The Los Angeles Lakers are in trouble—or could be in trouble.
Fans can spin it any way they want, but this team has flaws, and it starts on the defensive end of the floor. If the Lakers make the playoffs, they are arguably going to back in, and whoever they face is going to be a daunting challenge.
Should fans stay positive? Absolutely. There are reasons for optimism. This team battled back. They currently hold the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference. Kobe Bryant will come back at some point. Pau Gasol may provide some scoring punch off the bench.
Then again, Kobe’s ankle may hamper him the rest of the year. Given that Pau struggled to find his role before he got hurt, why would he seamlessly transition back into the lineup now?
The embarrassing 99-76 loss (via ESPN) to the Phoenix Suns on March 18 emphasizes that this team has some work to do before the postseason begins. In the Lakers' defense, they were without Kobe Bryant, and they shot a dreadful 33 percent from the floor and 23 percent from behind the arc.
However, the reality is that in the fourth quarter the Lakers simply got run off the floor by a now 23-45 Suns team that was 15-17 at home prior to the game. The Lakers are now 13-22 on the road.
Having an off night is one thing—getting crushed is another. This game was the latter.
Prior to the game, Kobe tweeted this:
Yes, it was a great opportunity. Unfortunately, the result was less than ideal.
Again, this is not to hate on the Lakers, but if they are going to win in the playoffs they must figure out how to play more effective defense. At this point, that may not be possible. Los Angeles is still giving up an average of 101.1 points per game, while scoring 102.1 for the season. They have a points-for versus points-against differential of 1.0 for the year.
As one might expect, that differential is the second-worst amongst current Western Conference playoff teams. Only Golden State has a worse differential (0.4). Compare that to the differential of the top three teams, which include San Antonio (8.0), Oklahoma City (9.5) and the Los Angeles Clippers (6.6). Those three teams are giving up 96.5, 97.2 and 94.2 points per game, respectively.
There are 13 games remaining for the Lakers. Of those 13 games, seven are against teams with winning records. Los Angeles will have some tests against the Clippers, San Antonio, Golden State (twice), Memphis and Houston. The road to the playoffs is paved with bumps.
The latest Hollinger’s Playoff Odds (via ESPN) gives the Lakers a 61.5 percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected final record of 43-39. The Utah Jazz are projected to finish at 41-41. If 43 wins is the magic number, then the Lakers have no room for error. None.
For those that like to maintain a sense of optimism, Hollinger gives the Lakers a 0.2 percent chance of winning the championship. Something to hope for.
What is the strategy? Beat all six teams with losing records. Beat at least one team with a winning record. Simple, right? Realistically, the Lakers will need to win 2-3 games against teams with winning records, simply because an off game against a subpar team is always possible. The game against the Suns is evidence of this. This is particularly true since six games are on the road, including a four-game road trip that starts March 25.
One has to assume that a few fans have noticed that the final game of the regular season is against the Houston Rockets. Could the fate of the postseason come down to the game? Might both teams head into that final contest faced with a win-or-go-home scenario?
The Lakers had better get healthy, and quick. Additionally, they had better find a way to get some rest and rejuvenation. Finding a little youthful energy wouldn’t hurt either.
Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.