The Stretch Run Primer: Who's In? (The Western Playoff Race)

STRETCH RUN PRIMER

Hey, folks. Until I finish this series, Gothic Ginobili's normal content is going to be put aside for a stretch run awards/storyline handicapping feature. For the first few posts, we'll be going over each of the NBA's season-ending awards and handicapping the field, discussing the top players competing for the award and the dark horse candidates to keep your eye on. Along the way, I'll be writing meandering essays regarding various thoughts about the meaning of each award and the vagaries of sporting awards in a general sense. Fun stuff! Today we won't be covering any awards at all -- we'll be covering one of the few late season storylines with any considerable heft. That is to say, we'll be looking at the Western playoff race. And, well. Yeah. The Lakers.

• • •

THE WESTERN PLAYOFF RACE

About two months ago, you couldn't go two steps without seeing a piece or two eulogizing the Lakers and bidding farewell to their ever-dimming playoff hopes. They'd just lost a shockingly lopsided home game to the Thunder and played the Spurs close in San Antonio, but that didn't really matter -- the idea of a 17-25 team making the playoffs was insane. On the date the Lakers lost to the Grizzlies and chalked up that record, they were 9.5 games behind Golden State, 5 games behind Utah, and 3 games behind Houston -- to put that in perspective, the Lakers were only 3 games ahead of having the worst record in the Western conference. They were closer to being the Sacramento Kings than they were to being a playoff team.

The thing is? They weren't dead yet. It certainly SEEMED like they were, especially when you looked at the numbers and looked at what kind of ball they'd need to play to get back in the playoff race. Compound that with an understanding of their generally tepid play, Pau Gasol's injury, and how good the rest of the west looked? It was reasonable to get a bit hyperbolic, but most people -- myself included -- probably took things a bit too far. After all, this is a team that people thought could win 60-70 games. While they obviously weren't THAT good, they weren't some kind of Sacramento-level abomination either. Eventually, they'd stand a good chance of winning a few of the close, chippy games they lost in the first month or two. Eventually, Golden State's fairy dust stood a good chance of running out. Eventually, Houston's Grinnell-esque three point stylings could come back to haunt them. And if everything conspired for a good few weeks, the Lakers could find themselves right back in the thick of the race.

And make no mistake -- it's not just a race for the #8 seed anymore. Golden State's collapse has vastly increased the complexity of the playoff picture, giving every team currently in the playoff race reason to believe that they can leapfrog 8th and make it all the way to 6th. With the third seed essentially locked in for the Los Angeles Clippers, I don't need to explain why the Lakers might covet such a spot -- excellent though the Clippers are, they haven't looked quite as imposing as the Spurs or the Thunder in the aftermath of Paul's injury, and any Lakers/Clippers series essentially amounts to a 7-game homecourt stand for a Laker team that needs every advantage it can get. There are currently 6 teams jockeying for 3 playoff spots -- two are extreme dark horse candidates, but for the remaining four, I've put together a basic view of their games remaining, split into three buckets -- probable losses, tough wins, and easy wins. I've then wrote two short paragraph discussing both their rough chances at reaching the #6 seed and their rough chances of missing the playoffs. Teams are ordered in the order of the current standings. Let's get to it.

#6: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (36-29)

  • PROBABLE LOSSES (5): @HOU, @SAS, @LAL, vs OKC, vs SAS
  • TOUGH WINS (4): vs LAL, vs POR, vs UTA, @POR
  • EASY WINS (8): vs DET, vs CHI, @NOH, vs WAS, vs SAC, vs NOH, @PHX, vs MIN

SIXTH SEED CHANCES: Reasonable. Although the Lakers still have a decent shot at the 6th seed, it'll require a bit of help from Golden State. Even if the Warriors lose every single one of the tough win / probable loss games I've highlighted here, they'd STILL end up with a final record of 44-38 if they ran the table on the easy wins. The Warriors have been impossibly awful on defense over the past month or two, but few of the teams in the "easy win" category have offenses that the Warriors are going to get burnt by. As long as the Warriors win one of their remaining two games versus LA and take care of business against the dregs of the league, they probably won't lose the 6th seed. One other factor -- the final two probable losses (home games versus OKC and San Antonio) are going to be played in the final week of the season. If the #1 seed is locked up before then, it's possible those turn from probable losses into tough-to-easy wins.

