Everyone of them knew that as time went by they'd
Get a little bit older and a little bit slower but...
"Revolution #9" The Beatles
Ultimately this season has been a cautionary tale for the Lakers so far on what it actually means to get older. We don't know just what the season has in store for the Lakers, and later in this piece we're going to take a long look at their schedule. But given that there have been so many unbelievable twists and turns, I decided it might be nice to get this moment, possibly the Lakers' nadir as a franchise, in amber (you know, like from that episode of House), for posterity. Okay, so it's December 14th, and I've gone through about four stages of feelings with the Lakers this season, as a Spurs fan and as a basketball fan in general.
1. Abject Sports Horror - "They did it again! How did they do it! ..." I have used the ellipsis to omit several unpublishable 8000-word rants. The Los Angeles Lakers had acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Their starting five looked legendary. Not much to say.
2. Schadenfreude - 1-4, they fired Mike Brown, and didn't hire Phil Jackson. Kobe made public comments. Hack-A-Howard worked. Twice. Glorious swoon.
3. Abject Sports Horror 2: Electric Boogaloo - Fun fact: I hadn't at all considered the idea that a bad season might be more horrifying than a good season. For all the fear I had of what the Lakers could do, I hadn't realized how awful a flop would actually be. Not in some big picture "It's fun to hate the Lakers and the league suffers when they aren't a dynasty" sense. I mean in the small-picture. "Wait, I like Steve Nash! I might root against him, but he make the game a lot more fun for everyone, myself included! I also like Kobe, Gasol, and Dwight, as players! It's fascinating to watch each of the four and they are all amazing players." The schadenfreude wears off. You start to laugh at Kobe's vintage season being wasted... but then you think about it for five seconds and realize that Kobe is having a vintage season that's being completely wasted. Dwight Howard can't make a weakside play to save his life. Pau Gasol looks about 48 years old. Steve Nash looks about 38, which is 10 years old than he's ever looked. Four generational talents. Four wasted seasons. Steve Nash might never play another full season. Quite distressing.
4. Overriding Curiosity - We have to lower our expectations for this team, if not in terms of potential than in terms of record. Every loss will not be made up in March. A recalibration is inevitable. Even those of us (Aaron and myself included) who had huge questions about age and the bench need to recalibrate: Aaron did his thesis on aging and I was in close contact with him, he was absolutely concerned about the Lakers entering the season. And even before that, I've long held to Bill James' principle that aging happens much more quickly than any of us are generally willing to admit. But neither of us saw this. Hence our recalibration, in which an impulse akin to leadership emerges, and I start to wonder just what the heck this team would look like at full strength again. The Spurs and Celtics from the last couple of years and the 2011 Mavericks were pretty long in the tooth, after all, and those teams were a lot of fun to watch (okay, not the Celtics, but they've had their moments). Heck, the previous iteration of the Lakers (Bynum-Odom-Gasol-Kobe) was pretty darn old and that team's offense was awesome at times. The Lakers could still be scary.
Okay, thanks for indulging me. Now, let's move from what the Lakers_ have done_ to what the Lakers can do, in terms of what that would mean for their remaining schedule.
• • •
Here's Dave McMenamin, laying out the template:
In the NBA's past three full seasons, the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference has averaged 48 wins. After Thursday, the Lakers need to go 39-20 to reach that mark, basically win two out of every three remaining games. Up to this point this season, they've been winning only two out of every five.
39-20. 39 wins, 20 losses. Keep that in mind, it's the bench-mark I'll be using for this article. Anyway, now that the Lakers have to be a good team just to make the playoffs and a great team just to get first-round home-court, they are truly in a playoff mode, by no choice of their own. Having to avoid 21 losses in 59 games? That's not a grinding NBA season, that's a win-or-go-home mentality more at home in an NFL season than an NBA grind. They might not need 48 wins total, but the Western Conference is pretty darn good, and every loss chips further away at the Lakers' margin of error, subtly shifting the odds away from a thriving season.
