By Ben Golliver
Tuesday marks 50 days until the end of the NBA regular season, 50 days for the Lakers to deliver on Kobe Bryant's recent guarantee.
"It's not a question of if we make the playoffs," Bryant told Jack McCallum for a story in last week's Sports Illustrated. "We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone -- Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver ... whoever. I have zero nervousness about that."
Bryant leads the league in bluster, so his confidence is no surprise. But is it well-founded? A cursory glance at the standings suggests some nervousness is in order for Lakers fans: With 24 games left to play, Los Angeles (28-30) sits three games behind Houston (31-27) and 3½ games behind Utah (31-26) in the race for the West's No. 7 and No. 8 seeds, respectively. While that margin isn't an abyss, it at least qualifies as a gulf, especially for a Lakers team whose season has been defined by inconsistency and distractions. The computer models aren't particularly enamored with the Lakers' postseason chances. Basketball-Reference.com gives the Lakers just a 27.2 percent chance to make the postseason; ESPN.com's model gives L.A. a 33.5 percent chance. Bryant, it's worth mentioning, has made the postseason in 15 of his 16 seasons, advancing out of the first round 13 times.
How Did They Get Here?
The Lakers' soap opera sob story is so well known that it doesn't bear repeating at length. Briefly: L.A. quickly fired coach Mike Brown, appointed Mike D'Antoni as his replacement, dealt with long-term injuries to Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Jordan Hill, Steve Blake and has enjoyed only a portion of Dwight Howard's full talents this season.
Nash, Blake and Howard are back in the lineup. Hill has been lost for the season, and D'Antoni indicated that Gasol won't be a factor down the stretch because of a foot injury.
"By the time he comes back," D'Antoni said this week, according to the Orange County Register, "we'll be in or out" of the playoffs.
That diagnosis and the NBA's calendar at least combine to provide some much-needed clarity. The trade deadline passed without the Lakers making a move, Howard is now trapped in L.A. with no ability to agitate until after the season and the current roster will be responsible for determining the team's fate. The last 50 days of the season figure to be pretty straightforward: No more trade rumors and no more recovery timeline countdowns, just the Lakers, their schedule and the Rockets and Jazz in their sights.
The chart below compares the three teams' rankings for offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, strength of schedule (average winning percentage of opponents played) and MAR (average point differential). The teams' playoff odds in both the Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN.com models are listed at the right.
The three teams have posted fairly similar top-down efficiency numbers, as all three ride better-than-average offenses to compensate for below-average defenses. Of the three, Houston has the best (and most fun) offense, ranking No. 6, and it has posted its numbers against the league's toughest schedule. The Rockets also enjoy the best point differential (plus-2.88) of the three teams, topping the Lakers (plus-0.86) and the Jazz (minus-.037).
The good news for the Lakers: The last 16 games, in which they went 11-5 and put together three separate three-game winning streaks, mark the team's steadiest stretch of the season. The run transformed the Lakers from a team playing .400 basketball to one that could have reached .500 for the first time since December had it beaten the Nuggets on Monday night. That's significant progress in a one-month span.
Enthusiasm must be tempered slightly because the Jazz and Rockets represent moving targets. Houston is 9-5 in its last 14 games; the Jazz are 14-7 in their last 21 games, despite a two-game losing streak.
The rolling winning percentage chart below shows the Lakers' predicament. L.A.'s recent slow-but-steady progress is easy to see at first glance. So, too, is the Rockets' and Jazz's recent consistency, as both teams have remained above .500 throughout the last month.
A climb up the charts for the Lakers will require some help, and neither the Rockets, who rebounded nicely after a seven-game losing streak in January, nor the Jazz have offered much aid. Basketball-Reference.com's model projects 46 wins for both the Rockets and Jazz, while ESPN.com's sees the teams winning 46 and 43, respectively. To get to 43 wins, the Lakers would need to finish 15-9 (.625), and 46 wins would require an 18-6 (.750) close.
If the Lakers are to close on that type of a tear, they can't expect any gigantic favors from their remaining schedule.
The following chart compares the remaining games for the Jazz, Rockets and Lakers, noting how many projected playoff and lottery opponents are on the schedule. Remaining home games and away games are also noted.
The Lakers are smack dab in the middle when it comes to remaining strength of schedule. The Rockets have the cleanest road by far, with the most home games and the most games against lottery teams among the three teams. The Lakers enjoy a slightly easier road than the Jazz, but there isn't much between them.
Houston's schedule helps explain why Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN.com strongly favor the Rockets over the Jazz and Lakers when it comes to overall playoff odds, with both models giving Houston at least a 96 percent chance of making the postseason. The Rockets have done much of their heavy lifting already. That leaves the Jazz as the Lakers' clear target. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they do not have any games left with Utah that could provide a boost; Utah already won the season series 2-1 and holds the tiebreaker. (The Lakers face the Rockets one more time, on the last day of the regular season. Houston leads the series 2-1.)
The Lakers' relatively successful recent stretch remains their biggest cause for hope; magic pills or life-saving extenuating circumstances don't seem to be on the horizon.
Utah received some flak for slipping through the trade deadline quietly, not moving either Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap, both set to become free agents this summer. The possibility of a trade involving one or both of Utah's leading scorers represented the last, best hope for the Lakers to get some real external help. Both Utah big men have remained healthy for virtually the entire season, both play more than 30 minutes a night and both appear in virtually all of the Jazz's most successful lineups. A proactive rebuild for the Jazz at the deadline certainly would have opened the window for the Lakers.
While Utah didn't take its roster apart, Houston did execute a fairly major move, trading multiple rotation pieces for 2012 lottery pick Thomas Robinson, whose short-term fit in the Rockets' three-happy system is an open question. Will that move, which clearly has an eye toward the future, stand in the way of the present? It seems unlikely. Houston retained all of the players -- James Harden, Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons -- who make up the bulk of its best lineups.
The Jazz and Rockets have both avoided trajectory-changing injuries. Though the Jazz lost Mo Williams in December, their winning percentage without their starting point guard has been better than it was with him. Utah and Houston -- who both go deep into their respective benches -- are better protected than the Lakers, who are utilizing a playoff-type eight-man rotation these days.
Finally, the Lakers' current hole can be viewed as a double-edged sword. The deficit should have a clarifying effect, reminding the Lakers on a daily basis of the task at hand. On the flip side, it carries an added pressure. Any losing streak -- even a two-game skid -- has major implications at this point. The standard isn't perfection -- after all, we're just talking about the eighth seed -- but their margin for error is slim and shrinks meaningfully with every loss. Any negative momentum would put this chase out of reach quicker than you might think.
Can The Lakers Deliver?
The projections continue to view the Lakers' chances of making the playoffs at well below 50 percent and there's no overwhelming reason -- from recent play to the remaining schedules to external factors -- to doubt the numbers. Simply put, making the playoffs will require the Lakers to play better down the stretch than they have to this point and to benefit from better luck with injuries than they have enjoyed. It will also almost certainly require either the Jazz or the Rockets, most likely the Jazz, to falter to a degree that deviates sharply from their recent stretch. Bryant's current marketing campaign hammers home his reliability, suggesting that fans "Count on Kobe" to deliver. Right now, betting against his Lakers remains a safer proposition than betting on them, regardless of his guarantee. Bryant surely wouldn't have it any other way.