After months of disappointment, the Los Angeles Lakers are now officially one of the top eight teams in the Western Conference standings. Although they hold just a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz for the final playoff spot, there's a growing sense that the Lakers have turned things around and are becoming something akin to the juggernaut many predicted they'd be in the preseason.
The prevailing assumption is now that they'll hold onto a playoff spot and present a unique challenge to a highly seeded team in the first round. Kobe Bryant, not surprisingly, thinks they are going to be a factor. From an interview on The Dan Patrick Show, as transcribed by Sports Radio Interviews:
Finish this statement, if we make the playoffs:
“We’re going to be a huge problem.”
While this statement is presented as a hypothetical, it's not a big stretch to imagine that Kobe believes this to be fact rather than a mere possibility. It is not news for a legendarily great athlete to have this sort of confidence, and I don't think it's worth using this statement to reflect on Bryant's level of rationality as it applies to the rest of this NBA season.
Yet his comment does give us an opportunity to address just what the Lakers have accomplished and their prospects in the postseason. At Eye on Basketball, Zach Harper provides a handy overview of their push to get back into the West's playoff picture:
As currently constructed, the Lakers are playing really solid basketball over their past 23 games. Since their loss to drop them eight games under .500, the Lakers have the fifth best record in the NBA. They also have the 10th best net differential and are the fifth best defensive rebounding team. Their defense is still pretty middle of the road, but they're managing to end a lot more defensive possessions than they were prior to the turnaround.
During this stretch, the Lakers are also just 5-5 against playoff teams and 1-3 against Western Conference playoff teams. They've taken advantage of a weaker schedule, but that's the first step they need to take before they can think about taking on the best of the best in their conference.
Zach goes on to suggest that Pau Gasol could be the key to the Lakers performing above their seeding in the postseason, which is both sensible — he's pretty good — and problematic — they've had a hard enough time getting Kobe, Dwight Howard, and Steve Nash to look comfortable with each other over several months. If we take the (arguably foolish) conservative view and assume that the Lakers won't change much over the next few weeks, it's interesting to consider exactly what the team has done in recent games. As Zach notes, they've been good but not on the level of an obvious contender. By any normal definition, that's the mark of a solid playoff team, not a looming force that can obviously outplay a top seed on the strength of its talent.
There are reasons to think that the Lakers can continually improve and get to that point before the middle of April. Still, it's more likely that they'll need even more time to get better — not to mention to reintegrate Gasol into their plans. No one wants to play the Spurs or Thunder in the first round, because those teams have proven their abilities over the entire season. As Yahoo!'s own Marc Spears says in this clip, it's likely that the Lakers need to improve their seeding to make the noise they think they can. They're still a work in progress, and that means they need all the time they can get to reach the level most of us expected them to hit months ago.