by Chris Arena, www.sportsinsights.com
As of this writing, the Los Angeles Lakers (56-14) are 9.5 games up on the second place Houston Rockets in the Western Conference with 12 games left to play. They are all but guaranteed to lock up 1st place in the West with at least a week or two left in the season. The question then becomes, what kind of changes, if any, will be implemented in order to prepare the team for the playoffs, and how will this affect the Lakers in the world of sports gambling?
The best place to look for an answer is the coaching staff, as ultimately it will be up to Phil Jackson to decide whether or not to rest his starters. Another big decision will come when Andrew Bynum is ready to return to the court, as Jackson will have to weigh the wisdom of giving him significant regular season minutes in order to prepare him for the playoffs or holding him out until the playoffs in the hopes that additional rest will lower the risk of re-injury. Thus far, Jackson has taken advantage of nearly every opportunity in the regular season to rest starters. A fourth quarter lead of 10 or more has consistently meant a spot on the bench for Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and this makes it all but certain he will be limiting his starters' minutes down the stretch. Historically, one of Jackson's notable coaching moves has been to spend the regular season improving the skill and confidence of his bench players by occasionally starting them or giving them extended minutes. Players like Trevor Ariza (now starting), Jordan Farmar, and Sasha Vujacic have become part of an extremely talented second unit under Phil Jackson's tutelage, and they should serve the Lakers well as the season winds down.
The Lakers will most likely enter full-on "playoff preparation mode" very soon, benching starters with slight injuries or limiting their minutes and giving bench players additional run, especially in crunch time. It will certainly pay to be aware of this, but at the same time, don't underestimate the talent of the Lakers' bench. Jackson has been very careful to make sure his second unit is cohesive and energetic, able to sustain a lead or provide a spark in key situations. Given the skill level of that unit and consistently excellent coaching, don't be surprised to see the Lakers play competitive basketball through the end of the regular season, with or without big minutes from Bryant and Gasol.
As Monty Python would say, "...and now for something completely different." If the Los Angeles Lakers are the princes of the NBA, the Washington Wizards are the peasants, finding themselves in the undesirable position of being the sole team in the Eastern Conference completely eliminated from playoff contention. Their team is a mess, ravaged by injury and indifference, and their corresponding 17-56 record speaks for itself (in case it doesn't, here's a fun stat - their longest winning streak of the season? 2 games). In the world of NBA basketball, this is a team hardly worth wasting a thought on. However, in the sports betting marketplace, the Wizards are actually quite an interesting subject worth a thought or two.
Despite all their struggles, the Wizards are 4-2 against the spread in their last six games (actual record: 1-5) and have a 38% win record ATS versus 23% in actual play. Overall it has been profitable to fade Washington, but as the season winds down I think there may be some value in backing the Wizards. Bottom-dwelling teams usually play harder as the season wears down, looking to make a "statement" for next year and taking advantage of lackadaisical play from teams who have already clinched playoff positioning. Also, Washington's two main stars, Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas, are expected to be healthy for the season's final few weeks. While the team has done plenty of losing with Butler, the addition of Arenas should help immensely as he fills the "alpha dog" role much better than Butler, who plays much better when not being relied upon as the team's primary scorer.
All in all, I wouldn't mind riding some big underdog lines for the Wizards as the season comes to a close. Arenas is a self-centered player who would like nothing more than to take credit for a late-season surge, and he'll be aiming to do just that. The playoffs are out of the question, and it's certainly a gamble as to whether Arenas and Butler will play on any given day, but you can bet the Wizards will be trying to polish up their ugly record to try to salvage hope (and ticket sales) for 2010.