Lakers Widen Lead in West

Kenyon Martin - Dirk NowitzkiThough the Lakers (31-9) have yet to play their best basketball, the defending champions have widened their lead in the Western Conference to five games over second place Dallas and Denver (both 26-14).

Various injuries to Pau Gasol (hamstring), Kobe Bryant (back, finger, etc.), Ron Artest (finger, head, foot) and Luke Walton (back) have limited L.A.’s chances to play at top form, at times affecting the W/L column. Other times – as is customary and necessary in the grueling 82-game schedule – the Lakers simply haven’t played well irrespective of injuries, particularly in January losses to Portland, the Clippers and San Antonio.

Yet the purple and gold won their other six games in January (and final game of December), including an impressive road win in Dallas last Wednesday and a 40-point thumping of the Clips at home on Friday. Meanwhile, none of the other teams currently occupying playoff slots in the West have fared better than 6-4 in their last 10, so L.A.’s 7-3 has afforded a degree of midseason* breathing room:
*Don’t look now, but the regular season is nearly halfway over.

Rank, Team: Record, Win %, Games Back
1) L.A. Lakers: 31-9, .775, 0.0
2) Dallas: 26-14, .650, 5.0
3) Denver: 26-14, .650, 5.0
4) San Antonio: 24-15, .615, 6.5
5) Portland: 25-16, .610, 6.5
6) Phoenix: 24-17, .585, 7.5
7) Utah: 23-18, .561, 8.5
T8) Houston: 22-18, .550, 9.0
T8) Oklahoma City: 22-18, .550, 9.0

Shannon Brown- DirkDallas had been within three games of the Lakers before losing twice this month to L.A. and finishing 5-5 in their last 10; Denver beat Utah on Sunday evening to tie Dallas and win for the sixth time in 10 games; San Antonio and Portland both are 6-4 in their last 10 to keep pace; the Suns and Jazz, like Dallas, have gone 5-5, with Phoenix losing three straight; while Houston (4-6) has dropped steadily in the standings while the Thunder have risen (6-4).

What exactly does a 5-game lead signify?

In some ways, a 5-game lead is like a 10-game lead since wins and losses affect teams by a half game. Each win improves a team by .5 a game, and each loss knocks off a .5 game. So if the Lakers win their next game, they’d improve to a 5.5-game lead over Denver and Dallas, then either go up to 6.0 or down to 5.0 depending on the results of the Nuggets and Mavericks.

That the Lakers have a decent cushion comes at a good time, since the team is about to embark on its longest road trip of the season, an 8-game swing through the East Coast that includes stops in Cleveland, Boston, Toronto and New York.

In the Eastern Conference, there’s more parity at the top, with the 31-11 Cavs holding just a 2.0-game lead over Boston (27-11), 3.5-game lead over Atlanta (26-13) and 4.0-game margin over Orlando (26-14), whom the Lakers face on Monday night.

We’ll be there to cover the action on