Imagine a fifth seed in the NBA playoffs that went 39-13 after a slow start, the second-best record in the league over that stretch. Not only that, but this team has a center who dominates in all facets of the game and a guard who is probably the best one-on-one player in the league. And those two are surrounded by veteran role players who while unspectacular are tough, smart and playoff-tested. The coach has helmed nine championship teams.
If this team had come up to that level after several years of losing, it would be the hippest pick in punditland, everybody's dark-horse choice to go all the way. "You might not know about these guys," the chatterers would be chattering all over your cable dial, "but watch out, they're pretty good!"
Of course you're way ahead of me and you know I'm talking about the Los Angeles Lakers, who have come down, not up, to this state of affairs after winning the last three NBA crowns while breaking a sweat only when playing the Sacramento Kings, and even then they didn't sweat so much as perspire regally.
When the playoffs start Saturday, the Lakers are a better bet to win it all than they would have been if they weren't the three-time defending champs, precisely because they know how to win. They're built, after all, for the postseason, with its emphasis on interior play.
If you wanted to create a playoff team in a lab, you'd start with a big man who's unstoppable at both ends of the floor -- a guy like Shaquille O'Neal comes to mind. You'd add an improvisational genius who can prevent the defense from collapsing to the middle and can score from any point west of the 10-second line in a pinch -- I'm thinking of someone in the Kobe Bryant mold here. Then you'd add some guys who can play tight defense, rebound, pass, hit a jump shot when necessary and not turn the ball over too often, and install an offense that's flexible enough to adjust to whatever defense you throw at it. Voilà! The Lakers.
To the extent that the Lakers aren't the hottest pick in town -- and to be fair, they're not being totally ignored -- it's because of their 11-19 start, accomplished mostly without the services of O'Neal, who missed the first 12 games of the year with an injury. The Lakers went 3-9 without him, then 8-10 while he got into the swing of things. And then they won three out of every four games over the last four months. The poor start left them with a mediocre 50-32 overall record, so it seems like they're having kind of a down year. They're not. Once they got going, they were better than everybody else but the San Antonio Spurs, who went 42-11 after Dec. 28 to finish 60-22, tied with the Dallas Mavericks for best record in the league.
Can we just throw out the first 30 games of the season when assessing the playoffs? Yes, and while we're at it, let's throw out the next 52.
Well, OK, not quite. Regular readers know that I cheerfully hold two contradictory opinions about the NBA. The first is that the regular season is meaningless, that the 82-game schedule just completed is roughly equivalent to spring training. The second is that the first round of the NBA playoffs is one of the least competitive endeavors in American professional sports, because the top seeds -- determined by regular-season records -- almost always win.
The NBA went to the current playoff format in 1984, with the top seed in each conference playing the eighth seed, 2 vs. 7 and so on. Since then, the 6, 7 and 8 seeds have won 16 series and lost 98. That's a winning percentage of .140. To give you an idea how bad that is, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets, this year's worst teams, went 17-65, a .207 winning percentage. The only team in the last 10 years that's played worse than .140 was the 1997-98 Nuggets, who went 11-71 for .134. Let me put it another way: You were more likely to see this year's Toronto Raptors win a road game than you are to see an upset in the first round of the NBA playoffs. (Fourth and fifth seeds tend to be roughly equal, so an upset is rarely possible in those series.)
It gets worse as you look closer. Eighth seeds have won two of 38 series against top seeds. That's a winning percentage of .053. The odds are significantly greater that you will get an ace if you draw a card at random from a full deck. Betting on a two-number split in roulette carries better odds than betting on an eighth seed in the NBA playoffs.
And the new rule this year that expands the first round from best-of-five to best-of-seven will make upsets even more rare, not to mention the first round even more boring.
But the regular season can't be totally meaningless if so much depends on seedings in the first round of the playoffs. So here's my unifying theory: The regular season has some meaning on a macro level, but not on a micro level. In other words, trying to glean anything from a particular game or even a short stretch of games in the regular season is a fool's errand, but over time, patterns emerge.
The season is so long and decides so little: Only 13 of the 29 teams in the league fail to make the playoffs, and by Thanksgiving it's obvious who at least eight or nine of those teams are. Playoff-bound teams spend six months doing nothing more than jockeying for position. They're bound to have some nights where the fire just isn't burning. But by the end of the year, the teams at the top of the standings are pretty much the best teams -- and by the end of the year I mean the end of the calendar year. Remember we were talking about Dec. 28? The Lakers excepted, the standings that day looked pretty much like the standings after Thursday night's season finale.
So you'll hear about how the Phoenix Suns, the eighth seed in the West, won three out of four this year from the San Antonio Spurs, the top seed and their first-round opponent. Doesn't mean a thing. The Suns are not going to beat the Spurs in the playoffs.
Another thing that's not going to happen is the Lakers, who are like a 2 seed disguised as a 5, losing in the first round to the Minnesota Timberwolves, seeded fourth. O'Neal's wife, Shaunie, is due to have a baby any day, and O'Neal has said he'd miss a game to be with her if he had to. Go, Shaq, enjoy. It won't matter.
And one more thing that won't happen is the champion coming from the Eastern Conference. The absurd imbalance of power favoring the West, nothing more than a historical anomaly, I think, continues in the NBA. Detroit, the best team in the East, had a 50-32 record, same as the Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers, who tied for the fifth-best record in the West. But don't be fooled. The Pistons aren't in the same class. Literally.
Detroit compiled most of its record against weak Eastern teams. What difference does that make? Detroit, New Jersey and New Orleans were the only Eastern teams that had a winning record against the West, and they all just scraped by at 15-13. Compare that to Dallas going 26-4 against the East, San Antonio 24-6, Sacramento 23-7. Everybody in the West except Denver, Seattle and the Clippers had a winning record against the East. If you're looking for a team of roughly Detroit's quality in the Western Conference, try Phoenix.
So the champion will come from the West. It won't be Dallas, a team that, like an anti-Lakers, is built for the regular season, with a run-and-gun offense, a weak interior defense, and in Don Nelson a coach who -- you heard it right here -- will never win an NBA title. That leaves the Spurs, who won 60 games and have likely MVP Tim Duncan, along with the Kings and the Lakers, who played a classic conference final series last year. My pick should be obvious from the 1,400 words that have preceded this sentence.
They came within a Game 7 choke of beating the Lakers last year, and they're better, deeper this year. I think the two will meet in the conference finals again after the Lakers knock off the Spurs -- who don't have enough talent besides Duncan -- and the Kings beat the Mavs in the second round. If the Kings can get over the mental hurdle that the other team is the Lakers, I think they have just enough to win.
It's usually not smart to bet against the champs until someone proves they can be beaten, but look at it this way: The Lakers only won 50 games this year.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
I'll be on a leave of absence for the next month performing parental duties for my son, Buster, who would be the Kobe Bryant of cute if Kobe Bryant weren't the Kobe Bryant of cute. I'll rejoin you around conference finals time, and I promise you hockey fans out there that I'll write something about the Stanley Cup playoffs before they end.