Twenty-two games are left on the schedule for the Lakers. Is that enough time for them to sneak into the postseason field? We weigh in on what to expect from here on out.
1. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers are back.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fact. They have won five of their past six and the schedule ahead is not daunting. Lately Kobe Bryant has been able to have it both ways, scoring his points and picking up victories. (You can lay "Facilitator Kobe" to rest, by the way.) The Lakers aren't striking fear into the league's top teams, but after Tuesday's game against Oklahoma City they have only one more such contest the rest of March (at Indiana). They've been winning the games they're supposed to win, which is more than they did in the first two months.
Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: Fiction. "Back" implies that they were at one point "here." Let's just say they've been playing good basketball of late and leave it at that.
Dave McMenamin, ESPNLosAngeles.com: Fiction. Back to what? .500? We're talking about a franchise with 16 championships in its history and a current roster getting paid a combined $100 million. The only way the Lakers would be "back" would be if they were competing for the best record in the West, not the eighth-best.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue and Gold: Fact. Several metrics say that the Lakers' winning ways are more about a progression to the mean, but I'd argue it is more about them finally finding a workable formula and fully committing to it. They're not yet at their ceiling, but they're on the path many thought they would be on at the turn of the calendar year.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: Fact. They're back in the sense that a postseason slot is no longer a long shot. Also, because of Tony Parker's sprained ankle, a second-round entry isn't beyond the realm of possibility. The Lakers won't win a title, but they just might awe us by having what amounts to a successful Atlanta Hawks season.
2. What's been the key to the Lakers' recent success?
Adande: Dwight Howard has been willing to do the dirty work: rebounding and setting picks. The dunk when Kobe soared past Josh Smith that dominated the highlights for 24 hours would not have come about if Howard hadn't screened off Zaza Pachulia. Steve Nash and Kobe are working well off of each other, and Steve Blake is providing quality minutes in the backup point guard role. The changes haven't been dramatic, but they're vastly different from the Lakers team we saw in December.
Levy: Progression to the mean. Since Jan. 25 the Lakers are 13-5. However, their point differential since then has been essentially identical to the rest of the season, when they went 17-25. Early on the Lakers went 3-7 in games decided by five points or fewer. Since Jan. 25, that record has flipped to 5-0. Balance has been restored.
McMenamin: Accepting roles, starting with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. The basic gist of the Lakers' 13-5 stretch has been that Howard has committed to playing defense no matter what and Bryant has committed to passing more. Also, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni has settled into an eight-man rotation so there's no more questioning or angling from players about more playing time or bigger responsibilities. They are making the most of what they got.
Soriano: Stability. The team is 50 games into Mike D'Antoni's tenure and that time has brought relative health, a familiarity between him and the players in how they'll run their schemes, a comfort level in what his expectations are, and a set rotation that has allowed the players to settle into their roles and be productive.
Strauss: Luck. The Lakers have been winning the kind-of-close games (Atlanta, Dallas, Portland and Phoenix) that swung against them earlier this season. Also, this year's eighth seed projects to finish with a win total in the low 40s. That helps the cause.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers will make the playoffs.
Adande: Fact. Lately, the best thing the Lakers have going for them are the off-nights; that's when all the teams they're chasing seem to lose and allow the Lakers to gain ground. It's Utah that will probably open the door for L.A. I think the Jazz will lose twice as many games as the Lakers down the stretch; Utah has lost two-thirds of its road games this season and still has 12 remaining, as well as tough home games against the Thunder, Grizzlies and Knicks.
Levy: Fact. The Lakers' engine is running on a murky mix of fumes, guts and reputation at this point. I think Houston moves up, but it's looking more and more reasonable that Los Angeles could drag down Utah or Golden State from behind. Someone is going to end up having a solid season spoiled. My guess is it's the suddenly swooning Warriors.
