Raise your hand if you thought the Los Angeles Lakers would be struggling to get a playoff spot after trading for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Okay, now put your hands down because you're all liars.
Last offseason saw the Lakers put together what looked like a truly dominant team. Dwight Howard was the best pick and roll big man in the NBA. Steve Nash was the best pick and roll ball handler. And they were going to be playing together in Hollywood -- along with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. It looked like a team that would cruise through the regular season and be a force in the postseason. The size of Gasol and Howard would give the Miami Heat trouble and challenge for an NBA championship. That's what most people thought and I don't blame them.
But when we snap back to reality, the Lakers find themselves sitting at 32-31 on March 9th and on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. The Utah Jazz lead the Lakers by just half of a game at 32-30, however. And John Hollinger's algorithm has the Lakers at a 55.1% chance to make the postseason.
Who cares about the Lakers?
So why is this relevant on a Cleveland Cavaliers blog? Am I just writing an article about the Lakers because it's guaranteed to get more page views than an article about Shaun Livingston? Well yes, but it is actually relevant as well.
At last season's trade deadline, the Cavaliers and Lakers made a deal. The Cavs sent point guard Ramon Sessions to the Lakers in exchange for a 2012 first round draft pick. As you probably know, the Cavs made another deal on draft day and turned that Lakers pick into Tyler Zeller. But because Chris Grant is super sneaky, he also got something else out of this deal with the Lakers. They got the ability to swap first round picks with the Lakers in the 2013 NBA draft. However, this ability is top-14 protected. That is to say, if the Lakers don't make the playoffs, the Cavaliers lose this little bonus.
Wait, so we might lose our draft pick?
A common misconception is that the Cavaliers actually got the Lakers' 2013 first round pick -- and it's just lottery protected. That's not the case. Cleveland currently owns the Miami Heat's 2013 first round pick and the ability that the Cavs got from the Lakers would simply allow them to swap the Miami pick with the Lakers' pick. If the Lakers miss the playoffs, the Cavs don't really lose anything. They simply miss out on that sneaky bonus. At the beginning of the season, there was little reason to think that the ability to swap picks would be worth much of anything. The Heat would probably be among the top 3 or 4 teams. I figured that the Lakers would be a few spots worse than them, so the swap would maybe boost the Cavs' pick from 29th to, say, 25th in the upcoming draft. But then once the Lakers started to suck, it got really appealing. If the Lakers just sneak into the playoffs, that could end up being a difference of picking 27th and picking 16th. That's a big difference.
The Lakers have 19 games left and figure to be in a dogfight with the Jazz for that 8th seed. They do seem to have an easier schedule than the Jazz, and you can look at the playoff picture here. But if the past two games are any indication, there's not really such a thing as an easy schedule for the Lakers. They just needed a 25-point comeback to beat the New Orleans Hornets and needed insane Kobe heroics in overtime to beat the Toronto Raptors at home. That doesn't exactly give me confidence to lock in and surefire victories for Los Angeles. And while I'd give LA the edge, they need to take care of business soon because their last 7 games aren't easy at all. Of their last 7 games, they play five of them against real good teams: Grizzlies, Warriors, Clippers, Rockets, Spurs.
The bottom line and what to watch
With the Heat sitting at 46-14 and on a massive win streak, there's a very real chance that their pick is the last one in the first round. Because the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture is worse than in years past, the Lakers could very well end up making the playoffs and having a worse record than the Milwaukee Bucks and everybody else in the Eastern Conference. That's obviously the best case scenario for the Cavaliers. That would mean that the first round pick from Miami suddenly jumps to the 15th pick in the draft.
The Cavs did their part by taking down the Jazz earlier this week, but the Lakers still have some work to do. If I had to guess right now, I'd say that the Lakers will make the playoffs and probably end with a better record than the Bucks as well. That would mean they'd have the 16th pick. But as we've seen so far this year, predicting how the Lakers will play is an exercise in futility.
So the Cavs stand to benefit in a big way if the Lakers end up sneaking into the playoffs. But keep in mind that this is purely a bonus if it happens. At the beginning of the year, nobody expected for the ability to swap picks to be anything substantial. And the actual ability to swap was a total throw-in to begin with. Getting Tyler Zeller, a potentially solid big man for the next 5 to 10 years, in exchange for 3 months of Ramon Sessions was plenty. But for now, I'm rooting for Kobe to will the Lakers into the playoffs. And yes, I feel dirty all over after typing that sentence.