Thirty-six games is all that stands between the Los Angeles Lakers and either a merely disappointing season or one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
As our own Drew Garrison wrote yesterday, this Lakers team simply can't be trusted with your emotions; like a mercurial adolescent, there's little indication of which squad will show its face night to night, quarter to quarter, minute to minute. It's been a season of teases for the Lakers and their fans, vacillating wildly between the gutty, persistent crew that defeated the best team in the West, the one that, just days later, lost to the worst team in the West in a ridiculous 540 second meltdown.
Regardless of which way you sway with this Lakers team--having written them off or blindly hoping for a miracle stretch run--there's little doubt that by the middle of February we should all know there this team is headed in April.
The next 28 days are pivotal for not just the Lakers, but of course for their main competitors for the bottom two spots on the Western Conference playoffs bracket. The Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Portland Trailblazers, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks remain in a five-team scrum for the "honor" of facing destruction via superhuman Oklahoma City
Avengers Thunder squad or a methodical, Batman-esque deconstruction by the San Antonio Spurs.
Just to be clear about what exactly the Lakers are facing this month, let's break down team-by-team the four weeks of February:
Los Angeles Lakers
13 games: 5 home (15-10 record), 8 away (5-16 record)
Vs. .500 teams: 5 vs. over, 8 vs. under
Toughest games: 6 game road trip including games at Miami and Brooklyn, Clippers at home and at Denver.
As pessimistic as anyone should feel after Wednesday's debacle at the Lakers, let's be objective for a second: it was one game. It's the rest of the month that should petrify everyone.
The Lakers will hit just the second stop of seven on their annual Grammy Awards-induced Road Trip tonight, with contests to come against Miami, Brooklyn and an always tough one in a non-descriptive hellish concrete cube on the back bay of Boston. LA has been abysmal on the road this season, making their 8 games away from home even more difficult. However, the Lakers have 8 games against (technically) inferior competition, with bouts against Minnesota (twice), Detroit, Phoenix and Charlotte, four of the worst 10 teams in the league.
Similar to even past championship seasons led by Kobe and Pau, this year's edition still has a problem beating down the dredges of the league. Thus far, the Lakers have fallen to the Cavaliers, Magic, Suns, Raptors and Kings, five teams bound for the lottery. On the flip, they've been staying competitive with the Heat, Thunder, Clippers and Spurs, even with several starters sitting with injuries. The difference between this season and the last few? These Lakers are merely running with the big boys until they fall in the final stages of the race. The 2008-2012 Lakers beat the best teams in the league with regularity.
In regard to the competition, the Lakers, if they execute as they did for three quarters against both the Hornets and Suns, should be able to win games. It's easy to write them off now after a pathetic loss against the Suns, but this is still a team that won three games in a row, that had the media wrapped around its finger. Still, there's a lot of doubt attached to team that just cannot get it done away from STAPLES Center.
However, none of this will matter if they don't get any help.
11 games: 5 home (15-8), 6 away (10-15)
Vs. .500 teams: 8 vs. over, 4 vs under
Toughest games: At Miami, Golden State, Clippers and Brooklyn, with home games against Golden State and Oklahoma City
Of all the teams on the board, Houston faces the stiffest competition. No team has as many games against top 5 seeds in either conference, especially with this many on the road. The Rockets are a notoriously streaky team, and once they get into a slide, they seemingly keep shooting themselves deeper and deeper into the hole. Road games against Miami, GS, LAC and the BK won't help matters.
Their home/away tilt almost 50/50 in their favor, but Houston only beat 2 teams above .500 throughout January. Instead of coming closer together as the season wears on, it seems that the team's defensive efforts are becoming more and more erratic. The Rockets are very ripe for a hard charging Lakers or Portland team to take them over.
12 games: 8 home (16-5), 4 away (9-16)
Vs. .500 teams: 8 vs. over, 4 vs. under
Toughest games: Home and home against Portland, Chicago, OKC and Golden State at home and at the Clippers.
As I predicted several weeks ago, the Jazz have been rolling with a home-heavy second half schedule. Utah's home court advantage looms very large in terms of their on-court success, with a rabid Salt Lake City crowd and the high altitude wreaking havoc on opponents.
The Jazz have won 7 of their last 10 games, counting dominating home wins against Indiana and Miami amongst them. Even with teams like the Thunder, Warriors and Bulls rolling into SLC, there's little reason to think that the Jazz won't be able to compete in, if not win every one of them. With their home white jerseys on so much this month, Utah should remain solidly in the 7th spot throughout February.
12 games: 4 home (16-8), 8 away (7-14)
Vs. .500 teams: 5 vs. over, 8 vs. under
Toughest games: Home and home against Utah, 6 game road trip with away games against Miami and Houston, home against Denver
There's little doubt that the Blazers have the toughest February in the bunch. Their 8 away games and 6 game road trip tie the Lakers for top honors. Like LA, Portland is a dreadful team without the vaunted home court advantage of the Rose Garden, and even with four road games against the Hornets, Timberwolves, Magic and Dallas, there's no guarantee they win more than a handful.
The Blazers have the league's worst bench by nearly any quantifiable measure and February should be the month where the massive minutes and performance load taken on by the starters should take its toll. Especially worrisome is the potential wall that lead Rookie of the Year candidate Damian Lillard is likely to hit. Portland is 3-7 in their last 10 games, and with 8 of their next 10 on the road, there's a big reason to think that February will rock them like a Miguel Cotto punch to some Congressman's temple.
After examining the three teams ahead of the Lakers, it's clear that February should be kind to a home-happy Utah Jazz team. It would be shocking if they fell out of the 7th spot in the next four weeks, simply based on how overwhelming their advantage is in Salt Lake City.
Incredibly, Portland is falling apart at the seams even faster than the Lakers. With such a road heavy schedule coming up, it wouldn't be surprising if they were as many as 5 or 6 games under .500 by March 1st.
Houston, as streaky as they can be, are the big threat in February. Their schedule isn't terribly unkind in regard to home and road splits, but still face 8 teams over .500, tough no matter where the games are played.
Of course, as I wrote weeks ago, none of this matters if the Lakers continue to play so poorly against sub-.500 teams, especially on the road. There are a few reasons to think LA can have a successful February, but looking at the schedule, the negatives slightly outweigh the positives. Going 7-6 will not do for a team that's four games in back of Houston with no head to head contests until the last day of the season.
Perhaps what's most frustrating for Lakers fans everywhere isn't just a season gone awry--it's that after expectations were lowered significantly, even those hopes seem so far out of reach despite very flawed teams sitting ahead of them. Houston and Portland face substantial disadvantages this month in terms of their schedules, but nothing seems to come easy to these Lakers. What should be a relatively easy 13 games could be just as torturous as the 46 before it.
In four weeks, the Lakers--and its Nation--will know where they stand.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino