Saw this one in the mailbag Tuesday morning:
"The Lakers are currently third in the West, do you guys think there is a possibility the Lakers can move up to first place given the way the are now playing and hopefully will continue to play come playoff time?... Why not show how many games the Lakers would have to win and the Spurs and Mavs would need to lose to get the #1 spot along with who they may play?"
Even with Tony Parker's calf injury, expected to keep him in street clothes for at least a couple weeks, with only 21 games remaining and an eight game deficit to make up, the Lakers aren't catching the Spurs. As for potential first round opponents, with six teams separated by three games competing for the bottom four Western Conference postseason berths, it's still impossible to guess. The most tangible bit of progress available for the Lakers is catching Dallas for the W.C.'s second seed, still very much a possibility, and something they should treat as a priority. Historically, the NBA playoffs haven't been kind to teams forced to play multiple series on the road.
L.A. starts the day two games behind the Mavs in the standings, but three in the loss column. Here's how each team's schedule plays out:
Road (12)- Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, Portland, Golden State, Utah, Phoenix, Clippers, Lakers, Golden State, Portland, Houston
Home (11)- Indiana, Memphis, Knicks, Lakers, San Antonio, Golden State, Minnesota, Denver, Clippers, Phoenix, New Orleans
Road (9)- Minnesota, San Antonio, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Utah, Golden State, Portland, Sacramento
Home (12)- Charlotte, Orlando, Minnesota, Portland, Phoenix, Clippers, New Orleans, Dallas, Denver, Utah, Oklahoma City, San Antonio
By my count, Dallas has 16 games remaining against teams currently in or competing for a spot in the playoffs, as do the Lakers.
L.A.'s remaining schedule seems slightly tougher, but I wouldn't argue the point too aggressively if someone wanted to call it a wash. Both teams have plenty of challenging opponents. The home-heavier schedule belongs to the Lakers, and while L.A. has a big four-game trip through San Antonio, Atlanta, Miami, and Dallas next week, the Mavs' road slate is no picnic.
The problem for the Lakers isn't simply the deficit in the standings or the winning percentage of teams they'll see before the end of the season, but how well Dallas has played over the course of the year. Of their 16 losses, seven came in an eight game stretch over two weeks, most of it without Dirk Nowitzki. Since, Dallas has been on a tear, winning 16 of 17. The Mavs are 23-11 against teams above .500 and are tied with San Antonio for the league's best road record at 21-8. Not exactly signals a backslide is coming.
The good news? As a division winner, the Lakers do hold the tiebreaker over Dallas, who are behind San Antonio in the Southwest. That helps, but still the challenge is formidable.
Forecasting at least 16 wins in their final 22 games seems reasonable. In that scenario, the Lakers could only lose three times (an 18-3 mark) and finish still finish tied with Dallas. A robust 16-5 run the rest of the way- a winning percentage over .750- requires Dallas to go 14-8, well below their pace for the season.
The math makes the pair of remaining games against the Mavs critical. Given how few losses the Lakers likely have to work with, absorbing one against the team they're chasing could very well be the difference. They'd have to be nearly pristine against the rest of the league, unless Dallas does them a favor with another slump.
(Note: The post has been updated to correct a mistake in the earlier draft, where I wrote the team's head-to-head marks would be the tiebreaker, forgetting to make the distinction between division and non-division winners. It's still a difficult road for the Lakers, but no question having the extra game to work with increases their odds of landing the W.C.'s second seed. BK)