It didn’t look like it would happen for a long time, but we have a playoff race in the Western Conference of the NBA. The Lakers have finally got their act together and have now climbed to .500 through 60 games. That puts them just two games behind the Jazz for the eighth playoff spot. More significantly, they are now just 3.5 games behind the Warriors for sixth. The fourth team — Houston — sits a game behind Golden State and a half game ahead of Utah.
Four teams are fighting for three spots (Portland sits just a game and a half behind the Lakers, but I don’t see them in the mix at this point). So, which team will be on the outside looking in?
Tyrone Corbin is unproven in Utah. He has won plenty of games in his two and a half years, but until he wins a playoff series he’s hard to get excited about. Mark Jackson is only in his second year and fell short of the playoffs last year. Kevin McHale is in his fourth season as a coach with two teams and has never been in the playoffs. Mike D’Antoni has had the most success, but he has also wasted a lot of potential through the years and is a train wreck waiting to happen at any moment. No team gets a real boost due to coaching here.
The Warriors have only played 26 home games, compared to 29 for Houston, 30 for Utah and 31 for the Lakers. That means that 15 of their remaining 21 games are at home. They are a strong 19-7 at home, so that is a massive advantage for them. For this reason alone you have to be confident in their ability to hold on to a spot. By contrast, the Lakers play 12 of 22 on the road, and they have been a horrific 10-19 so far away from home. They are 5-3 in their last eight road games, though, so things have turned around somewhat, and this isn’t as much of a reason to rule the Lakers out as it initially seemed.
The Lakers obviously have the most talent — even without Gasol — but whether they can play together is a mystery that plays out every night. Harden and Lin are solid in Houston, but depth is a concern. Curry is the best shooter in the league right now, and David Lee is impressive. Utah has the least top-end talent, but I love their depth. As the season progresses, the Lakers’ edge is coming clear here. For the Warriors the biggest concern is that Curry has been superhuman lately and it just hasn’t been converting into success. He’s great, but he can’t do it alone.
The Rockets average 107 points per game — the best in the league by a full basket. They are relentless on offense and can overwhelm opponents as a result of the rapid pace. The Lakers are second at 102.3 PPG, and they are improving on that front as they get comfortable and finally get on the same page. Golden State has been somewhat disappointing at 99.2 points, with the Jazz, who favor a slower pace than the rest, following up at 98.7.
As good as Houston is offensively, they just don’t pass the test defensively. Their league-best offense is matched by the second-worst defense at 103.7 points per game. Some of that is a result of the high pace, though, and they do have the best point differential at +3.4. Still, they are the least adaptable team, and their reliance on pace can be exploited by sharp teams. The Warriors allow less than 100 points per game, but they allow 0.6 points more than they score. That’s a problem — as they have seen in recent weeks. The Lakers have been a defensive disappointment — like everything else — but are improving as they get their heads into the game overall.
Betting performance doesn’t directly convert into success or failure, but it is an indicator of how well teams have met expectations. Houston is the only team from this group that has been profitable on the season, though at 33-27-1 ATS they aren’t making bettors rich. Golden State and Utah have been just below break-even. The Lakers, at 24-35-1 ATS, are the second worst betting team in the league behind only Charlotte. When an impossibly public team stumbles, money gets burned.
The Lakers (+1000 at Sportsbook.ag to win the Western Conference) are going to make the playoffs. They still aren’t beating the best teams they are playing, but they are taking care of business otherwise and are rounding into form. With the talent, they have and the sheer determination of Kobe, they can’t be bet against here. Golden State (+3000) is going to ride their home-heavy schedule and slight lead to the postseason as well. That means that one of the Jazz (+15000) and the Rockets (+4000) is going to be on the outside looking in. The Houston offense will be the difference here. Utah doesn’t do anything well enough right now. And though they have depth, they don’t have the spark they need. They are going to be left out.