Playoffs on the Mind

Darius Soriano —  February 27, 2013

The Lakers only have 24 games left on their schedule.

The Lakers are still 2 games below a .500 record.

The Lakers are currently the 9th seed in the always competitive Western Conference.

Considering all this, will the Lakers make the playoffs?

It’s a question that everyone is asking right now. And, it seems, coming up with very similar answers.

At ESPN LA, Dave McMenamin isn’t sure, but notes the road will be very difficult:

For argument’s sake, let’s say that trend continues and the Lakers go 0-3 on the road the remainder of the way against the Western Conference teams ahead of them in the standings — losing in Oklahoma City on March 5, at Golden State on March 25 (the one team ahead of them in the West they actually have beaten on the road this season, in Steve Nash’s return from a leg injury Dec. 22) and to the L.A. Clippers in a “road” game at Staples Center on April 7.

That leaves us with 21 games left to consider and the Lakers needing 17 wins in those games to reach D’Antoni’s magic number of 45 wins.

The 12 home games are: Minnesota, Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, Sacramento, Washington, Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans, Golden State, San Antonio and Houston.

The Lakers are 10-10 (.500) so far this season against those teams. So, even though the Lakers have gone 18-11 (.621) at home so far, those 12 games shouldn’t be a cakewalk. Let’s split the difference between the two percentages, and say the Lakers win .561 of their remaining home games and go 7-5.

That would put their record at 35-38, with the nine remaining road games to consider.

Even if they went 9-0 in those games (at New Orleans, Atlanta, Orlando, Indiana, Phoenix, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Sacramento and Portland), they would not reach D’Antoni’s stated goal of 45 wins to make the playoffs. Plus, 9-0 isn’t really realistic when you consider the Lakers are just 8-5 (.615) against those teams so far this season. If they play .615 ball against them, you’re talking about them winning five or six of those games. Let’s say they get six; that brings their record to 41-41.

A 41-41 record will not get it done, that’s for sure.

Also at ESPN (insider), Kevin Pelton maps out exactly what the Lakers would have to do on their end based off computer simulations that dictate what record they’d need:

The typical simulation shows the eighth playoff team in the Western Conference finishing with either 43 or 44 wins. Because the Lakers are in the eighth spot some of the time, we can favor the lower number and assume the Lakers have to get to 43-39 to have a 50-50 shot at a playoff berth. In fact, their average projection is 42.3 wins.

Getting to 43 wins means a 15-9 record the remainder of the way. That’s doable, given the Lakers’ schedule. As balanced as it looks — precisely half of their remaining games are home and away, and half are against opponents that would make the playoffs if the season ended today — the combination of those two criteria favors the Lakers. They have only six remaining road games against playoff teams, mostly against lesser lights such as Atlanta and Milwaukee. The hardest remaining games, including an April 7 “road” matchup with the Clippers, will be played at the Staples Center.

Still, we shouldn’t understate the difficulty of the Lakers going 15-9 the rest of the way. Despite the recent run, they haven’t been able to sustain such success over an extended period at any point this season. There isn’t a single 24-game period all year where the Lakers have won more than 13 games. With so little margin for error, they certainly can’t afford Dwight Howard missing time or any other serious injury.

Based off how they’re playing now, and the remaining games that McMenamin points out, 43 wins seems reasonable but is still a tough number to get to. At The Point Forward, Ben Golliver examines the chase for wins from a variety of angles, including looking at not just the Lakers’ schedule, but those of the Jazz and Rockets as well:

If the Lakers are to close on that type of a tear, they can’t expect any gigantic favors from their remaining schedule.

The following chart compares the remaining games for the Jazz, Rockets and Lakers, noting how many projected playoff and lottery opponents are on the schedule. Remaining home games and away games are also noted.

lakers-playoffs-table

The Lakers are smack dab in the middle when it comes to remaining strength of schedule. The Rockets have the cleanest road by far, with the most home games and the most games against lottery teams among the three teams. The Lakers enjoy a slightly easier road than the Jazz, but there isn’t much between them.

Houston’s schedule helps explain why Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN.com strongly favor the Rockets over the Jazz and Lakers when it comes to overall playoff odds, with both models giving Houston at least a 96 percent chance of making the postseason. The Rockets have done much of their heavy lifting already. That leaves the Jazz as the Lakers’ clear target. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they do not have any games left with Utah that could provide a boost; Utah already won the season series 2-1 and holds the tiebreaker. (The Lakers face the Rockets one more time, on the last day of the regular season. Houston leads the series 2-1.)

In a separate post at SI, Golliver and Rob Mahoney both see the Lakers falling short (question #5) of the playoffs based off the hole they’re in, the strength of the teams they’re chasing, and a lack of trust in the Lakers to win at the level they need to. Meanwhile at Pro Basketball Talk, Kurt Helin riffs on Golliver’s original post and identifies the Jazz as the team to catch and thinks it could happen (though isn’t too sure about it):

It’s this simple — the Lakers have gone 11-5 in their last 16 and they are going to have to maintain close to that pace the rest of the way — with half their games against likely playoff teams and half on the road — to squeeze past the Jazz or Rockets.

It’s certainly not impossible. But I also wouldn’t go bet the rent money on it.

If I were a Jazz fan I wouldn’t breathe easy, but it is better to be the guy in front being chased than the team desperate to make up ground.

There is, needless to say, a lot of skepticism around the Lakers’ chances. As well there should be. They’ve not played strong basketball for any extended period of time this season. Their recent stretch has been very good from the standpoint of wins, but their efficiency and point differentials have remained flat. Yes, the team is defending better, but the grounds they’ve made up on that end of the floor have been given back offensively if simply examining the numbers.

Do I see them getting in? Yes. Yes, I do. I think they continue to squeak out wins and that they’ll put pressure on the bottom seeds to the point that the last week of the season will be very meaningful.

That said, while the scoreboard watching will be inevitable, the Lakers are still best served focusing on the things that they can control: their own play and how that translates to wins for their team. The Denver game was a reminder of the things the team still does poorly and how they can be exposed if the proper discipline isn’t displayed. Better decision making on offense, better finishing at the FT line (mainly Dwight, but Clark and Jamison as well), and longer stretches of defensive intensity are all needed in the remaining games.

The team will need to take one game at a time and sharpen their mental approach, but this is what the playoffs are about so it will be a good preparation for them should they get to where they want to go.


Darius Soriano

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