At the risk of getting inundated with angry "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE!!!" comments, it has already become clear that the Los Angeles Lakers aren't making the playoffs without a serious assist from several mid-tier Western Conference teams.
That is no indictment of the Lakers, whose energy, effort and enthusiasm have been genuinely refreshing to behold after last season's slog.
But don't let the 3-4 record (against a brutal opening slate) fool you. Two of those games, including Thursday night's thriller in Houston, were decided on the game's final possession. The Lakers aren't going undefeated in close games—especially without Kobe Bryant, their all-world closer.
Had the ball bounced the wrong way in those tight contests, the Lakers could have been staring at a 1-6 record that would have been worse than last year's disastrous start to the season through seven games.
Point differential is a much more reliable indicator of future performance than won-lost record, and the Lakers look decidedly worse by that measure.
Of the entire league, only the win-less Utah Jazz have a worse scoring margin than the Lakers.
Los Angeles' path to the playoffs revolves around mediocrity from those around them.
There are five teams in the West who are virtual locks to reach the postseason, despite rocky starts for a couple of them. For all intents and purposes, the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are in.
There are five more teams, aside from the Lakers, who will be vying for the final two spots. All of them have been projected to finish ahead of the Lakers, yet all of them have fatal flaws which could allow the Lakers to sneak in.
Here are the cases against each of the five.
The Injury Riddled Darlings
We're going on three years now that the Minnesota Timberwolves' bandwagon is overflowing with optimistic fans.
The T'Wolves are young, exciting and offensively potent. They've got a potential MVP-caliber stud (Kevin Love), a can't-take-your-eyes-off-him talent (Ricky Rubio) and a well-respected head coach with a long track record of success (Rick Adelman).
They finally addressed their shooting, backcourt scoring and wing depth this offseason, so all the pieces are definitely in place for a long-awaited postseason berth.
But this is the most injury-riddled team in recent memory, and that may not be a fluke.
Minnesota's projected starter at small forward, Chase Budinger, who missed 59 games last year with a knee injury, didn't even make it to training camp before being sidelined indefinitely by yet another knee surgery.
Backup center (and former Laker) Ronny Turiaf lasted all of 19 minutes before fracturing his elbow.
Two role players succumbing to injury may not seem like a big deal, but Minnesota's key players all have spotty injury histories as well.
Love has missed 104 games over the past four years. Rubio has yet to make it through an entire NBA season healthy. New recruit and Adelman favorite Kevin Martin is notoriously brittle. Bruising center Nikola Pekovic has missed at least 17 games in each of his three NBA campaigns.
You get the idea.
Until this team proves it can keep its key contributors on the court, it's far from a shoo-in to qualify for the postseason.
The Defensive Liabilities
Both rosters are loaded with offensive firepower and anchored by All-Star big men with similar games and statistical profiles. And so far this year they're showing out.
The Mavs rank third in the league in points per possession. They put on an offensive clinic against the Lakers earlier this week, racking up 123 points on a ludicrous 59 percent effective field goal percentage (better than the league leading eFG%) en route to a blowout win.
The issues with these two teams come on the other end of the floor.
Dallas' defense gives up points at a bottom-five rate. And just to maintain that level the Mavs are relying heavily on Samuel Dalembert to anchor their defense, which is a scary thought. According to NBA.com, Dallas allows over 17 points per 100 possessions more when Dalembert hits the bench.
Dalembert hasn't averaged 26 minutes a game since the 2007-08 season.
The situation is the same in Portland, as the Blazers rate just behind the Mavs in points allowed per possession.
Their starting lineup is a sieve defensively. Only three five-man units who have played more than 50 minutes together have hemorrhaged points at a greater clip than the Blazers' starters.
Last year's Lakers were a prime example of how a leaky defense can hold back even a top-shelf offensive club. If these teams can't find ways to get stops, their ceilings may just be high-octane, fun-to-watch also-rans.
The Uncertain Upstarts
It seems weird to label the Denver Nuggets as upstarts since they've been in the playoffs each of the last 10 seasons. Only the Spurs have a longer active streak.
But this is almost a brand-new team. Gone are Denver's three best defensive players from last season, including their best all-around player in Andre Iguodala.
The reigning Coach of the Year (George Karl) and Executive of the Year (Masai Ujiri) are also no longer around.
There's a lot of uncertainty surrounding this team.
New head coach Brian Shaw is trying to instill a new identity into the squad, preaching defense and a steadier half-court approach.
He's also shuffling around rotation that includes several new faces and has yet to welcome injured wings Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler back into the fold.
So far, nothing has worked. Denver's offense has fallen off a cliff and their defense is back to its usual porous self after a surprising uptick in 2013.
The New Orleans Pelicans certainly are upstarts. No one in their talented young nucleus is older than 25, and their best player—Anthony Davis—doesn't even turn 21 until March.
The question is whether they are ready to take the next step and make the playoffs. Their offseason acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans signal their intentions, but can it work on the court?
Thus far, the backcourt trio of Holiday, Evans and holdover Eric Gordon haven't struck the right balance between their ball-dominant games.
New Orleans needs them to figure it out, otherwise there is going to be one very expensive, disgruntled star on the sidelines during crunch-time in favor of a far inferior player.
Beyond the core group, the roster gets thin in a hurry. The Pels' sixth-best player is...Jason Smith? Al-Farouq Aminu? Anthony Morrow?
They managed to outlast the Lakers in a game closer than the final score indicated without Ryan Anderson, but it's doubtful whether a team as shallow as the Pelicans can handle the grind of an NBA campaign well enough to reach the postseason.
It will be quite a challenge for the Lakers to qualify for the playoffs in 2014, but it's not impossible. If it happens it will be because the flaws of the Western Conference's middle class sink those teams toward the bottom of the standings.
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