NBA

NBA in 2015: Clippers need playoff help, Lakers need more than that

Figuring the Lakers' best-case scenario in 2015: Ben Bolch looks ahead

Everyone knows market size rarely matters in the NBA. The San Antonio Spurs won their fifth title last season while the Lakers and New York Knicks combined for roughly 12 million in population and zero playoff games.

Who could have seen that coming?

Oh, right. Almost everybody.

The year 2015 doesn't figure to be too different. The Lakers and Knicks will vie for the wrong kind of franchise records and the Spurs' Tim Duncan could catch Michael Jordan in championships before Kobe Bryant. (How crazy do you think that would drive the hyper-competitive Bryant, who admitted during All-Star weekend in 2013 how pleased he was that he had more championship patches than Duncan on his warmup jacket?)

Things are looking up for the Clippers, who already ditched the most notorious owner in professional sports in favor of a lively billionaire who acts as though he's perpetually in the midst of a "Saturday Night Live" skit. Now all they need to do to complete their turnaround is to win their first championship.

LeBron James might have something to say about that if his Cleveland Cavaliers meet the Clippers in the Finals.

"Not two, not three, not four," James could declare, tweaking his famous line for effect, "but ZERO!"

Here's a look at what to expect around the league in the new year:

What's the best-case scenario for the Lakers the rest of this season?

Losses. Lots of them. Topping last season's 27-55 record shouldn't be viewed as progress but regression.

The Lakers need to finish with one of the top five picks after the draft lottery to retain a selection that otherwise goes to Phoenix as part of the Steve Nash trade. (As if the Lakers needed another reminder of what may go down as one of the worst trades in NBA history.)

The Lakers are bad enough to lose plenty of games on their own, but if they are not solidly in possession of one of the league's worst records by the end of March then some crisis management will be needed. Nick Young should develop a mysterious case of general soreness and Coach Byron Scott should replace all of his starters with their counterparts from the D-Fenders, the Lakers' Development League affiliate.

Pairing another top draft pick with a healthy Julius Randle could be the foundation for the next championship era. The Lakers could be on the way to becoming the Lakers again by the 2016-17 season.

Will the Clippers break through and make at least the Western Conference finals?

Depends on their playoff draw. The Clippers match up well with Houston, Portland and Dallas; not so much with San Antonio (too disciplined), Golden State (too splashy) and Memphis (too gritty).

The Clippers will also want to avoid Oklahoma City, a potential first-round matchup because of an injury-plagued start that will probably leave the Thunder with an artificially low seeding.

At some point, though, the Clippers are going to have to beat a team with a better playoff pedigree than their own.

For the Clippers to boldly go past the conference semifinals, Chris Paul must show he can win more than the Battle of L.A. and DeAndre Jordan must stop fading in and out of series as he did last season against the Thunder. Jordan had single-digit rebounding games three times, grabbing only four rebounds in the Clippers' Game 5 collapse. That won't get it done against Andrew Bogut or Marc Gasol.

Has Anthony Davis become the NBA's best player?

Pretty much. The New Orleans Pelicans power forward plays like the creation of a Caltech engineer. Davis combines size, speed and power into a 6-foot-10 package of pure athleticism.

All this, and Davis doesn't even turn 22 until March.

At one point earlier this season, Davis was projected to be worth 8.1 victories to his team at a time when the No. 2 player on the list, Houston's James Harden, was worth 6.2 victories. Davis could become the first player in NBA history to average 25 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals per game.

Sculptors can start perfecting their unibrows for the statue that will one day reside outside New Orleans' Smoothie King Center.

Can James and the Cavaliers win it all in their first year (back) together?

It's like Capt. Ed Hocken told Lt. Frank Drebin in "The Naked Gun," assessing the survival odds of one of their colleagues: "Doctors say Nordberg has a 50-50 chance of living, though there's only a 10% chance of that."

In other words, anything can happen.

Big Threes that are thrown together can pay off immediately (see 2008 Boston Celtics) or not (see 2011 Miami Heat). Here's guessing that this Cavaliers trio won't quite go all the way in its first go-around.

Will the Philadelphia 76ers finish with the worst record in NBA history?

Hmm. How many times do the 76ers play the Lakers the rest of the season? Just kidding. Sort of.

Philadelphia needs nine victories to surpass the winning percentage of the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who went 7-59 to win 10.6% of their games during the last lockout-condensed season.

The 76ers need 10 victories to beat their namesakes from the 1972-73 season, who went 9-73 for the worst record in a full season.

The fate of this team will probably come down to the season's final three weeks, when the 76ers play two games each against the Lakers and New York Knicks and one against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Do notoriously nasty Philly fans dare dream their team can win all five of those games?

Who will be the biggest winners in free agency this summer?

Proponents of the status quo.

LaMarcus Aldridge has essentially committed to staying in Portland with his comment about becoming "the best Blazer ever."

James and Kevin Love won't give up the opportunity to keep playing with each other, even if they fall short of a title this season.

Marc Gasol went from Pau Gasol's chubby little brother to a full-grown force in Memphis, meaning he's unlikely to leave his adopted hometown.

The inertia among top free agents could leave the legendary Lakers and Knicks holding onto a small-time feel for years to come.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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