Are the L.A. Lakers even a Playoff Team?

Before the 2012-2013 NBA season opened, Metta World Peace made a bold prediction that the L.A. Lakers could go 73-9, thus beating the Chicago Bulls’ regular season record of 72-10. And while most people thought this was a difficult goal to reach, it didn’t seem impossible given that the Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to go along with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Antawn Jamison and World Peace.

But here we are now 26 games into the regular season, and the Lakers have already missed out on this goal. In fact, L.A. is just 12-14 and sitting 12th in the Western Conference standings. Taking this into account, it’s worth asking whether or not the Lakers are even a playoff team by looking at their promising and not-so promising points.

The Good: A Big Missing Piece

We’re not going to argue that Los Angeles hasn’t underachieved because they’ve had Bryant, Howard and World Peace for the entire year. Gasol has also played in most of the team’s games, which, given these four stars, SHOULD be enough to be among the playoff teams.

However, one integral part has been missing from this club all year and that’s PG Steve Nash. He’s been out since October 31st with a leg fracture and hasn’t been there to orchestrate the offense. In his absence, L.A. has been trying to get by with a trio of Chris Duhon, Darius Morris and Steve Blake. The result: 12.8 PPG and 9.7 APG among three players.

While this is okay, Nash figures to do this – or more – by himself after returning from injury. Going further, the Lakers’ overall flow on offense should be much better with Nash back in the lineup.

The Bad: Gasol and Howard are struggling Together

In theory, the ‘Twin Towers’ setup always seems great because you’ve got two big men dominating the paint. But as history has often shown us, two excellent big men can hamper each other’s production. Such seems to be the case with Howard and Gasol since these two don’t work well off each other.

The thinking before the season was that Pau could play more forward while Howard would man the paint. However, Gasol has never been comfortable in the forward role and is shooting a dismal 41.4% – down from a career average of 51.8%. Now 41.4% might work if you’re a 6’2″ runner and gunner; but not when you’re a 7’0″ forward-center.

Howard is not innocent in the matter either because, while he’s shooting 57.6% from the field and averaging 18.1 PPG, there have been plenty of times where he’s completely disappeared on offense. That said, the Lakers have been transitioning to a gameplan where the two natural centers play in separate units, rather than together.

The Good: Stats are looking Nice

Another indication that L.A. could grab a playoff spot in the West involves their strong statistical performance. Despite being a sub-.500 team, the Lakers are sixth in points per game with a 102.08 average. Their defense hasn’t been quite as good since they’ve allowed 99.32 PPG, which ranks 21st in the league.

However, this is still a +2.76 differential, thus indicating the tide could later turn. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams that have had a positive point differential are over 95% likely to make the playoffs. So this definitely bodes well for the Lakers’ postseason hopes.

The Bad: The West is Deep

We expect L.A. to improve as the season keeps moving along. But even with improvement, it’ll be no cakewalk to make the playoffs with how many solid teams are in the Western Conference – especially after starting 12-14.

Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis and the L.A. Clippers are locks to make the playoffs with their talent and strong starts. That leaves four spots open, which are currently occupied by the youthful, but talented Golden State, Denver, Minnesota and Houston. Let’s also throw in the fact that Utah, Dallas and Portland are all ahead of the Lakers and figure to compete for playoff spots. Including the Lakers, this makes eight legitimate contenders for four postseason spots.

The Verdict?

Overall, the L.A. Lakers are easily more talented than every team chasing what we suspect are the last four playoff spots. And given that they’re playing without Steve Nash and are the only non-playoff team with a positive point differential, we believe the Lakers will get it together and at least make the playoffs.

One more point worth mentioning is that L.A. is only 1 1/2 games behind both Minnesota and Houston (currently seventh and eighth). Given that we’re only a quarter of the way through the season, expect the Lakers to make up this ground and grab anywhere from a fourth to eighth seed.

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