Dear 100 Hour Board,
Are the Lakers going to make the playoffs?
First, listen to this, this, or this while you read. It will improve your experience drastically.
Now for your question: In order to make it into the playoffs, all the Lakers have to do is be the number eight seed in the Western Conference.
As of the day I write this, February 28 (I’m researching during the game, but as of halftime I’m pretty confident they’ll pull this one off—THEY DID), the Lakers are now 29-30. They have 23 games left to bump up one spot in the standings. Whether or not they can do this (they can) depends on many factors. First: the rest of their schedule. I went through, team by team and looked at how the Lakers have played against the rest of their opponents this season. I determined the probability of the Lakers winning based on how they’ve played each opponent so far. For the most part, I gave the win to the team with more wins against the other so far this season. The Lakers-Kings’ record is tied 1-1, but they have two games left against each other in the season, so I gave each team a win and a loss.
However, I also gave the win to the Lakers for their final game against the Clippers. I know the Clippers have played better than the Lakers this season (a sentence I used to think less plausible than the Angels winning the pennant, but now that's happened too), but the Lakers are done losing to Blake and CP3. They will not go down 4-0 against the Clippers this season. It won’t happen. It can’t happen. My numbers predict the Lakers’ regular season ending around 41-41. Honestly, I expect them to win more. Especially if the last game of the season—Lakers v. Houston—is what determines the eight seed, the Lakers are going to win (but for statistical purposes, I didn't give it to them). They have the better team.
Now the Lakers’ schedule isn’t the only one that will affect their post-season chances. It will depend heavily on how Houston and Utah finish. Right now, Utah is at 31-27. Using the same method as before, I’ve calculated that Utah finishes 45-37.
Houston is the last team that matters. Right now the Rockets’ record is 31-28. By the end of the season, my theory says they’ll be 40-42—the nine seed. One game behind what I've given the Lakers. And if their schedules end up tied, the spot goes to the team with the better division record. In this situation, that team wears purple and gold.
Obviously, this is not an exact science, and there is a good chance I could be wrong. If the Lakers don't step up their game, they'll be out. But getting that 8 seed is definitely possible. It's going to be close. But, as Kobe says, "I play for one thing, and one thing only: to win championships."
Everybody says the Lakers won't make it. Their record so far this season proves they haven't been playing well. But previous games' numbers aren’t the only factor.
There's something, that as a lifelong Laker fan, I want to share with you: The Switch. No matter how terribly the season has gone for the 16-time champions, All-Star Weekend is always a turning point. Since the break, they're 4-1. The momentum is up, and I only expect it to grow.
Also, looking back, the team’s season has been plagued by injury. Nash, Blake, Hill, and Gasol have all had substantial injuries preventing them playing for many games. Nash has been back since December and drastically improved the quality of play, and now they also have Steve Blake. He's been back for only a few games but has performed well and improved the consistency of the Lakers' bench. It's not likely Pau will be back before the playoffs, but hey, a girl can dream.
Also the emotional factor: if you've been watching the Lakers play in the past week, you've probably noticed a new patch on the players' uniforms. JB stands for Jerry Buss, the recently-deceased owner whom the players loved. Multiple times throughout his career, Kobe has spoken about his deep admiration and respect for Dr. Buss, who owned the team since 1979. The players all had great relationships with Buss, and since his death, they've been outspoken on their intentions to win for him. And they've done it well so far.
The team is playing well together, they've got most of their players back, and they want to make Dr. Buss proud. So even after all the numbers, even after all the critics, I say yes; the Lakers will make the playoffs.
Come at me, bros.
Dear Poor Thing,
Not if there is good left in the world.
In seriousness, the authoritative empirics on this are Hollinger's Playoff Odds, which currently have the Lakers at a 49 percent chance of making the playoffs. That sounds about right to me—a reasonable chance, but not greater than 50/50. The Rockets are playing out of their minds (they pinned 136 on Dallas a couple of nights ago—in regulation). I honestly have no idea how you look at Houston right now and think they come out of this season with a losing record. That just flabbergasts me. Hollinger has them at a 98 percent chance of making the playoffs. Utah is inconsistent as always, but they're two games up on the Lakers and have some breathing room. They've dealt with more injuries lately than the Lakers, and they may snap out of it. Of the current low seeds, Golden State has been the worst of late, but they should be able to turn it around as well.
As to the other stuff: yeah, injuries have been a big deal, and it's taken the Lakers a while to get settled into a system. And there's no question that they're playing dramatically better now than they have been lately. But what are their real marquee wins in the last 15 games? They've split a pair with Boston. They beat Atlanta by one at home. They beat the dregs of the West: Dallas, Portland, Minnesota, and Phoenix. They squeaked out a win against Detroit, and beat Charlotte and Brooklyn. But they got thrashed by the Clippers, and lost by double digits to the Heat and Nuggets. Their January win against the Thunder is the only win they have against a top-four-in-their-respective-conference team since Christmas. I'm not buying their recent record; they've been playing bad teams, and by-and-large not even dominating them.
