them. The Western Conference has thus far shaken itself into several different categories: at the top is the foursome of the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers. Each of these teams have established themselves as mid-season title contenders, some with more weaknesses than others. In the second tier lies the Golden State Warriors experiencing a rare surge of on-court success, as well as the Denver Nuggets rebounding after a slow start.
After those six? It's a six-team scrum for the last two spots. There's little doubt that barring a cataclysmic injury (or set of injuries), five of the top six teams will make the playoffs (the only pause comes in the form of the Warriors, who are playing--and more specifically, defending--way beyond expectations, and have seen only a healthy Stephen Curry thus far). This leaves the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets (both currently in the top 8), Portland Trailblazers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks all separated by just 5 games in the standings.
Last season, prorated for a full, 82 game schedule, the eighth seeded Jazz won 45 games at a .545 winning percentage. To get to that shockingly lofty plateau, the Lakers would have to go 28-13 in their last 41 contests, a .683 winning percentage. Putting that in perspective, the Lakers be on track for a 56-26 if they were winning at that clip. At this point, that record is nearly mathematically impossible.
LA has 19 home games compared to just 23 road games left, including 23 against teams .500 or better. It's not a particularly favorable schedule from here on out, but they've also played the league's 10th toughest schedule thus far according to ESPN.com. Moreover, out of all the teams they're fighting for the bottom two seeds with, they have the worst home to road game ratio.
In a sentence? This won't be easy. In another? They'll need some help. Let's take a look at what the other Western Conference third-class citizens are facing going forward into the second half of the season, and what, if anything, behooves our guys in the purple & gold:
Current Record (Expected Pythagorean Record): 22-19 (21-20)
Home/Road Games left: 24 home, 17 road
Biggest Weakness: A surprisingly awful defense
The Lakers will pass them in the standings if...a lot goes wrong.
The Jazz currently occupy the 7th spot in the Western Conference and are perhaps the best suited the rest of the way to make the playoffs. They come in with a fantastic home record of 13-4, a .764 winning percentage they'll take into their 24 home games left, against just 17 roadies. They're riding a superb run of play in which they've won 7 out of 9 and allowing 100 points just three times in that span (though, only three of those games were against teams above .500, and two of those contests ended in losses). To finish the season on the outside looking in, the Jazz will have to trend downward in every way, and prove that their recent defensive proficiency is a farce.
Part of the reason could be offseason import Mo Williams going down with a hand injury just before Christmas. After losing 3 of 4, the starting combination of Randy Foye and Jamal Tinsley have calmed down a young, inexperienced team and coerced them into a 7-2 run. This comes as no surprise, seeing as Foye and Tinsley are a part of Utah's five most efficient lineups, while Mo Williams is a part of none of them. Perhaps Williams' lack of play-making for others and propensity to jack up shots at an unconscionable pace has something to do with a more even style of play from the young Jazz on both ends of the floor. Mo's return could end up being subtraction by addition. Overall, the Jazz aren't a great defensive team simply because of their personnel, so there's a chance they could come back to Earth if they're not playing at 100% every night.
More realistically, a trade might be coming down the pipeline for Utah. They have both Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson on expiring deals, and young bigs Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors earmarked for future starting spots. Logic says that the Jazz front office will deal one of the two veterans for picks or young prospects, seeing as Utah is not primed for a long playoff run this year. A change in personnel, especially Jefferson, could help put a team whose focal point is punishing oppositions inside into disarray.
Current Record (Expected Pythagorean Record): 20-21 (17-24)
Home/Road Games left: 20 home, 21 road
The Blazers have an exceptionally tough second half--two road trips of 5 and 6 games--and 27 games left against current playoff teams. They are tied for the league's 18th strongest schedule, which would help explain a record that far outweighs what their expected win-loss totals.
Biggest Weakness: Lack of depth
The Blazers have one of the worst benches in the league. Backing up Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson, Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews is a reserve corps of Meyers Leonard, Jared Jeffries, Ronnie Price and Sasha Pavlovic. In a particularly stunning statistic, no Portland reserve is averaging more than 5 points, 4 rebounds or 2 assists. The Blazers are not equipped to deal with any injuries, but more importantly, if the grind of the season begins to take its toll on any of the starters, they have very little production to fall back on.
The Lakers will pass them in the standings if...the Trailblazers' starters get worn down, either by the brutal schedule or by injury.
Portland's starters have maintained such a high level of play that's made up for arguably the league's worst bench. Any attrition from an All-Star first half from Aldridge, Rookie of the Year-worthy play from Lillard and excellent campaigns from Hickson, Batum and Matthews and the Blazers won't be tasting the postseason. It seems like the odds are stacked against them.
Current Record (Expected Pythagorean Record): 21-21 (23-19)
Home/Road Games left: 20 home, 19 road
The Rockets are surpassing all sorts of preseason expectations, but then again, no one knew they'd have James Harden until Halloween. The Rockets are looking a favorable schedule from here on out, with only one road trip of five games and just 23 games against teams currently .500 or better. However they haven't played well at all in the past month and a half after a great start to the season. They recently snapped a seven game losing streak with a win against the Charlotte Bobcats and currently break even at 21-21.
