26 December 2007

Laker Chat II (The Quickening) . . .

Earlier this month (on the 13th to be exact) I posted about the relatively solid state of the LA Lakers and the possibility that they might actually be a pretty good team.

13 days later, and after their fantastic performance against the Phoenix Suns in the spotlight of the Christmas Day ABC game, it's time to talk Lakers again.

They've been solid in the 8 games since, dropping 2 games they should have won (last minute loss against Golden State, another last minute loss against Cleveland), and beating a few good teams along the way (an injury depleted San Antonio and Phoenix), but more importantly, they beat bad teams, which may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but that's something they struggled with last year, and if you look at the 10 losses this year, only 3 were to bad teams, so they've improved greatly in beating bad teams. That's an indicator of increased maturity, and a developing killer instinct that this team lacked a season ago. I hoped (and expected) they'd go 7-3 until the end of this month, so that means they need to at least split their upcoming home games against Utah and Boston this Friday and Monday. They are 1-1 versus Utah so far (including a blow-out loss), and 0-1 versus Boston (another double digit loss). Utah has struggled since they beat the Lakers, and Boston continues to roll over most of the league, but are vulnerable on the road if the Lakers play well.

I'm not the only one noticing the Lakers progress this season, ESPN.com was full of "just how good ARE these Lakers, anyway?" stories the past two days, and the consensus seems to be that these Lakers could potentially challenge Phoenix for the Pacific Division lead (they only trail by one game at the moment), and should get past the 1st round of the playoffs without a problem. At the beginning of the season it was a question of if they would make the playoffs (when the question wasn't where they would ship Kobe to and what they'd get in return), now that doesn't seem in doubt. Instead the question seems to be whether or not any team in the Western Conference other than the San Antonio Spurs beat this team in a best of seven playoff.

There's a lot of basketball left to play, but if Andrew Bynum continues what he's doing, if Kobe stays gruntled, and their bench continues to hit open jumpers at a high percentage, than this is a formidable, young, talented basketball team.

ESPN has this silly tool that calculates teams odds of making the playoffs and performance in the playoffs based on running 5000 simulations of every game the rest of the way. Right now, the Lakers sit atop their Western Conference playoff projections (can only link the current results, so this may change over time). Their odds of making the playoffs stand at 99.6%, while their odds of finishing as the No.1 seed in the Western Conference is a respectable 32.9% (slightly better than San Antonio at 32.7%). Also, they have a 26.5% chance of making it to the finals, and about a 95.5% chance of getting beaten like a drum by either the Boston Celtics (they have a ridiculous 60.5% chance of winning it all, and even a 12.2% chance of matching or doing even better than the 72-10 record set by the Bulls) or Detroit Pistons (an impressive 20.5% chance to win it all) when they meet in an 80s flashback finals (or an 80s and 00s flashback final in the case of a Pistons-Lakers match-up). That playoff projection thing is interesting (Hollinger does a great job of explaining the strengths and weaknesses of these projections), but mostly worthless (case in point, there are 9 teams in the West with a better than 50% chance of making the playoffs). It takes a snapshot of current play, and projects it for the remaining games, but rarely do teams play that consistently throughout a season, slumps and hot streaks happen for all teams (except for Minnesota and New York, I don't expect either of them to experience anything resembling a hot streak this season).

But a bigger story than the Lakers is Portland. Where'd they come from? They lose Oden before the season starts, stumble to 5-12 and still rattle of 10 straight wins? How is that possible, and which team are they, the 5-12 team or the 10-0 team?

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