Who Worries You?

 —  February 18, 2005

As of the All Star break, here are the standings in the West:

(6) Houston 32-21
(7) Memphis 30-23
(8) L.A. Lakers 26-24
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(9) Minnesota 27-27
(10) Denver 24-29
(11) L.A. Clippers 23-30

The Lakers on the bubble for the last playoff spot in the West (and the rights to lose to San Antonio in the first round). While you can make a case that the Lakers would be better off long term falling out of the playoffs and keeping their first-round pick this season, I can’t root for that to happen. I want to see them make the playoffs, even if I know what awaits us on the other side.

Will the Lakers make the playoffs? Can they move up out of eighth? Let’s tackle the second question first. Houston is one of the hottest teams in the NBA and we’re 4.5 games back of them, so let’s not pretend we’re not catching them. We’re 2.5 back of Memphis, only one in the loss column, so this is more doable. Looking at the upcoming schedule, this is a case where I’m not sure we can catch them without some help, like the Griz hitting a losing streak. If that happens and if we start to win again at the pre-Kobe-injury pace, maybe this can come true.

Directly behind us are two teams with new coaches. I think Denver’s chances of making the playoffs have more to do with any trades made at the deadline than George Karl. This is a flawed team, but if they can get someone who can shoot from the outside they can suddenly start to look like last year’s Nuggets again.

Minnesota, on the other hand, worries me. They have all the pieces, those pieces have just been getting older and playing poorly. They are 19th in the league in defensive efficiency at 103.8 points per 100 possessions, last season they were sixth at 96.6. Last season, Spreewell’s PER had already started to slip and finished at a pedestrian 14.7, this season it is down to 12.08. Those are the kind of things that can be turned around for the final 30 games, making it tough for the Lakers to keep the Twolves at bay. The question is can McHale get them to play defense.

All that said, I’d rather be the one being chased rather than the chaser. For all the problems the Lakers have had this season — lack of a team identity, losing a coach, Kobe missing 14 games — they are still in the playoffs and can make a push. I like our chances. Minnesota just worries me. Who worries you?