ESPN’s SportsCenter—masters that they are of the obscure, created-to-prove-the-point-of-the-day statistic—announced today that the Los Angeles Lakers are 7-8 this season against “the top eight” teams in the NBA.
It took a little calculating to deduce that they meant “the other top seven” teams, but you get the picture. While sporting a hefty 36-7 record against the rest of the NBA, the defending champs are limping along one game under .500 against the league’s best.
The network raised the issue, apparently, to question whether the Lakers’ current record is a bit of a mirage.
It’s a fair point, especially when examining L.A.’s chief rival in the West, the Denver Nuggets.
In fact, the numbers suggest that the Nuggets may be the team to watch—not only in the West, but in the entire league.
To get a reasonable snapshot, let’s look at how the Lakers and Nuggets have fared against the other four top teams in the West, and the top four teams in the East.
In that context, the Lakers are an even .500 across the board; 6-6 against their top four Western rivals (Denver, Utah, Dallas, and Phoenix), and 3-3 against the East’s best (Cleveland, Orlando, Boston, and Atlanta).
The Nuggets, meanwhile, are a robust 12-3 against the league’s elite. They’re 7-2 against the West’s top four teams, and 5-1 against the Eastern powers.
Even more significant, the Nuggets are a perfect 4-0 against L.A. and Cleveland; 5-0 if you add in Orlando. That’s not just coincidence, or luck. Denver has consistently risen to the occasion this season against the best the NBA has to offer.
That will be important come playoff time.
There are no easy draws in the West, where 11 of 15 teams currently stand at .500 or better.
But the Nuggets have played their best basketball against their strongest opposition, and that will be a huge confidence booster when the second season gets underway.
As a point of reference, the Cavaliers, still sporting the NBA's best record, are 10-6 when playing against the top four teams in the West and their top four rivals in the East. However, they, too, have stumbled of late, dropping games against the Nuggets and Magic after the All-Star break.
The latest blemish on the Lakers’ record came Wednesday night in Dallas, where they lost to the Mavericks, 101-96. Kobe Bryant shot just 9-of-23 from the field, including 2-of-6 in the fourth quarter, and missed a potential game-tying three-pointer with 25 seconds left as the Mavs held on to even the season series between the two teams at 2-2.
Speaking of the Mavericks, they’ve won five straight, and five of six altogether, since the trade that brought Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson over from Washington. Butler did not play Wednesday night, but Haywood started his fifth straight game at center in place of the injured Erick Dampier.
In those starts, Haywood has averaged 12 points and 11.6 rebounds a game. The new-look Mavs still lack depth on the bench, but the trade with the Wizards has made them a more formidable threat to advance in the postseason.
Let’s not forget the Utah Jazz, either.
They’ve won 14 of their last 16 games and would be the third seed in the West if the playoffs began today. Ironically, the Jazz are just 5-7 against their top four conference rivals this season, and 7-12 against the aforementioned top eight teams league-wide.
While Cleveland and Orlando try to hold off Boston and Atlanta in the East, Los Angeles may be more vulnerable in the West than previously thought. Just as the Cavaliers cannot look past the rest of their rivals to a spot in the Finals, so the Lakers must stay focused on their more immediate task at hand.
Los Angeles stills hold a comfortable five-game lead over Denver for the top spot in the West, but the Nuggets, Mavericks, and Jazz are clearly dangerous in their own right—and poised to make things interesting down the stretch.