Commentary

PER Diem: Dec. 5, 2008

The Lakers, Celtics and Cavs all have a chance to eclipse the 70-plus win plateau.

Updated: December 5, 2008, 2:50 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Paul Pierce and LeBron JamesSteve Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe competition between Pierce's Celtics and LeBron's Cavaliers might drive both teams to 70 wins.

We've heard the whispers all season: Can the Lakers win 70?

With the L.A. juggernaut off to a 15-2 start that includes an average scoring margin of a staggering 12.8 points per game, and with the Lakers adding star center Andrew Bynum to a mix that already was good enough to win the West a year ago, it's becoming an increasingly relevant question to ask.

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Certainly the capability seems there. The Lakers have one of the game's best players in Kobe Bryant, two All-Star caliber big men in Bynum and Pau Gasol, and a second unit so capable that it could probably make the Eastern Conference playoffs on its own.

While Lakers coach Phil Jackson downplayed his team's chances of winning 70 this week, noting the difficulty of the travel for Western Conference teams, the Playoff Odds still see a chance for L.A. In playing out 5,000 simulated seasons, the Playoff Odds have the Lakers winning 70 or more games 515 times, or 10.3 percent of the time (see chart).

Odds of winning 70+ games*

Team Winning 70+ Winning 72+ Winning 73+
Cavaliers 20.8% 9.4% 5.1%
Lakers 10.3% 3.7% 2.0%
Celtics 5.9% 2.6% 1.2%
* Based on Playoff Odds tool, through Wednesday's games

As for equaling the 1995-96 Bulls' mark of 72-10, the Lakers pull that feat off in 187 instances, or 3.7 percent of the time. And to win 73 or more games is still faintly possible as well -- they did so in 2 percent of the simulations.

Of course, there's one problem with that analysis: It ignores strategic considerations. Several recent teams have seemed on pace to break the 70 barrier, only to fall short when they began resting their starters in anticipation of the playoffs. With nobody pushing L.A. for second in the Western Conference, it appears likely they'll be following the same blueprint. Since even the littlest bit of late-season backsliding makes the goal of winning 70 far more daunting, it stands to reason that the Lakers' odds are really much lower than the ones I stated above.

In fact, the ideal scenario for a team to win 70 or more would be a situation where a great team has a second team closely pushing it for the conference's top seed, because then each team has an incentive to keep playing its top performers heavy minutes straight through April. In the absence of a once-a-century collection of talent and chemistry like Jackson's Bulls had, winning 70 requires more than a great team -- it also requires great competition.

That's why what's happening in the East is so interesting. Boston (18-2) and Cleveland (15-3) have already run away from the rest of the conference, and both are on pace to threaten the 70-win plateau. For each, the best chance of breaking through would be if the other stays close enough to push them through April. So far, it seems we might be headed for that outcome.

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According to the Playoff Odds, it's Cleveland, not L.A. or Boston, that has the best chance of breaking the 70-win barrier. The Cavs did so in 20.8 percent of the simulations, giving them better than 1-in-5 odds. They match Jordan's 72-win team in 9.4 percent, and break the record with 73 or more in 5.1 percent.

Boston is right behind them, projecting to win 70 or more games 5.9 percent of the time, and busting through with 73 in 1.2 percent of simulations. And because the Celtics and Cavs can push each other all winter long, these odds seem a bit more realistic than the ones for the Lakers.

Of course, by far the most likely outcome remains that nobody wins 70. Today's Playoff Odds see all three clubs settling between 62 and 66 wins, which makes sense -- while everything has gone right for the league's power trio so far, too many things can go awry in an 82-game grind for a 70-win season to be probable.

Besides, the ultimate goal is to be on top not in April, but in June. Even if Boston and Cleveland are fighting for the East's top seed, neither club should be expected to sacrifice its chances in May and June just to scratch out an extra W in February. That's why the Bulls' 72-10 mark was such an extraordinary achievement -- and why, even with two dominant Eastern teams pushing each other, both are likely to fall short of it.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.