The L.A. Lakers' playoff hopes have been pronounced dead almost as many times as they've been miraculously resuscitated this year.
So perhaps it's appropriate that an 8-4 February record and a mere two-and-a-half-game deficit in the Western Conference playoff race is being met with only the most cautious optimism in reasonable circles. But with the season drawing to a close in a matter of a few short weeks, it's time to take another look at the reasons why the Lakers really might have enough life left to crash the postseason party and why they might not.
Hope Springs Eternal
The first reason L.A. should remain confident about its playoff chances is the most important one: Kobe Bryant.
No. 24 has defied virtually everything we've ever thought about the aging process in basketball. In his 17th season, Bryant is arguably playing as well as ever. He's also been remarkably adaptable, tailoring his game to whatever the Lakers have needed on offense, while still maintaining his typically high scoring average.
His physical skills and legendary competitiveness might be enough on their own to drag the Lakers into the playoffs.
And for what it's worth, he's pretty confident they'll make it.
NBA TV @NBATV
.@KobeBryant says the @Lakers will make the playoffs. "Not a question" (LINK) http://t.co/MbJp2JSYUt2/22/2013, 10:19:30 PM
Taking a broader view, there's also just too much top-end talent in addition to Bryant for the Lakers to fall short of a postseason berth.
Dwight Howard isn't what he used to be, but he's still putting up excellent numbers. With averages of 16.2 points and 11.9 rebounds on 58 percent shooting, he still stacks up nicely with any other elite center in the league. And even though Steve Nash is also showing signs of decline, his field-goal and 3-point percentages (51 percent and 44 percent, respectively) are both above his career averages.
Individuals aside, there are also real signs that L.A. is getting collectively better as the season rolls on.
Despite the issues with age, injury and chemistry, the Lakers have actually improved their shaky defensive efficiency in each of the last three months. After allowing a ridiculous 107.4 points per 100 possessions in December, the Lakers have trimmed that number down to 104.2 in February.
They're still not a great collection of stoppers, but at least they're beginning to slow a few teams down.
So those are your reasons for preserving hopes of a playoff run. They shouldn't be all that surprising, really. L.A.'s best assets have always been its star power and experience. The question is: Will those things be enough to offset the reasons the Lakers might not be playoff bound?
The case against the Lakers making the playoffs has much less to do with the team itself, and much more to do with the circumstances surrounding it.
With 23 games left to play, the Lakers will face a dozen playoff teams. In addition, just 11 of those final 23 contests will take place at home. On the year, the Lakers have won about two-thirds of their home games while losing about two-thirds of their road games. Just as a rough estimate, it stands to reason that L.A.'s typical home-road splits might yield a .500 record the rest of the way.
And that won't be nearly good enough to overtake the Houston Rockets for the No. 8 seed.
Houston plays 13 of its final 22 games at home and will face just nine playoff teams over the duration of the season. With the aforementioned two-and-a-half-game cushion and better home-road splits than the Lakers, the Rockets are clearly in the driver's seat.
It's possible that the Utah Jazz should be the team L.A. is focused on catching, but with a slightly larger advantage in the standings and a similarly even distribution of home and road games, they're at least as likely to hold strong as the Rockets are.
So, the schedule doesn't provide any obvious sources of hope for the Lakers. Realistically, L.A. will have to play at least as well as it did in February and hope for some slippage by the Rockets and/or Jazz if they're to have any chance of making this a close race.
And finally, it'd be silly to complete any case against the Lakers' postseason hopes without mentioning how fragile their talent and chemistry are. One injury to Howard or Bryant and it's all over; there's no safety net on this paper-thin team. Besides that, the constant infighting and dissatisfaction with roles won't suddenly disappear.
With external and internal factors weighing against the Lakers, any playoff push is going to require almost everything to go right.
Based on the way this season has gone, there's almost no point in guessing which way things will fall for the Lakers over their last 23 games. It's clear that the odds are stacked against them, but it's also true that the raw numbers don't ultimately dictate how a team with this much experience and top-flight talent will fare.
In the end, the only thing that's certain is this: The Lakers will need to play their best basketball of the season to make the playoffs. But even if that happens, they'll need the teams ahead of them to play some of their worst.
That makes the Lakers' signs of life faint, but still detectable. You know, like they've been all season long.
*All stats accurate through games played March 2, 2013
**Stats via NBA.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated
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