Quite a lot has changed for the LA Lakers since the beginning of the 2012-13 season. What began to look like a team with dismal playoff hopes (and that's putting it nicely) is now finally getting the pieces together to make a run at the postseason.
Its 35-32 record is just good enough to hold the eighth seed in the West, barely keeping its playoff chances alive. But despite what the record states, the Lakers' brand of basketball as of late has really functioned for the team.
At first, the question was asked if LA was even good enough to make it to the playoffs, but now, the discussion must be held, if and when the Lakers make it to the postseason, who would be the ideal team to face in the first round? This list will rank five of the Lakers' potential playoff opponents from best to worst, only using teams that would make the Western Conference playoffs based on the current standings.
Let the speculation begin.
Every time the Lakers and Clippers have faced off this season, the end result has been nothing more than mind-blowing. For the first time since anyone can recall, both LA teams have such strong rosters, that the odds of both reaching the postseason have become certain.
Sure, Lob City has taken every game they've played against the Lake Show this season, but doesn't that just mean that the Lakers are overdue for a win? Each loss against the squad that was known for so long as, "LA's other team" makes the Lakers hungrier for that win, that opportunity to re-establish their place as LA's top dog.
By now, the Lakers must have the Clippers studied from beginning to end; Blake Griffin's dynamic offense, Chris Paul's athleticism and it doesn't hurt that they might as well know every move from former Lakers Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes. A first-round matchup between these teams can produce a game that could easily happen in the West Finals.
We transition from a team that has been a thorn in LA's side, to a team that the Lakers have marked as easy pickings. While the Denver Nuggets do pose a formidable challenge, the Lakers may meet them in the postseason and the LA has always been able to beat Denver in playoff competition.
The Lakers have gone through more triumph than tragedy against Denver this season; LA has won only one out of four games against the Nuggets so far. But as we all know, nothing's over until it's over.
In previous playoff games, the Lakers have won in dramatic fashion against the Nuggets, including wins in the 2009 Western Conference Finals and the first round of last year's playoffs, in six and seven games, respectively.
When it comes to the playoffs, the Lakers have Denver's number, and if LA can somehow climb up to that fourth seed to ensure another series against the Nuggets, much of the same will be proven.
A team that's previously been known for its hot-and-cold playoff performances, the Memphis Grizzlies might be just what the Lakers need to ensure first-round success. While the Grizzlies are playing some good basketball now, it's uncertain if this will translate well into the postseason.
This perennial middle seed has developed a reputation for putting up some impressive numbers in the playoffs, only to throw it away and choke. With the way the Lakers have been playing this season, that same inconsistency might be the x-factor to help them advance.
Not to mention that we would be treated to the always-exciting "brother vs. brother" rivalry between LA's Pau and Memphis' Marc Gasol. What better way to blast through the first round than to have big brother put little brother in his place?
That is, if big brother can heal up in time.
While the Thunder are the most feasible potential first-round opponents for the Lakers due to the current standings (LA would only need to reach the seventh seed to face the No. 2-seeded Thunder), OKC would be quite the obstacle to try to get past.
LA has only won one game against the Thunder this season, and OKC was the very team that eliminated the Lakers in the second round of last year's playoffs. While the Lakers have the more experienced roster, the Thunder have the advantage with its younger squad.
Players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka obviously are quite the junior to guys like Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, but that may play out in the Thunder's favor when it's all said and done. If the Lakers don't watch themselves, OKC's longevity can be the contributing factor in LA's early playoff exit.
The name of the game here is endurance. The Lakers must find a way to outlast, or at least, outdo the Thunder if it doesn't want its first one-and-done playoff appearance since 2007's 4-1 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
If you talk about a team with aging issues, you've got to bring up the Spurs. However, despite its equally-aging roster, it somehow continue to establish dominance in the West, boasting a 51-16 record, good for the top seed in the conference. If the playoffs ended today, LA would have one heck of a time trying to best this Spurs team in the first round as the eighth seed.
Although the Lakers have had some success against San Antonio in previous years, including 2004's classic 0.4 second shot from Derek Fisher, this year's matchup could prove to be very unpredictable. The Spurs continue to rely on veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, but can now count on rising talents such as DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner and Danny Green.
The Spurs machine is one that shows no signs of stopping, and if the Lakers want to have any chance against this team, it's time to really get focused on winning. A win over the top seed in the first round has always been given the cliché "David and Goliath" headline, but with the history these two teams have, a win over San Antonio in this fashion would simply add another chapter in its already-thrilling rivalry.