Thanks to a solid stretch of play since the All-Star break and the near total collapse of the Utah Jazz, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers look like they're a pretty safe bet to make the playoffs. Though that's a notable accomplishment in itself considering how bleak L.A.'s postseason hopes looked just a few weeks ago, the toughest task is still ahead.
Because virtually every current seed in the Western Conference is subject to change, the Lakers don't yet know whom they'll be facing in a first-round series. They do know one thing, though: Whichever matchup they draw, it'll be a difficult one.
If LAL continues recent pace & makes the playoffs as a 6, 7 or 8, they could face any one of 5 teams (SAS, OKC, MEM, LAC, DEN).— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) March 22, 2013
Look, every one of the five teams L.A. could potentially run up against in the postseason is a dangerous opponent. Based on their overall records, they're all technically better teams than the Lakers are. But some matchups present more manageable challenges for L.A., while others look pretty darn hopeless.
Here's how the Lakers' potential first-round opponents stack up.
Of the five teams the Lakers are most likely to face in the first round, the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs are the least dangerous matchup.
Well, a glance through the numbers shows that the Lakers have actually handled the Spurs quite nicely this season, even though Kobe and Co. have lost both matchups with Tim Duncan and his seemingly mechanical cohorts.
L.A. has posted an average offensive rating of 96.8 and an average defensive rating of 99.0 against the Spurs this year, which means that the Lakers have only been about 2.2 points per 100 possessions worse than the Spurs in their pair of meetings.
That's a slim margin.
When you consider that Danny Green hit a late three-pointer to steal a two-point win on Nov. 13 and that L.A. fell by just three points on Jan. 9 despite playing without Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, the margin all but disappears.
Yes, the Spurs have been the best team in the West this year, and they're likely to hang onto that No. 1 seed now that Tony Parker is back in the lineup. But there's no getting around the fact that the Lakers are a couple of tiny breaks away from being in possession of a 2-0 season-series advantage over the Spurs right now.
If the current standings hold true, we could be in for a potentially massive upset in round one.
Based on the overall numbers, you might come to the conclusion that the Lakers actually match up even better with the Denver Nuggets than they do with the Spurs.
But a closer look reveals that one blowout win by the Lakers has pretty severely skewed the overall picture.
L.A. has beaten Denver just once in four tries this season, but that one was a doozy. The Lakers notched a 122-103 victory at home on Nov. 30, thanks to 33 points from Antawn Jamison and 17 made three-point shots as a team.
It's unfair to completely discount that game, but even the most biased Lakers supporter has to admit that Jamison's outburst and L.A.'s overall perimeter performance were both somewhat anomalous.
The other three games these teams have played are probably better representations of how a postseason series might go. Excluding that Nov. 30 blowout win by the Lakers, Denver has won three straight by an average margin of 10 points.
So even though the advanced stats—which show that the Lakers have been less than one point per 100 possessions worse than the Nuggets during their four-game slate this year—looks favorable, they really hide the fact that Denver has handled the Lakers in each of the two teams' three most recent meetings.
Also, keep in mind that the Nuggets will almost certainly hold home-court advantage in any postseason series with L.A., meaning they'll be even more likely to sprint right past a thin, aging Lakers team.
Though they've only managed to pull off the trick once, it seems the Lakers have at least some idea of how to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder: They've got to slow the pace way down and hope Russell Westbrook shoots his team out of the game.
Both of those things happened on Jan. 27 when the Lakers actually beat OKC by a final score of 105-96 in L.A.
Thanks to a deliberate half-court attack that featured all four of L.A.'s big guns in relatively good health, the Lakers did almost everything right against the Thunder. Bryant was in the early stages of his metamorphosis into a facilitator, so his 14 assists probably caught Oklahoma City somewhat off guard, too.
Westbrook made just 6-of-22 shots in that game, which went a long way toward giving the Lakers their only win over OKC this year.
With all of that said, the fact remains that the Thunder have won the other three meetings between these two clubs, and their athleticism and fast pace make them a real nightmare for the Lakers. Even factoring in that lone win, the Lakers have managed only a 106.7 offensive rating against a 114.7 mark on D.
In other words, even with a nine-point win to their credit, the Lakers have still been outclassed by the Thunder by an average margin of eight points per 100 possessions.
That certainly doesn't bode well for a potential first-round series.
In two meetings this year, the Memphis Grizzlies have used their suffocating defense and bruising size to shove the Lakers all over the court. Unsurprisingly, L.A. has lost both contests without putting up much of a fight.
Marc Gasol has the size to move Dwight Howard off of the block on defense, and the Spaniard's highly-skilled offensive arsenal helps him drag D12 out of the lane on the other end. By taking the Lakers' only rim-protector and (somewhat) reliable interior threat away from his comfort zone, Gasol makes things awfully tough on the Lakers.
And of course, the Grizz also have Tony Allen to harass Bryant up and down the court.
The Grizzlies boast the league's second-best defense, which has helped limit the Lakers' high-percentage looks. But because Zach Randolph forms such a devastating rebounding tandem with Gasol up front, L.A. hasn't even had a chance to score on second efforts.
To put it simply, the Grizzlies are too big, too tough and too disciplined for the Lakers to handle in a playoff series. Only one team poses an even bigger danger.
Ironically, the matchup that would make for the best story in L.A. is also the one least likely to have a happy ending for the Lakers.
That's right; the L.A. Clippers are the single most dangerous matchup for their cross-town rivals, and not just because they've got decades of suffering through second-class citizenship to motivate them against their more decorated rivals.
The Clippers have owned the Lakers this year, winning all three matchups and absolutely dominating the most recent one. In that game, a 125-101 blowout win by the Clips, Chris Paul stole the show. His 24 points and 13 assists were part of a larger statement by the Clippers that seemed to say: "This is our town now."
The Clips have been more than 10 points per 100 possessions better than the Lakers over the course of their three meetings this season, and their superior health, youth and depth make it seem unlikely that the Lakers will be able to reverse the power shift that has been taking place in L.A.
It'll be great theater if these two teams meet in the postseason, but for the Lakers, it'll be of the tragic variety.