During Friday night's tip-off between the Lakers and the Celtics, I wasn't even home. Though the next (somewhat lackluster) chapter in the NBA's greatest rivalry was being written while I sat in an Eastern timezone, I was in no rush to leave work and get back to my place to see the 16- and 17-time respective champions clash. I've written time and time again that I have no problem with anyone rooting for the purple and gold to lose 80 times of the year.
But the other two times? We're playing the Celtics. And it's a game that we just can't afford to lose. For any reason.
This year however, it wasn't just a game between two teams whose rivalry is as old as league itself, but rather, a contest in which the loser might actually be the winner. For the pair of squads a combined 15 games under .500, losses appear to be their respective front offices' target. For one of the few times in their storied pasts, that's a shared prime directive.
Checking the box score the next morning, along with the game itself, I ran across the standings. This season I've largely focused my attention on watching this one, horrible team. After all, it takes a lot of effort to watch, analyze and study the worst defenses I've ever seen. From my sometimes Lakers-centric prism, all I've thought of is how singularly terrible LA is. How could anyone be worse than this team?
According to the standings, plenty are.
As of Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers, off to the worst start in franchise history, are merely tied for the fifth-worst record in the NBA. Tied. Watching Lakers-Celtics, I hadn't yet realized how much was on the line, even for two teams as bad as they are and even for this early portion of the year.
This situation, if it holds course, does not bode well for the Lakers. Even with the fourth or fifth worst record in the league, LA isn't guaranteed to keep their 2015 NBA Draft pick that they dealt to the Phoenix Suns in the ill-fated Steve Nash trade two seasons ago. With a few unlucky bounces of a ping-pong ball, the Lakers could end up with the sixth or seventh pick, leaving them with potentially 60+ losses and nothing to show for it. LA has such small margin for "error", with each win putting them perilously closer to losing their selection.
Let's say that we're sticking with the premise that the Lake Show won't get better than this. With the team virtually at full strength, Kobe playing at an unsustainable rate and the front office likely in a position to deal Jordan Hill or Jeremy Lin at the trade deadline, I completely agree with this sentiment. 20 to 22 wins seems completely feasible, if not somewhat optimistic. That would make the other dregs of the league not just companions in crappiness, but rather potentially fatal roadblocks to the Lake Show keeping their pick.
So...who are the teams that could pose a threat to the continued rebuilding of the Los Angeles Lakers? And will they continue their trajectory towards the bottom?
Not going anywhere: Philadelphia 76ers
That's a category the Sixers fit into in so many ways.
Don't let the two game winning streak fool you. This is the worst team in the league, without a doubt. They will finish the season with the league's worst record.
Probably this bad: Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves
Both teams are in a similar situation with what they have on hand: untested youth teeming with talent and plenty of minutes to spare.
They'll both end up in the league's bottom five for the very same reason the Lakers might: they rank 28th and 29th in defensive efficiency, respectively, and they'll play over 50 games against the Western Conference. The two squads could get better as the year wears on, as the coaches Quin Snyder and Flip Saunders discover which rotations succeed and which guys specifically are developing quicker. However, their collective youth and the brutal NBA defensive learning curve will keep them battling with the Lakers for the West's worst record.
Trade Deadline dependent: Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks
How bad can both of these teams really be? In many preseason prediction posts, many writers pegged both teams for playoff berths in the diluted Eastern Conference. But now? A combined 7 wins. Yuck.
It's difficult to believe that the Pistons are really this putrid. With talents like Josh Smith, Andre Drummond, Brandon Jennings and Greg Monroe, one would think that a playoff ticket would print itself. However, the fit simply isn't there and this team is a disaster offensively. But what's most surprising? The return of coach Stan Van Gundy has seemed to yield zero results.
For the Knicks, it's a slightly different situation. With rookie coach Derek Fisher, the subtraction of former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith's continuing regression, an unreliable offense and zero defense, it's not hard to see how they'd be so bad.