McMenamin: Fact. This goes against what I've said publicly as recently as a week ago, but the Lakers' momentum at this point is undeniable. Couple that with Utah's recent struggles (the Jazz have lost four out of five games and have a tough schedule down the stretch) and the Lakers should manage to make good on Bryant's playoff guarantee.
Soriano: Fact. In the past 18 games, the Lakers have the fourth-best record in the league and are gaining ground on the teams in front of them. Considering their remaining schedule, I see the Warriors -- who have four total games against the Lakers and Rockets down the stretch -- as the team that drops out.
Strauss: Fact. I'll go with the better team in this coin flip. Utah has a much easier schedule down the stretch, but I haven't much liked its lineup decisions. Also, that Jazz defense flatters L.A.'s. It sounds funny to say, "I'm taking the better D," when choosing the Lakers, but here we are.
4. If the Lakers make the playoffs, how far will they go?
Adande: One and done. They're not ready to travel back and forth to the Central time zone to take down the Spurs or Thunder. The best they could hope for would be if the Clippers could somehow grab the No. 2 seed and the Lakers crept up to the seventh seed. Then the Lakers could dress in their own locker room and play in their own arena for an entire series which is a greater reward than they've earned this season. It doesn't look like the basketball gods will allow that to happen.
Levy: Home. Quickly. The prize for sneaking into the playoffs as an eight seed, as of now, is the right to get dismantled by the Spurs. San Antonio has been one of the best teams in the league all season long, boasting a top-five offense and defense for the first time since 2006-07. It's hard to imagine the Lakers, even the current improved version, sneaking past that.
McMenamin: Probably a first-round exit. L.A. barely made it out of the first round last year against Denver and that was in a season when it was a playoff lock all year long. The West's top three seeds will be San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the L.A. Clippers in some order. It's hard to see the Lakers knocking off any one of those three teams.
Soriano: It depends on the matchups. If they were to draw the Thunder in the first round, I think it's highly unlikely they advance. However, if they draw the Spurs and then, potentially, the Clippers, they could reach the conference finals by combining their best basketball and a fair amount of luck.
Strauss: Bold prediction: The Lakers will beat the Spurs and make the second round. It almost has to happen, just to make the regular season feel like a hilarious farce. If OKC winds up playing Los Angeles, it ends in Round 1, though.
5. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers can win a title as currently constructed.
Adande: Fact. Not this season. The title train has left the station for 2013. But if Dwight Howard comes back, Pau Gasol gets healthy and the team has a full season to get accustomed to each other, they could prove to be the best in the league. They have a home victory against Oklahoma City and a last-minute loss to San Antonio, and they competed for about 88 of the 96 minutes they played in the two defeats to Miami. If they could add a little perimeter athleticism, the main issue wouldn't be the roster, it would be the coach.
Levy: Fact. As I learned at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference this weekend, randomness is an inescapable component of sports. The odds are stacked against them in a mountain, a mile high. But all the hypothetical scenarios that drove outlandish preseason projections could suddenly swing in their favor. At this point nothing would surprise me about the Lakers.
McMenamin: Fiction. This is basically asking if the Lakers can win a championship this season. That's not going to happen. Now, can a Bryant-Howard core win a championship? Yes, I still believe that is possible next season if L.A. retools around those two.
Soriano: Fact. Understand, however, that everything would need to go their way. They'd need to be fully healthy, draw the right matchups, and find a way to reach their absolute ceiling during the playoffs. And while it is doubtful all those things happen (and unlikely based off their play up to this point), it is still possible.
Strauss: Fiction. Dwight Howard has, subjectively, looked more limber out there. That provides a faint glimmer of hope, I suppose. Los Angeles needs more, though. Though we love to discuss the Lakers, the world does not revolve around them. Even if D'Antoni's team is clicking, there are at least two better Western Conference teams. Also: Have you seen this squad against Miami?
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
J.A. Adande is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPN Los Angeles. Ian Levy, Darius Soriano and Ethan Sherwood Strauss are part of the TrueHoop Network.
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