MISSING THE PLAYOFFS?: Nah. Although the Warriors may end the year as one of the least-feared low seeds of the last few years (a designation I don't agree with, but that's for another day), chances are extremely slim they miss the playoffs entirely. Look at that schedule, you know? It's really not a murder's row. At absolute worst, I'd venture them going 0-5 on the probable loss games, 1-3 on the tough wins, and 6-2 on the easy wins. That would give them a final record of 43-39, which might be enough to hold on to the 8 seed anyway.

• • •

#7: HOUSTON ROCKETS (34-30)

  • PROBABLE LOSSES (5): vs SAS, vs IND, @MEM, vs LAC, @DEN
  • TOUGH WINS (5): vs GSW, vs UTA, @POR, vs MEM, @LAL
  • EASY WINS (8): vs PHX, vs MIN, vs CLE, vs ORL, @SAC, vs PHX, vs SAC, @PHX

SIXTH SEED CHANCES: Certainly aren't dead yet. Look at it this way -- if the Rockets play two games better than the Warriors over the next month, they'll win the sixth seed. That's not out of the question. Especially considering that they've still got 3 games left against Phoenix, a team that desperately needs Los Angeles to miss the playoffs to get themselves a Lakers-stamped lottery pick. The Rockets have a lot of home games left, and they're playing better basketball right now than any of the other teams in this group. They'll need to eke out a few of the tough wins (and probably a few of the probable losses), but they're Golden State's main competition for the sixth spot.

MISSING THE PLAYOFFS? Don't see it. I could easily be wrong, here -- the Rockets are a young team that depends on a streaky three point shot. That's good when they're playing in high-risk, high-pace, high-leverage games. That's bad when they're playing teams they're markedly better than, because it tends to let terrible lottery teams back in the game. If they miss the playoffs, it'll probably be because Orlando and Cleveland and Phoenix had incredible shooting nights against their awful defense that led to close, heartbreaking losses for the Rockets. But we'll see. There's just so many easy games left on the docket for the young guns, you know? I can see the Rockets finishing the strong 1-4 against the probable losses (owing to that risky three point strategy), 3-2 against the tough wins, and a shiny 7-1 against the "easy wins." That would have them finishing the year at 47-35 -- a record right around Golden State's best case scenario.

• • •

#8: UTAH JAZZ (33-31)

  • PROBABLE LOSSES (6): @OKC, vs MEM, @HOU, @SAS, vs OKC, @MEM
  • TOUGH WINS (7): vs NYK, @DAL, @POR, vs BKN, vs POR, vs DEN, @GSW
  • EASY WINS (5): vs PHI, vs PHX, vs NOH, vs MIN, @MIN

SIXTH SEED CHANCES: Remote at best. While most of these teams can bank on a best case scenario with a lot of easy wins, the Jazz are in a rough spot. There aren't a ton of easy wins left, and even if they ran the table on tough wins (exceedingly unlikely), they'd still be looking at a closing record of 45-37 unless they pulled a few of their probable loss games. Rough road.

MISSING THE PLAYOFFS? Out of all these teams, Utah has the hardest road remaining. They lost a ton of games they shouldn't have lost straight out of the all-star break, and it's taken what was once a rock-solid spot and turned it into a probable miss. Unlike the Warriors or the Rockets, the Jazz can't simply bank on easy wins -- they'll need to run the table on tough/easy wins just to win 45 games. With Mo Williams rounding back into shape, it's likely they'll be better in this last stretch of games than they were over the last few months. If they intend to make the playoffs, they'll need to be.