Both teams might have their fate decided before the trade deadline. For the Pistons, it might be addition by subtraction. President of Basketball Operations Van Gundy is one of the only coaches in the league readily equipped to make personnel decisions that will most directly affect the on-court product. Could SVG deal away one of his mismatched pieces, allowing his squad to operate more smoothly on both sides of the floor. The Knicks too may deal pieces, but could do so to add the existing talent on the team. With players like Camelo Anthony, Jose Calderon and Tim Hardaway Jr., as well as huge expiring contracts in the form of Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire, the Bockers could improve greatly with the right additions.
These two teams will have their trajectory decided at the trade deadline. They both have moves to make and motivation to do so. Until then, there's no telling if they'll stay in the hunt to nab a top-5 pick.
Moving on up: Charlotte Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder
Fresh off of a 10-game losing streak with a one-point win against a fellow bottom-feeder, it's bold to predict the Hornets getting better. But coming off of a 43-39 season and adding All-star candidate Lance Stephenson, it's hard to believe Charlotte is truly this bad. They've played an incredibly tough schedule thus far, with losses against Memphis, Portland, Phoenix, Dallas, Miami, the Clippers, Chicago and Golden State twice. They're largely still a playoff team that they were last season talent-wise, and with an excellent coach in the form of Steve Clifford, I suspect that their early season swoon will be over soon.
Even though they might not make the playoffs after a nightmare start, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook won't let them languish with one of the NBA's 10 worst records. C'mon now.
Potential party-crashers: Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic
The Celtics and Pacers are lingering in the Lakers' neighborhood and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see them join the fray at the bottom. The Pacers aren't getting back Paul George this season and could be in line to aid in a quick rebuild with very trade-able pieces like David West and Luis Scola. The Celtics are a bit better than their record would indicate and have a great leader in coach Brad Stevens, but could have their season thrown into the fire with a few trades, including All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, leading scorer Jeff Green, guard Marcus Thornton or big man Brandon Bass.
The Magic aren't faring too poorly this season, even with a foot fracture to the fourth overall pick Aaron Gordon. However, Orlando's biggest boon is also their biggest weakness: young, energetic talent with little NBA experience. It wouldn't take much adversity to see their season go way south in a hurry.
The bottom 11 teams are currently separated by 5 1/2 games. Who will stay there?
I expect that OKC and Charlotte stay out of that orbit very cleanly. Detroit too, shouldn't stay this bad no matter how destitute the situation seems, as a team with SVG at the coaching reins and in the front office will naturally make the situation better over time. Though it's dicey with such a barren offense, the Pacers are defending at almost an elite rate, a slight departure from their team last year even without Stephenson and George. That alone might carry them to 30 wins.
The Knicks are a definite wild card here. Is new boss Phil Jackson actively trying to tank the team this season for a high lottery pick? Or will he make moves to try and lift his team from the gutter? At this point, it's difficult to know the answer. With no moves, I don't have a lot of hope that they'll get that much better.
I assume that Boston will wheel and deal before February into a situation that makes the team worse. The Celts have several very desirable pieces on their roster and I'd be shocked to see such a bold decision maker like GM Danny Ainge do nothing with such commodities at hand. I expect that they'll most definitely be a high lottery squad come June. Utah and Minnesota could get slightly better, but will certainly remain one of the league's worst, especially in the Western Conference. Philadelphia is as much a lock to stay in the bottom-3 as it is that Ed Davis racks up 4 fouls a game (except for last night!). The Magic too might have their ceiling capped at around 30 wins, which could very well be enough to nab a top-5 pick in the lottery system.
In the end, Boston, Minnesota, Utah and Orlando will be "fighting" for the worst five records in the league alongside the Lakers, with perhaps the Knicks joining the fray.
I know first-hand that it's tough to keep in focus that while the Lakers are really, really bad, there are about a half dozen other teams in the NBA just as unwatchable. As of now, they'll have at least four other teams inadvertently working to knock LA's pick down south to Phoenix. Who else will join the scrum as the 2014-2015 season wears on?
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino