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Tuesday, December 17
 
Painting a playoff picture without Lakers

By Frank Hughes
Special to ESPN.com

Imagine hearing this next season: Now starting for the Los Angeles Lakers, at center, Shaquille O'Neal, at guard, Kobe Bryant, and at the other guard, LeBron James.

Could happen.

If the Lakers miss the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant, left, and the Lakers hope to shrug off a slow start that has creeped into December.
"What?" you say.

Blasphemous.

Stupid.

Downright moronic.

Well, guess what? The season is starting to creep by, the Lakers are sliding deeper into mediocrity and, at some point, it's going to be too late for people to continue saying, "The Lakers will come back."

It is, for most people, a foregone conclusion, but there are a lot of factors that could go into the Lakers becoming only the third team in the history of the league to win an NBA title and miss the playoffs the next season.

And the other two teams had some serious extenuating circumstances.

The first team was the 1968-69 Boston Celtics, the last of the great 11-championships run led by Bill Russell. In the 1969-70 season, Russell, the greatest defensive player of all time, retired, and the Celtics went on to win only 34 games, finishing sixth in the Eastern Division.

The other team was the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, and Jerry Krause will go down in history as the man who dismantled one of the greatest teams ever for the pure satisfaction of his own ego-massaging. The following season, the Jordan-less, Pippen-less, Rodman-less, Jackson-less Bulls won just 13 games, finishing last in the Central Division -- but, hey, they had a plan, and they still do.

So in a sense, the Lakers missing the playoffs the year after they win a title, in fact three straight titles, with virtually the same team intact and certainly the same two superstars, would be unprecedented. I know, I know, it's difficult to fathom, and you may already have dismissed the notion. But do the math, and you'll see it's not so far-fetched.

Last season, the eighth team in the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz, finished with 44 wins. So let's go by the assumption that you need 44 wins to make the playoffs.

With that in mind, the 10-15 Lakers need to finish the season on a 34-23 tear -- just to get the final spot of the postseason, where, if that happens, we possibly could see a rematch of the Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings.

34-23. No problem for the three-time world champions, right? Especially now that Shaq is back.

Think again. You know what the Lakers' record is since O'Neal returned to the lineup? 8-8. And it's not like they lost the first eight while they were trying to work in O'Neal. They have not won more than two in a row since Shaq returned. They're not knocking teams over with their dominance.

You know what their road record is? 2-10. And tonight, they begin a tough four-game trip, against Minnesota (13-11), New Jersey (16-8), Philadelphia (15-9) and Toronto (7-16).

Take a pessimistic view and imagine if the Lakers somehow drop three of four on this trip. They'd have to finish out the season winning 63 percent of their games to avoid the embarrassment of the lottery and the LeBron Ping-Pong ball derby. They'd have more riots in L.A., but not of the celebratory kind.

Combined, the record of the teams that the Lakers have beaten this season is a paltry 103-133. Take away that win against Dallas, and it is 83-130. World beaters? I don't think so.

As it is, they have to win 59 percent of their games, and they have not been at all successful against teams with winning records. In fact, only three of their 10 victories have come against teams with winning records, including that 30-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks. Combined, the record of the teams that the Lakers have beaten this season is a paltry 103-133. Take away that win against Dallas, and it is 83-130. World beaters? I don't think so.

What makes this even more scary is that the end of the Lakers' season is going to be against the stronger teams in the Western Conference, where there are 11 legitimate teams that could make the playoffs. The emergence of Yao Ming has made the Houston Rockets a third Texas playoff team; Amare Stoudemire makes the Suns a possibility; Utah rebounded from a poor start to at least give the Jazz the hope of making the postseason for the 20th consecutive season; Portland certainly has the talent, if it can ever stop its boneheaded, off-court antics; and the Los Angeles Clippers have been besieged by injuries, but if they don't fall too far behind, getting back Lamar Odom could make them dangerous.

Could you imagine if the Clippers made the playoffs and the Lakers did not?

Given their recent history, it's certainly hard to discount the Lakers' ability to turn it on when it counts. But the assumption that they can easily rebound from their poor start is also based on the assumption that they will incur no more injuries. Lest we forget, Shaq missed time in each of the past two seasons. And while Bryant played 80 of 82 games last season, he played 68 two years ago and 66 the year before that, so he is not injury-proof.

If one of those two goes down, who is going to step in for them? Samaki Walker? Slava Medvedenko? Horace Grant? Devean George? And it's not like things are exactly rosy there anyway, with Shaq and Kobe sniping at their teammates, their teammates starting to snipe back and Phil Jackson trying to pull teeth out of each player's back.

I am not yet willing to go all the way out on the limb and say there is no way the Lakers are going to make the playoffs. Their championships should at least provide that much respect. All I'm saying is that three guys named Shaq, Kobe and LeBron would be a very interesting team, indeed.

Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.





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