I can't help but be reminded of the 2010 Spurs. Beset by injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and a suddenly aging Tim Duncan, the 2010 Spurs went only 50-32 and were pigeonholed into a three-way tie for the bottom of the playoff heap. It was easily their worst regular season of the Tim Duncan era, and Tim Duncan had the first losing month in the regular season of his career in January 2010. And yet, because of the immense amount of struggle, finding their identity nightly, and actually having to get good (not just shore things up) on the Rodeo Road Trip? In the end, one could make a good case that the season's slog helped them, and they dominated the Mavericks in the first-round 2-7 matchup with a six-game win. In fact, Popovich inarguably tanked Game 5. Unless you want to argue that Gregg Popovich, one of the greatest coaches of all time, really thought literally playing Roger Mason 27:36 was actually his best option for winning that game. Heh.
All this to say that while home-court obviously helps (and to use an example straight from the depths of Tinseltown, it's hard to argue HCA didn't swing the 2010 Finals), even more important than home court is putting out the best basketball product you can. The Lakers are going to find that basketball product or they're not going to make the playoffs. That's the tall and short of it. Thrive or die. No other options. True dichotomy. Yes, yes, the Lakers of recent memory may be the masters of the 54-win season that tells you nothing about their playoff readiness, and it'll take a prorated 54-win season (39/59) to clinch the playoffs.
But well, let's look at the Lakers' season so far.
First, note that they've had a fine point differential (prior to the games of December 14). They're +2.17 in 23 games, which is good for 10th overall. They've dramatically underperformed in their record (Basketball-Reference has them at 13-10 Pythagorean wins; they sit 4 games behind expectation at 9-14). Yes, middling, and yes, they've destroyed lesser teams and gotten close to good ones only after the outcome had been decided. But their differential is still 5th in the West behind the Thunder (9.27!), Clippers (7.59), Spurs (7.46), and Grizz (6.53). So the Lakers aren't bad, per se. Just misunderstood?
Let's delve into the Lakers' remaining schedule briefly (Ed. Note: by briefly he means exhaustively) to see how they could get those 39 wins.
(Very technical note: I use point differentials to separate contenders from pretenders because point differentials are less subject to random chance than records, and predict future records better. On the other hand, this isn't inherently true: Thanks to Dirk's unique skillset in late-game situations, the Mavs seem to systematically overperform their differential and dominate in the clutch. Something like Dwight Howard's free throws and Kobe's complex clutch skillset may similarly mean that the Lakers are systematically underperforming their differential. And also, let's note that because the Lakers may have underperformed does NOT mean they will overperform their differential in the future. That's not how conditional probability works.)
• • •
Because the Lakers indeed have a decent differential, most of the teams in the league are worse (even far worse) than the Lakers. And of the Lakers' 59 remaining games, the Lakers play fully 41 of those remaining games against teams with point differentials that are currently worse (even marginally). The home-away breakdown for these 41 games is 19 home, 22 away. Now, despite their differential, the Lakers are actually 8-9 against these teams so far. They're 6-4 at home, and 2-5 away, in a 10 to 7 home-away breakdown that should favor the Lakers heavily.
It's pretty amazing they have a losing record, actually.
If the Lakers go 20-21 in these games, as you might project from their dismal performance thus far? They will have 35 losses right there, and even if they beat the Thunder, Clippers, Spurs, Knicks, Grizzlies, Hawks, Heat, Bulls, and Nets in every remaining matchup, they'll have a 47-win season. The takeaway here is that Lakers must dominate worse teams, must win nearly every game they're supposed to win. They must dominate much worse teams on road. Morris must dominate Fisher. Yes, the Lakers won't likely lose to the Bobcats or Wizards (whom they're playing tonight!). But keep in mind the home-road split of 19 to 22, and keep in mind that "worse teams" includes a core of bubble teams in the West. A road game against the Nuggets or Jazz is historically no picnic.
