West thin on real threats to Lakers
First, the Lakers have the rest of the regular season. "Fulfilling the obligation of an 82-game schedule" is how Phil Jackson so indolently describes it.
Second, there will be the Western Conference playoffs, a fact confirmed by several NBA front-office sources. We could be breaking news with that statement considering no one has written a word about the Lakers facing anyone in the postseason but Boston or Cleveland.
The Lakers' upcoming week in Portland, Houston and San Antonio will be a tour of what might await in those West playoffs. (One big reason why the Lakers are looking awfully good for the best regular-season record over Boston and Cleveland, by the way: After the coming week, the Lakers will have just one road game against a high-quality opponent in the final 4 ½ weeks of the regular season, and that doesn't come until a week before the playoffs (April 10 at Portland).
There are eight teams in the West jostling for seven playoff slots behind the Lakers. It's a weird race in which the team currently on the outside looking in, Phoenix, is closer to moving from No. 9 to No. 2 (7 ½ games away) than No. 2 San Antonio is to the No. 1 Lakers (8 ½ games away).
"It's pretty crazy," Kobe Bryant said. "At 1 vs. 8 (for the Lakers' opening playoff series), you could have anyone – Phoenix, Houston, New Orleans, Utah. It's unheard of."
But you can't believe everything Bryant says in this regard, because he (rightly in the old-school sense and so wrongly in the real-world sense) says that every team is a "threat."
• Phoenix is not a threat. The Suns can't defend and will be weary, if they make it, from a playoff push after a tumultuous season, rare coaching upheaval and the high-maintenance, low-brainpower and eye injury of Amare Stoudemire.
• Dallas is not a threat. No NBA player has emanated more negative energy this season than Josh Howard. The Mavericks have lost by 24 to the Nets, 27 to the Jazz, 28 to the Suns and 34 to the Bucks. The lack of effort has Mark Cuban threatening to fire everyone – and maybe he should because Rick Carlisle is a competent coach.
• Portland is not a threat. Portland is 1-12 on the road against the eight other teams in this West playoff mix. The complete absence of playoff experience is a deal-breaker anyway.
• Denver is not a threat. This is true even though it is entirely possible Denver could beat out San Antonio for the No. 2 seed (and home-court advantage in a Western Conference semifinal series vs. the Spurs for the right to face the Lakers), because the Nuggets' remaining schedule is the most favorable in the NBA. Yet there's no way the Lakers are losing a series to the Nuggets, who are messed up in the head from all the past beatings the Lakers have laid on them.
That leaves San Antonio, Utah, Houston and New Orleans. With these teams, there is at least enough reason for concern that the TV commentators don't necessarily need to prepare some Adam Morrison background-material filler.
• New Orleans has an overrated supporting cast but still has Chris Paul, who is so good that you never know what could happen. The Hornets were expected to make noise this season but have underachieved, and those teams step up their game in the playoffs.
• Houston is a professional, intelligent team with real weapons in Yao Ming and Ron Artest. It'll be appropriate given what a bust Tracy McGrady's tenure in Houston has been for the Rockets to enjoy some postseason success the year McGrady has microfracture knee surgery.
• Utah has won 10 consecutive games, including some notable ones over the Lakers, Celtics, Hornets, Rockets and Nuggets. The Jazz is healthy for the first time all season and is determined to finish at least with the No. 4 seed. If not for a daunting schedule (10 of Utah's remaining 20 games are on the road against winning teams – and Utah isn't much on the road), Utah would be the favorite to move up to No. 2. The Jazz might well make it there anyway.
• San Antonio … again?! Did you happen to notice that with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili resting their injuries recently (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doesn't even "fulfill the obligation of the 82-game season" with the way he prepares only for the postseason), skinny Tony Parker morphed into LeBron James? Parker averaged 38 points on 54.2 percent shooting and 10.5 assists in victories on consecutive nights over Dallas and Portland.
The Spurs are a little more reliant on 3-pointers and aren't as nasty on defense, but they still really know how to play. If Ginobili's ankle hadn't been so bad last spring, it's conceivable that San Antonio would've exposed the Lakers' lack of inner toughness before Boston came around.
This season, though, the Lakers rightfully will have a simple goal of dispatching these West teams with alacrity – minimizing the risk for game-intensity injury and maximizing the practice time for Andrew Bynum's reintegration. The Lakers are lording over the West, but San Antonio stands alone as the only team in the West that could possibly win a series over them.