• • •

#9: LOS ANGELES LAKERS (33-31)

  • PROBABLE LOSSES (4): @IND, vs MEM, @LAC, vs SAS
  • TOUGH WINS (7): @ATL, @GSW, @MIL, vs DAL, @POR, vs GSW, vs HOU
  • EASY WINS (7): @ORL, vs SAC, @PHX, vs WAS, @MIN, @SAC, vs NOH

SIXTH SEED CHANCES: Less remote than the Jazz, surprisingly. Unlike Utah, the Lakers essentially own the the tiebreaker with Golden State -- they've got two wins over the upstart Californians already banked, and can clinch the tiebreaker with a single win in their two remaining games against them. Additionally, if they win the last game of the year against the Rockets, they'll own the tiebreaker against Houston due to a better division record. Compound that with the fact that the Lakers simply don't have a ton of probable losses left, and it's not impossible to see them ending the year on a 12-6 to 14-4 streak and pulling out a sixth place finish by dint of their tiebreakers. Also: on the plus side, their matchup against San Antonio may happen after the #1 seed race is concluded, which might make Pop decide to sit everyone and throw the Lakers a bone. On the minus side, the Spurs just beat the Thunder without Tony Parker. So, there's that, I suppose.

MISSING THE PLAYOFFS? Just as it was hyperbolic to declare that the Lakers were DEFINITELY missing the playoffs a few weeks ago, it's hyperbolic to declare that they're DEFINITELY in the game now. They've got a strong shot at seeing playoff action (and even moving up to the 6th seed), but they're going to need to play mistake-free basketball the rest of the season if they want to keep their fate in their hands. The 2013 Lakers have had an awful habit of losing inconveniently timed games to completely overmatched teams all season long. They're going to have ample opportunity to drop should-win easy games, with a full seven cellar-dwelling matchups that the Lakers (in theory!) should dominate. If they drop a few of those, the picture becomes a lot murkier -- I'd keep your eyes on the road games in the "easy win" category, as the Lakers have been astonishingly deficient at taking care of business against poor teams on the road to date. But let's be clear. If the Lakers take care of business, they're almost definitely a playoff team. Simple as that.

• • •

DARK HORSE PLAYOFF TEAMS: These are a number of teams that are theoretically still in the playoff race, but getting there is going to require colossal meltdowns for the West's current low seeds and a level of play heretofore unseen in any of these guys. Here's a quick rundown of who they are, the record they need for 44 wins, and why they aren't going to get it.

  • DALLAS MAVERICKS: The Mavs currently sit at 29-33 -- to get 44 wins, they'll need to finish the year 15-5. While the Mavericks have a slightly better chance of doing that than the next dark horse team, it's a pretty remote possibility. Their best stretch of the season so far? Two separate instances of 6-2 ball, played against a steady diet of lottery teams each time. They won't have the benefit of many lottery teams to close the year, either. Just six of their final 20 games come against lottery squads, with one of those being the Los Angeles Lakers. They can't afford injuries, bad losses, or close losses -- the Mavericks are significantly better than their record, partially owing to the fact that 11 of their 33 losses were within a 5 point margin. They'll need one of their two big Ds -- their tepid defense or their sleeping Dirk -- to step to another level if they want to make a serious push.
  • PORTLAND TRAIL-BLAZERS: Funny enough, the Blazers ALSO currently sit at 29-33. They'll also need to finish the string at 15-5 to get the requisite 44 wins to have a shot. While the Mavericks have never put together a sustained period of play that was that good, the Blazers almost did -- they were 12-3 from December to early January, when they pushed their record to its high-water mark of 20-15. Obviously, things have been a little downhill from there -- over two months after they reached 20 wins, they haven't surpassed 30. That's 9-18 since getting to 5 games over 0.500, if you're counting. Last week's stunning win over the Spurs kept them alive, but they're going to need a hell of a lot more where that came from if they intend to shove their way into the top 8. They're also going to need their swiss-cheese defense to actually stop a team or two.

• • •

Outlet tomorrow! See you then.

One comment on “The Stretch Run Primer: Who's In? (The Western Playoff Race)

  1. Pingback: OKC Loud Links: March 13 - Sports Mania

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