Looking at the field, the caramel-filled core of teams that should most concern the Lakers are the bundle of mediocre Western teams including the Warriors, Jazz, T'Wolves, Mavs, Nuggets, and Rockets. All of these teams have worse differential than the Lakers; the Jazz are the only ones especially close. These games I'd like to highlight because the teams involved are a) possible head-to-head tiebreakers for the Lakers b) crucial challenge games that should provide litmus tests between pretenders and contenders. Now that the Lakers know these are important games, we can look at these games more accurately as the crucial leverage points they represent. Win or lose, Lakers must show they are generally better than these teams and can beat them in a playoff-type atmosphere. No, they don't have to win every game in this core. You fully expect them to lose a few of these games on road trips. But you have to see if they will compete, if they'll get better relative to these teams, and so on. That's what we're looking for, and it's why Lakers fans should have these games circled.
This group of bubble games accounts for 14 of their remaining games (6 home, 8 away). So far the Lakers have actually had a good sample of these games. They've had eight so far, and gone 4-4 (not impressive, but not insanely bad, either. Yes, this is a theme, the Lakers look like the quintessential 45-win Rockets/Grizz squad right now, statistically). Of these 8 games, 5 have been at home (3-2) and 3 away (1-2). Not much to say; it's a small sample from an injured team. But it's interesting that they haven't managed any separation.
In any case, 14 games against the bubble teams means that the rest of the 41 against worse teams are basically 27 games against a) significantly worse teams in the West like Portland and Sacramento, b) significantly worse teams in the East like Charlotte and Washington, c) decent teams like Boston and Indiana and Milwaukee that have looked middling on average (for Indiana, "middling" is the average of "horrifying" and "very good"). These 27 games, the Lakers should (and must!) dominate. Being quite serious, if the Lakers drop 9 of these 27, they have to go 21-11 against their direct opponents and (right now) their superiors in the East and West just to hit 48 wins. The Lakers must take these games against (for the most part) obviously inferior opponents. Not kidding, if the Lakers don't beat the Bobcats and Wizards twice, they will legitimately have trouble getting to the playoffs. This is the world we're living in, in 2012. Blah blah blah: Mayans were right.
• • •
Finally, we've broken down their games against inferior teams, let's look at the statement games facing the Lakers, in which they can really show they belong among the pack. Talent-wise they've clearly proved this over the years, but health is a serious question. And the heights they reached last year they may not reach again. These are the games in which they can make that case. These are the Thunder, Clippers, Spurs, Knicks, Grizzlies, Hawks, Heat, Bulls, and Nets. So far they've gone 1-5 against these teams, and their only win was a 5-point takedown of Brooklyn. At home. Yes, Virginia -- the Lakers don't currently have any staple wins on the road. They're 0-3 on the road against teams with a better point differential than them. And even at home they're only 1-2.
Luckily, they have plenty of chances to prove themselves. They have 18 remaining games with better differential, 9 home, 9 away. If they go 3-15? That's the season, basically. I don't think they will do quite this poorly. But they have to get some statement wins, and they have to at least get a winning record at home, in my opinion. If they go 3-6 on the road? No big deal if they manage to pull even at home. The road games? Not necessarily the games you're not supposed to dominate. Schedule losses, games you're happy if you can come out alive from. Tom Thibodeau, Gregg Popovich, Chris Paul, Horford-Smith, Z-Bo-Gasol-Gay. LeBron. Et cetera. Teams that can run the Lakers out of the gym but the Lakers with a healthy Nash and Gasol should easily win from time to time. And if the Lakers can find a way to make the road games tough, and make their home court once again something where teams fear to tread? Yeah, they could make the playoffs and make a strong case for themselves as worthy contenders.
It's their season to make it happen. They play the Wizards tonight. Every loss matters, saps them of just a little more strength. But every win exults them and sets them on that fertile path to the championship, though right now that must seem miles away to a middling team in a city by the ocean.