It's tight up at the top
Given that we were all in the same room together about 13 hours earlier, that there wasn't much news coming out of Lakers practice today isn't exactly a shock. PJ's press time included words on Andrew Bynum (who later sat with Jim Hill, shooting a feature piece, I imagine), the road trip (the goal is two wins, but they want to make sure they get the first, then show up ready to play in the second), and Kobe's poor shooting of late (nothing to panic about). He also touched the small forward situation. This was interesting, in that Jackson elaborated on how he might treat the starting gig going forward. Looks like there could be a matchup based platoon (Download phil_jackson_1.7.mp3):
"I would guess that's the probably the way we're going to go. I'm tempted to start (Ariza) him against Memphis because Rudy Gay is such an athlete, and playing at a high level right now. Luke hasn't had an opportunity to gather in on him and play him very many times. Trevor might have more knowledge of (Gay) than Luke. But we'll see."
So there's a conversation starter. But given the slow news day, I was curious about the larger issue of how the Western Conference is starting to shake out. Whereas in seasons past, the depth of the west was such that it threatened to keep even good teams out of the playoffs, this year, the gap between haves and have nots has grown in a big, bad way. The middle class has grown quite wee (and should get smaller when Utah, as I assume they will, gets their act together). Seven teams currently have 20+ wins, and Golden State is one victory away. No team in the top eight is worse than 6-4 over their last 10.
On the flip side, five have 12 or fewer, and none is better than 3-7 in the same stretch. It's a whole new reality that will impact where teams finish heading into the playoffs.
Lamar Odom isn't willing to write anyone off (Download lamar_odom_1.7.mp3). "Some of the teams, you can't look at their record," he said. "Even if they might not be playoff bound, a lot of these teams give themselves a chance to win. Every night you have to come and play in the Western Conference if you want to position yourself for the playoffs."
Which brings me to my next point. There are two games on the sked for the mini roadie the Lakers left for today. The New Orleans game on Wednesday is clearly the marquee matchup, and one that should be a lot of fun to watch. But I'd argue that in many ways, especially as it relates to piling up enough wins to land a good seed come springtime, that Tuesday's game against Memphis is the more important game. That the Lakers have had good early success against quality teams like Denver, Detroit and Phoenix is a good omen, and shows they run with anyone. But even the best teams can't expect to win every time they play the high class squads across the NBA.
What will likely determine where teams are seeded in the playoffs will be their record against non-playoff competition, in both the east and west. Each game a contender loses against the weak sisters is one that has to be made up against a titan. "Every game is imperative," Odom said, in reference to not looking past anyone.
I'm not talking about which teams are better- I'd take the Lakers over Denver in a seven game series without blinking- just where they finish in the standings. And obviously there's value in beating good teams. I don't think anyone would give back a win against the Spurs, for example, and teams can make big moves on the strength of those head-to-head wins. The point is that if the Lakers take care of business against Memphis (twice), Milwaukee, and Seattle between now and the 17th, it means a split of the rough games they have between the 18th and February 1- that's Phoenix, Denver, San Antonio, Dallas, and Detroit (throw Cleveland in there if you want) likely won't hurt them in the standings.
Teams with good records get there by dominating lesser competition. So while we all look forward to the marquee matchups, it's important not to gloss over wins like the Lakers picked up Friday and Sunday as insignificant. Beating Philly and Indy may not be a true indication of how good the Lakers actually are, but wins like those will go a long way towards determining where they finish in April.