Biggest Weakness: "Streakiness"
During their just completed seven game skid, the Rockets lost by an average of 9 points. Conversely, during their preceding five game winning streak, they won by an average of +12 points. Before that? Losing four out of six, winning five and losing two. The Rockets either win or lose in streaks, and do so big, which shouldn't be so surprising from a team so reliant on jump shots (Houston is second in three-point makes and attempts, but just 16th in 3P%). Kevin McHale's boys aren't disciplined enough to keep up a consistent style of play, which is on a nightly display with the league's worst turnover rate.
The Lakers will pass them in the standings if...the Rockets keep their margins of victory so low and the shots don't fall anymore.
The Rockets are a streaky team in every sense of the word, much of which is a side effect of their unbelievable run-and-gun offense. Houston currently owns a paltry +1.2 point differential on the season, which is impressive only if you don't consider you're looking at the league's highest scoring team. The Rockets will have to play much more steady basketball in order to hold off the veteran Lakers.
Current Record (Expected Pythagorean Record): 17-21 (16-22)
Home/Road Games left: 24 home, 19 road
Biggest Weakness: Injuries
Minnesota's season might already be over. The Wolves have already lost so much personnel time to injury that it makes the Lakers look like a team of virile Rob Lowes. Ricky Rubio has been in and out after coming back from a torn ACL. Kevin Love recently re-fractured his hand after losing months to the injury late in 2012, and won't be back until March at the earliest. Chase Budinger tore his left meniscus and will be out another month or two. Brandon Roy's knees have held up just as well as anyone thought they would--it's questionable whether or not he'll ever play another NBA game. The Timberwolves should be a playoff team this year, but the injury bug has all but thrown them out of mix.
The Lakers will pass them in the standings if...there isn't some radical changes in medicine, right now.
The Timberwolves should be well out of reach for the postseason in a month or so. There're simply too many injuries to too many key players for this team to overcome them. Unfortunately for Minnesota, they might have the easiest schedule out of all of the teams on this list, as they play 24 games at home (the most along with Utah).
Current Record: 18-24 (17-25)
Home/Road Games left: 22 home, 20 road
Biggest Weakness: Age and lack of athleticism
The Lakers will pass them in the standings if...Dallas doesn't make any personnel moves.
As currently constituted, this Mavericks team simply doesn't have enough horses to get them to the playoffs. Besides Dirk Nowtizki, Dallas' surrounding parts simply don't have enough firepower or creativity to overcome the nightly struggles associated with an aging roster. O.J. Mayo has been much more capable as a second fiddle than many thought he'd be, dropping 18 nightly with 4 boards and 4 assists on 46% shooting. However, the rest of the team will vacillate wildly in performance from night to night, with 30-somethings like Vince Carter, Chris Kaman and Shawn Marion running out of gas on back-to-backs or four games in five nights. Dirk himself is still rounding into shape, scoring just 14 points on 41% shooting, a far cry from his usual All-NBA form.
The Mavs have won 5 out of the last 6, with their only loss coming in overtime to 52 points by Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder. During this small revival, Dallas has averaged close to 110 points a contest, blitzing oppositions with throwback nights from Carter, Brand and Kaman. However, this model isn't sustainable--the Mavericks do not have enough dynamic, consistent scorers or a point guard rotation capable of making enough plays to control pace of game. The Mavericks give up the fourth most shots per game in an uncharacteristically mediocre defense on top of a very middling offense. The Lakers have two games left against the Mavericks and must win both, in the case that they're tied towards the end of the season. Without the addition of another dynamic player (Rudy Gay? Josh Smith? DeMarcus Cousins?), Dallas might not have enough to play consistently night to night and bump out the Lakers.
Looking at their five competitors for the last two playoff spots, the Lakers have the best chance of overthrowing the Rockets, Blazers and Timberwolves. Houston and Portland have glaring weaknesses that could easily derail their postseason hopes. Also, LA still has two head-to-head contests with the Blazers, in which the Lakers could easily pick up two games in the standings if needed. Minnesota has had a very fine team that's been wiped out by injuries, but it seems that they won't have enough guys to seriously compete for a playoff spot. All three of these teams are very young, which could work against them as the season wears on and the pressure ratchets up.
Utah and Dallas appear to be the most difficult matchups on the board. The Jazz have such a healthy plate of games at home, a place where they have such a stark advantage over any team. Between this time last year and now, they've improved leaps and bounds under coach Ty Corbin. At this point, it's pretty difficult to envision them becoming markedly worse with the team at hand. Dallas is on a hot streak right now, but it's easy to become pessimistic when looking at their overall record. However, they're a very smart, incredibly well-coached team that's underperformed on defense, even without Brendan Haywood or Tyson Chandler. Dirk is slowly (very slowly) rounding into game shape, and a healthier superstar will instantly shape up any team. The Lakers have two games left against Dallas, which, like Portland, is key going down the stretch.
Of course, none of this matters if the Lakers continue to show up for games bereft of energy or competitive pride. The Lakers will have to play .683 ball the rest of the way to even have scheduled games after April, a winning percentage (to put it in perspective) that's nearly akin to Memphis' current record. Right now, it's hard to envision a team that's lost to Sacramento, Cleveland and Orlando--and disgracefully so--roaring back and playing at such a high level. The Lakers are facing long odds to face the playoffs just in this regard, but if there's any silver lining, it's that the teams around them all have sizeable flaws that could keep them out of the postseason as well.
All statistics taken from ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com
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