Prepare for it Los Angeles, the Lakers have a very realistic chance of missing the playoffs this season.
Sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference with a 15-19 record, and currently on a four game losing streak, the second longest losing streak currently in the NBA — behind nine from the Magic and tied with four from the Sixers, two teams that have defeated the Lakers this season — the Lakers will need to win at least 30 out of their next 48 games in order to have a shot at the eight seed by season's end. Factor in that the Lakers will likely drop to 15-21 by the end of the week as they head to San Antonio to face the Spurs, and then face the Thunder in Staples Center, and that margin for error shrinks to 30 out of 46.
30 wins in 46 games, a 30-16 record, a .652 winning percentage for a team that has been playing .441 ball. Without accounting for losses to the Spurs and Thunder, the Lakers still need a .625 winning percentage, which is still much higher than anything the Lakers have shown thus far. Add in the fact that 30 wins is the requisite floor in the projection rather than the ceiling, and it becomes even more difficult. 33 wins would probably guarantee a seventh or eighth seed, 30 wins would have the Lakers praying on the final day of the season for a Timberwolves or Jazz loss. So how about a 33-13 record, a .717 winning percentage? Sounds promising, right?
Not. At. All.
There are a multitude of reasons as to why the Lakers are in this predicament, but none can excuse the likely deplorable outcome of the 2012-13 Lakers serving as the biggest bust in NBA history. Prior to the season, no one would have bet that the Lakers would have to scrape their way into the playoffs. Now, that scraping is the reality, and the odds for failing to make the playoffs are worth putting money on. For a team that entered the season with title talk, such a reality is quite shocking. Coaching changes, injuries, and a general lack of execution have this team four games below .500.
In order for the Lakers to turn things around, defense needs to be the priority. Offensively, the Lakers score the fifth most points in the NBA with an average of 102.88 points per game. Defensively, the Lakers rank 26th in points allowed per game, giving up 100.82 points per game. Despite having the 10th best point differential (+2.06) in the NBA, the Lakers have not been able to win consistently. The positive point differential points to the fact that when the Lakers do win, they tend to win big with double digit victories, and when they lose, they tend to keep things close — often storming back from a large deficit only to come up just short.
In the D'Antoni era (24 games so far, with a 10-14 record), the Lakers have lost nine games by eight points or less. Out of the 14 losses in the D'Antoni era, nine of them were manageable games that came down to important possessions that turned the game. If half of those nine losses went the other way, this squad would be in much better shape. In the 10 victories during the D'Antoni era, the Lakers have won by an average of 22.4 points.
One common denominator in the losses is a stat that I have been tracking throughout the D'Antoni era, something I refer to as a "poison pill." This poison pill refers to a quarter in which the Lakers give up 30 or more points to an opponent in a single quarter. In the D'Antoni era, the Lakers are 5-12 in games in which they give up a poison pill quarter. In games in which they don't give up a poison pill, the Lakers are 5-2. Problem solved, right? Don't let teams blow up in a single quarter, and increase your winning percentage from .294 to .714. Simple enough.
.714, doesn't that sound familiar? I previously stated that if the Lakers were to rip off a .717 winning percentage, they would finish 48-34 and likely secure a seventh or eighth seed. .714 is close enough to .717, and it speaks volumes about the importance of playing solid defense for an entire 48 minutes. Unfortunately, the Lakers have only accomplished the feat of holding teams off of huge scoring binges in seven out of 24 games (29%) during the D'Antoni era. What's far more likely is for the Lakers to allow teams to tear them apart, build up momentum, and then withstand any sort of desperate comeback. The latter scenario has happened in 17 out of 24 games during the D'Antoni era, a troubling poison pill rate of 71% of the time.
So what's more likely, the Lakers figure things out defensively, turn on a switch that the Shaq and Kobe Lakers trademarked, or continue to get destroyed for at least 12 straight minutes in every game they play? Unfortunately for Lakers fans, it's the second scenario, and it's a resounding truth.
To further hammer home the point, the Lakers allowed 125 points to the Houston Rockets this past game. Yes, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Jordan Hill were all injured, thus placing Robert Sacre in the starting lineup and making him the only big man available on the roster, but that's still 125 points. The Lakers scored 112 in the loss, but they couldn't overcome allowing 28 points in the first quarter, 31 in the second, 38 in the third, and 28 in the fourth. The Lakers entered the half ahead, and led 78-77 with 3:48 remaining in the third quarter. In that final 3:48 in the third quarter, the Lakers allowed the Rockets to go on a 10-20 run, giving them an 88-97 lead entering the fourth quarter, and a sizable advantage that kept the Lakers at arm's reach for the entire fourth quarter — the score never got closer than that nine point gap that started the fourth quarter.
With Howard out indefinitely with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and still laboring from offseason back surgery, Gasol suffering from a concussion in a prior game against the Nuggets that has him out indefinitely as well, and Hill suffering from a torn labrum in his left hip that has him out indefinitely, the Lakers will likely bleed points in the paint for the foreseeable future.
Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash may set some historical records this season, but that seems to be about all this squad will have to look forward to. It's a shame. Bryant is playing at a level no other 34-year-old NBA player has ever come close to. Nash just surpassed 10,000 assists and is fifth on the all-time list. Each play hard and inspired, yet neither can carry the team to much needed victories.
As a lifelong Lakers fan, this is the most disappointing season I've ever witnessed. I've followed this team since I was seven years old, coinciding with the Shaq-Kobe era in the 1996-97 season, and nothing remotely compares to the disappointment I feel while watching this squad this season.
Bryant's airballs against Utah were disappointing, but everyone knows that Eddie Jones froze up in his moment to be the man and instead relinquished the duties to an 18-year-old.
The loss to the Pistons in the 2003-04 Finals may come the closest to this level of disappointment, but I truly believe that if Karl Malone hadn't injured his knee, the Lakers would have won that championship.
Hell, even the 34-48 season in 2004-05 was better than this. At least watching Bryant, Lamar Odom, and Caron Butler was entertaining, especially since I saw some true potential with that trio all under the age of 26.
The worst pain definitely belongs to the 2005-06 Lakers that squandered a 3-1 series lead against Nash and the Suns in the first round. But what can you do when Tim Thomas is hitting series altering shots? I hated that series, but I never expected the Lakers to push it to seven games.
The loss to the Celtics in the 2007-08 Finals definitely hurt, but the Kobe-Pau squad was just coming together with less than half a season together. Obviously, they righted the ship in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Now the Lakers are old, tired, and perpetually disappointing, without any sort of hope for the future, and with the looming possibility that Howard will walk in free agency this summer. I don't want to see Bryant's career end with meaningless basketball games. This squad is built to win now, unfortunately, it isn't living up to the billing. Whereas I once preached patience, stating, "By January, this team will be rolling," that leeway has come and gone, and it's given way to a depressing reality.
I'm pretty sure there has never been a team in NBA history that had four future Hall of Famers in its starting five, yet failed to miss the playoffs. Sadly, the 2012-13 Lakers are intent on setting a precedent.
The fan in me hopes for a stunning turnaround, a gelling process where the team heals up and plays inspired ball while holding opponents in check, but the realist in me understands that the Lakers haven't given me a single reason to believe in their ability to turn this season around.
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