Looking Atop LAL in the West

Before the season started, not even the biggest cynic (or Celtics fan) would have believed that the Lakers would have a 17-24 record exactly halfway through the 2012-13 campaign.

But after losing its first six and last three games in January (2-9 overall), L.A. has fallen to a season-low seven games under .500, a full four games out of the eighth and final playoff spot (Houston, 22-21).

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Injuries have robbed the Lakers of 24 games of Steve Nash and 13 of Pau Gasol, plus three from Dwight Howard, much of the season to Steve Blake and the rest of the season for Jordan Hill. A coaching change thrust an unfamiliar system upon the players five games in when Mike D’Antoni replaced Mike Brown, well before Nash returned, and players have struggled to get on the same page. The defense has just been bad (19th in defensive efficiency). Howard hasn’t looked close to the dominant player that made him a constant All-NBA 1st Teamer on either end of the floor, Kobe Bryant has tired in the past three games after shooting career-high percentages up to that point … and so on, and so forth.

For now, here’s a look at the Western standings, to see what the Lakers are looking at in a second half of a season-gone-wrong that they’re hoping to redeem.

SITTING PRETTY
1, 2, 3: Oklahoma City (32-9), L.A. Clippers (32-10) and San Antonio (33-11)
- It will be very difficult for anyone, let alone a Lakers’ team that’s 13 games behind the Spurs in the loss column, to catch these three. Neither of these teams has had a troubling stretch of play, and each display terrific on-court chemistry.

COMFORTABLE:
4, 5, 6: Memphis (26-14), Golden State (25-15) and Denver (25-18)
- L.A.’s Wednesday night opponent, the Grizzlies have slipped a bit, losing four of their last six games, and just made a trade with Cleveland through which they lose reserves Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington, but remain 10 games ahead of the Lakers in the loss column, a big number with 41 games to go.
- GSW have impressed considerably without center Andrew Bogut even while losing both games to the Lakers, and have showed consistent effort on both ends all season.
- Denver ably navigated the league’s toughest schedule to start the season and has won 7 of 10 games to pull seven games ahead of L.A., though the schedule difficulty has evened out a bit. According to ESPN.com, L.A. have played the 7th toughest schedule, and Denver the 4th. Yet the Nuggets may have the best chance of moving up should one of the top four current teams slip.

BORDERLINE:
7, 8: Utah (22-19), Houston (22-21) and then Portland (20-21), Minnesota (17-21) and Dallas (18-24)
- The Jazz have already beaten the Lakers twice, once at home and once on the road, not to mention twice in the preseason, and play L.A. only once more (next week at home). They’re up five in the L column.
- Houston, Portland and Minnesota have all struggled just as badly as the Lakers in January. The Rockets just snapped a 7-game losing streak with a narrow win at Charlotte (who hasn’t won a home game forever) and are only three games ahead of the Lakers in the loss column. Portland really struggles to get bench production, and have lost six straight. Minnesota is maybe the only team that’s been more affected by injuries than the Lakers, and has dropped seven of 10. In theory, L.A.’s sense-of-urgency pedal – at least mathematically – has thus needed to be pressed a bit more lightly than it could have been.
- On the other hand, Dallas is the lone team in this group playing well right now, as they’ve won five of six games and gotten Dirk Nowitzki back, enough to pull a half game ahead of the Lakers in the standings.

With all that laid out, the major point for the Lakers is simple: if they find themselves collectively, the playoffs are well within reach regardless of what number of wins may be required. And once there, a road victory in Game 1 or Game 2 of the first round can make up for much of the regular season struggles.

Of course, that L.A. turns it around as such is absolutely no guarantee; yet the opportunity is there with 41 games to go.