The "Playoffs Switch" Ace references is a myth. First of all, the "Switch" doesn't have anything to do with making the playoffs; people talk about it as a predictor of how the Lakers will do once they make the playoffs. The basic idea is that the Lakers, under the lights of Los Angeles, will slack off during the regular season but turn it on in the playoffs. What that means functionally is that we're looking for years in which the Lakers outperformed their seed (if they were in the bottom four seeds, by making it to the second round, for example, or if they were the 3 seed, by making it to the Conference Finals). Those years would be evidence of a "Switch." You want to know how many times that's happened in the last 20 years? Five times (2004, 2002, 2001, 1998, and 1995). And one of those times was in a series widely regarded as fixed (the 2002 Kings–Lakers Western Conference Championship). The Switch isn't a thing if it only gets flipped less than one in every three times the Lakers make the playoffs (they missed in 2005 and 1994, so it was "thrown" five out of 18 times).
Let's see if Houston, Utah, or Golden State have "Switches." Utah's out—the Jazz have outperformed their seed only twice in 16 playoff appearances over the past 20 years. But Houston has outperformed its seed five times out of 12 playoff appearances over the same time period, and Golden State has outperformed its seed once out of two playoff appearances (in that epic 2007 series against the Mavs). So both Houston and Golden State are more likely to throw a "Playoffs Switch" than the Los Angeles Lakers. "The Switch" is nonsense, and it needs to be put where all the rest of the homer Lakers theories go: on Bill Plaschke's desk.
On Dr. Buss: obviously a great guy. I hate the Lakers, but it's hard to be an NBA fan and not have a ton of respect for Jerry Buss. What I fail to see is how exactly his passing will motivate the team. Kobe owes Buss a lot, and I can imagine him playing hard for Buss. But wait: Kobe didn't need any motivation in the first place, and he's the only starting Laker with any real connection to Jerry Buss. Steve Nash played part of a single injury-shortened season under a team owned by Dr. Buss. I also spoke with Dwight Howard's shoulder, and it told me that it was unaffected by Buss' death. It was bad before, and it's bad now. And does anything motivate Pau Gasol? I feel for Lakers fans who have been following the team forever and have a ton of affection for Dr. Buss. But fans' nostalgia isn't going to motivate this group.1
I will root against the Lakers until I die.2
1 Plus, I don't even buy this whole Laker-fans-mourning-Buss storyline. This quote from Simmons sums up many Lakers fans nicely:
"Unfortunately for the Lakers, their fans aren't paying attention that closely because they're busy either trying to get on the Jumbotron, averting their eyes from Dyan Cannon, or trying to figure out things like 'How many points do you get if you shoot one from half court?' or 'How come that clock on the backboard keeps counting down backward from 24?'"
Listen, people. If you grew up within 200 miles of Los Angeles, or your father grew up cheering for the Lakers, and you cheer for the Lakers, I have no beef with you. But if you're a weak-sauce Lakers fan, or you started liking them when you were 10 because they were good, shame on you. Root for a team that requires some heart. Fake Lakers fans don't understand sports, and they never will.
2 Let's forestall the most common objection here: "You only hate the Lakers because they're good!" That's absolutely one reason I hate the Lakers; who wouldn't hate the team with all the bandwagon celebrity fans with pockets basically reaching into the deepest hell, situated in a city everyone wants to play in? Aside from the Spurs, they're the best team since the Bulls. They get basically whomever they want. Every time there's a game at Staples, I have to look at Jack Nicholson's pudgy face during timeouts. I hate the Lakers for lots of reasons, but sure, I hate them because they're good. Two-thirds of their fans only like them because they're good, and that's the greater sin by far.
Dear blazer fan,
I did an analysis similar to Ace, but I documented the whole thing and threw it into a spreadsheet. I perform an analysis like this whenever I take a test in the Testing Center. I calculate a score based on that analysis and that's the ballpark score I expect when I walk down the stairs. Almost always, I am within 3 points of my calculated score.
Now, I know that means nothing, because my proficiency at calculating my personal test score is wholly unrelated to my ability to determine who wins sporting events. However, I think the methods are valid, and in my mind, it's worth taking a look at.
I wrote down every remaining game for the Warriors, Jazz, Rockets, and Lakers, and put them on separate pages of a spreadsheet. I then sorted each game into one of five categories: must win, should win, might win, could win, and will not win. From there, I counted how many of each category each team had, and multiplied those tallies by a constant. (90%, 70%, 50%, 30%, and 10%, respectively. Sometimes you lose games you had every guarantee of winning, and sometimes you win games that you had every guarantee of losing.) From there, I added the total sum of predicted wins with each team's current wins, and did the same with the losses column. Then I ranked where each team ended up.
The key takeaways: the Warriors and the Rockets have the easier schedules finishing out the season, but for the most part, the playoff picture ends up how it is right now. By my estimation, the Warriors secure the 6 seed, the Rockets move up to the 7 seed, the Jazz finish in the 8 spot, and the Lakers are out of the playoffs three games back from the Jazz.
Blazers are basically out of the question (which is unfortunate for you), but for the red-blooded Americans who rightfully despise the Lakers, we can at least revel in this wonderful outcome as much as we loved seeing Phil's departure from coaching end in a 4-game playoff series sweep. I don't know where Ace is getting her peyote, but the Lakers are going to be out of the playoffs by the second week of April.
I admire Dr. Buss as much as the next guy, but there wasn't anything he could do about this season. It's destined to end on April 17th for Kobe and company.