Two games under .500 and currently the ninth seed in the Western Conference, the Lakers find themselves three games outside of the playoff picture. With 24 games left that's doable, right?
Is it probable?
Statistics suggest otherwise.
According to John Hollinger's (formerly of ESPN) playoff odds, Los Angeles has a 34.9 percent chance of making the postseason.
That's preposterous, though. Surely the Lakers can make up a three-game deficit over the next 24 contests. Passing the Houston Rockets is a near formality.
The Rockets have the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and so B-R says they should go 15-9 the rest of the way, or finish with 46 wins. That gives them a 96.4 percent chance of making the playoffs.
The Jazz have a tougher schedule the rest of the way and they are more likely the team the Lakers should target. Still, the Jazz are a solid team that B-R has going 12-13 the rest of the way, or finishing with 43 wins.
So the Lakers would have to go 16-8 the rest of the way — win two thirds of their games — to best that mark. Can they? They have the fifth easiest schedule here on out.
Looking at the playoff probabilities provided by Basketball-Reference.com, this is all true.
Houston has the easiest remaining schedule in the league and is predicted to go 15-9, which would give them 46 wins. ESPN.com has Utah facing what is presently the 15th-toughest schedule in the league. If the Jazz finished 12-13 as projected, that would give them a record 43-39.
Here's where it gets slightly complicated (but not really).
Odds assert that the Jazz will snag the eighth seed with 43 wins, suggesting that the Lakers magic number would be 43 as well.
Since Los Angeles and Utah aren't located within the same division, though, a playoff berth will be determined by the two teams' head-to-head record in the event of any tie. The Jazz have already won the season's series (2-1) over the Lakers, which means Los Angeles needs to hit 44 to make the playoffs.
To hit a magic number of 44, the Lakers must win 16 of their last 24 games. Normally, going 16-8 to finish the year is a tall order for a team that currently sits at 28-30. But as luck would have it, the Lakers have the fifth-easiest schedule to close out the season. Winning two-thirds of their games seems well within reach. Yet that doesn't mean it's going to be easy.
Basketball-Reference's playoff model has the Lakers going just 13-11 to finish the season, giving them 41 wins, three shy of the mark we're assuming they need to hit.
Seems cruel, doesn't it? With the fifth-easiest schedule, why will the Lakers finish the season just two games over .500?
Because there are a number of unnerving trends they set that must take precedence.
Fortunately for us, Los Angeles' schedule closes out in such a way that it's easy for us to dissect those trends.
In order to obtain a rough estimate of what the Lakers are facing, we can separate their 24 remaining games in four categories: home games against teams above .500, home games against teams below .500, away games against teams above. 500 and away games against teams below .500.
As if we were fated to break it down this way, the Lakers have six of each type remaining. Going off the team's results from this season—not specific matchups—we'll be able see what their facing.
For the six home games against teams above .500, we see that the Lakers have already played 17 games in such circumstances. In those 17 contests, the host Lakers are 9-8, giving them a winning percentage of about .529.
Applying that percentage to these six home games, Los Angeles would be expected to win roughly three, at most four of those contests. For the sake of being generous, let's say the Lakers win four. With those four wins in hand, they'll have 12 more victories to go if they're to hit 44.
Moving onto home games against teams with a sub-.500 record, we find that they're 9-3 on such occasions thus far, a winning percentage of .750.
Taking into account our continued generosity, that means the Lakers should win five of their six remaining home games against sub.-500 opponents. Our grand total thus far is then nine, seven short of the 16 they need.
Now it's on to the away games.
Los Angeles has played 13 roads games against teams with losing records, posting a record of 8-5 (.615). That means the Lakers will be snagging four victories (when rounding up), bringing their win total over our past 18 evaluations to 13.
They need three more.
Playing as the away team against teams with winning records, the Lakers are just 5-14 (.263). Over the course of six games, that would translate into just over 1.5 victories, or in this case, two.
This gives the Lakers 15 wins the rest of the way and 43 total, one shy of the 44 they're projected to need. And that's with us being charitable like it's Christmas.
That something needs to give the rest of the way for the Lakers to make the playoffs. Either the Jazz need to finish a few games worse than 12-13 or Los Angeles will have to break a number of alarming trends.
The latter has to be the main focus. In the world of sports, you can't count on another team to do the dirty work; you have to control your own destiny.
And if we're to buy into the smattering of statistics that have been thrown at us, the Lakers still do control their own destiny. Numerical evidence suggests they'll fall short, but they still have the ability to shift the tide.
Glancing at how they've fared this season, that could entail any number of things. Winning out against sub-.500 teams at home or putting forth a better showing on the road in general would be my main objectives if I were them.
Regardless, it's important to understand what the Lakers are facing and what they need to do. And what they need to do isn't impossible. Statistically, it's implausible—but not impossible.
Will the Lakers ultimately supersede these numerical impediments and help realize Kobe's guarantee? Or will they regress to the mean they themselves have set for the season?
In spite of what the numbers say, that's still up to them.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82Games.com unless otherwise noted.
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