Will the Los Angeles Lakers make the playoffs?
That's really the only pertinent question for the boys in purple and gold these days.
All the other queries that surround them -- What's the state of Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard's relationship? When is Pau Gasol coming back? Is Mike D'Antoni the right coach for this group? -- merely funnel into that same, fundamental question.
The Lakers are 28-30 with 24 games to play, good for ninth place in the Western Conference -- three games behind the Houston Rockets for the final postseason berth.
D'Antoni said after the All-Star break that the Lakers would need to go at least 20-8 (.714 winning percentage) to ensure a spot in the playoffs. Since then, Bryant has guaranteed the Lakers will be playing past the regular-season finale April 17, and L.A. has gone 3-1 in its past four games.
The four-game improved stretch can be extended back to include 11 wins for L.A. in its past 16 games. However, the five losses in that stretch have been by an average of 14.4 points, including the Lakers' 11-point loss Monday in Denver in a game in which they trailed by as many as 18 points.
The Denver loss dropped the Lakers to just 1-10 this season on the road against the eight teams in the West currently slated to make the playoffs, which only punctuates L.A.'s paltry 10-19 overall road record.
For argument's sake, let's say that trend continues and the Lakers go 0-3 on the road the remainder of the way against the Western Conference teams ahead of them in the standings -- losing in Oklahoma City on March 5, at Golden State on March 25 (the one team ahead of them in the West they actually have beaten on the road this season, in Steve Nash's return from a leg injury Dec. 22) and to the L.A. Clippers in a "road" game at Staples Center on April 7.
That leaves us with 21 games left to consider and the Lakers needing 17 wins in those games to reach D'Antoni's magic number of 45 wins.
The 12 home games are: Minnesota, Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, Sacramento, Washington, Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans, Golden State, San Antonio and Houston.
The Lakers are 10-10 (.500) so far this season against those teams. So, even though the Lakers have gone 18-11 (.621) at home so far, those 12 games shouldn't be a cakewalk. Let's split the difference between the two percentages, and say the Lakers win .561 of their remaining home games and go 7-5.
That would put their record at 35-38, with the nine remaining road games to consider.
Even if they went 9-0 in those games (at New Orleans, Atlanta, Orlando, Indiana, Phoenix, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Sacramento and Portland), they would not reach D'Antoni's stated goal of 45 wins to make the playoffs. Plus, 9-0 isn't really realistic when you consider the Lakers are just 8-5 (.615) against those teams so far this season. If they play .615 ball against them, you're talking about them winning five or six of those games. Let's say they get six; that brings their record to 41-41.
ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton puts the Lakers' magic number at 43 wins needed to consider the postseason.
That would require the Lakers to go 15-9 the rest of the way, or to find two more wins out of the three scenarios explained above -- maybe going 1-2 in those road games against Western playoff teams, or going 8-4 in their remaining home games or 7-2 in those other nine road games.
Meanwhile, the three teams the Lakers are chasing to get into the playoffs -- Houston, Golden State and Utah -- would have a much easier path to get to 43.
"The Lakers can do their part and still be eliminated because the three teams ahead of them -- the Rockets, the Golden State Warriors and the Utah Jazz -- need only go .500 to get to at least 43 wins. In fact, the simulation shows the Lakers aren't really guaranteed a playoff spot unless they get to 47 wins. So there will be plenty of scoreboard watching for the Lakers, whose playoff hopes might go down after a win if their competitors are also victorious."
And all of this isn't even mentioning the possibility of Bryant picking up three more technical fouls and being suspended for a game or Howard tweaking that right shoulder of his and having to sit out with his torn labrum, as has happened two times already.
Will the Lakers make the playoffs? It's too early to know. But it's certainly not too soon to see just how difficult the road will be for them to get there.