The Lakers enter Wednesday's game against the Clippers at 10-8. After losing three straight and four-of-five, they've dropped to 10th in the Western Conference almost one-third of the way through the truncated 66-game season.
Don't freak out. A couple wins changes the math substantially, since only 2.5 games separate them from Denver, currently the W.C.'s second seed.
Don't soft-pedal things, either. The Lakers have serious structural issues with the roster and a host of concepts to integrate confidently entering a critical, and potentially dangerous, section of the schedule. Start with Wednesday's game against the Clippers. Having dropped the first of the three-game season series, without a win the head-to-head tiebreaker goes to the red, white, and blue, essentially affording the Clippers an extra game's padding in the standings and a major leg up for the Pacific Division title.
Without taking the division, the team's chances of hosting a first round playoff series shrink considerably, no small consideration for a team currently 1-6 on the road.
From there, the Lakers basically go on tour. 11 of the following 16 tip away from Staples (I mentioned the road record, right?), and it's hardly a patsy-riffic road, either. Following two days of practice you'd like to think the Lakers can beat Milwaukee on Saturday, but Sunday's game in Minnesota is no picnic. The Wolves are totally erratic, but have a high-end coach and are as dangerous as a 7-10 team can be, logging wins against Dallas, San Antonio, and the Clippers, while dropping games to Miami, Atlanta, and Memphis by a combined eight points.
They'll return home for a lose-and-let's-fold-up-the-tent home game against Charlotte, followed by the annual Grammy trip.
Six games in 10 days, starting with dates against Denver, Utah, and Philadelphia -- a combined 22-5 at home -- then an always intense game in Boston. Later in the month they'll cap a stretch of four games in five nights with b-2-b's in Dallas and Oklahoma City. February also features tough home dates against Atlanta and Portland, plus a worrisome February 29th game against the Wolves in which anything can happen not only because Minnesota is tricky but because it's on February 29th.
Moral of the story: It doesn't get any easier. It's not hard to imagine a near-.500 record for the Lakers over the next month, putting pressure on their already thin and inadequate margin for error.
Mike Brown has said he believes the eight best teams will eventually get into the playoffs, but seeding might not be a perfect measurement. He's probably right. Nonetheless, this is a strange season in which strange things will happen, and measuring relative strength from team to team is difficult thanks to the vagaries of scheduling and the increased impact of injuries. While I don't believe the Lakers as constructed can win a title, they're not -- or shouldn't be -- a lottery team, either. Still, without a quick improvement in performance, particularly on the road, they could find themselves in an uncomfortable position, closer to the bottom of what likely will remain a very crowded playoff ladder than they'd like, where one mini-slump or untimely injury could sink the boat.
Brown believes his team will be far better in April than it is now, and he very well might be right. Ideally, they can ramp up the curve a little quicker, because this is the wrong year to pile up too many must win games down the stretch.