Sports

Could the Lakers Fall Into the Play-in Tournament?

The path to this season’s NBA title will be daunting, especially for Western Conference contenders. Imagine: First, win a play-in game to make the full postseason bracket, then beat the Suns, Clippers, Jazz, and Bucks in order. Or, try another scenario: Congratulations, this time you’ve avoided the play-in game—but your reward is successive series against the Nuggets, Jazz, and Clippers before the Nets or 76ers in the Finals.

Those would be tough tasks for any team—even the defending champions. And that’s why the Lakers fare so poorly in the first published run of The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine.

The Lakers aren’t playing well right now, as would be expected of any team that lost its two best players to injury. Over their last 10 games, starting with the loss in which LeBron James sprained his ankle, the Lakers are just 4-6. Their only wins have come against the Kings and the depleted Cavaliers, Magic, and Raptors; they have the worst offensive rating of any team in that span, although the defense has held up well.

That slump coincides with hot streaks for the other top teams in the West; the rest of the conference’s top-seven seeds are a combined 45-14 since LeBron’s injury. That disparity has sent the Lakers sliding down the standings, where mighty tricky terrain awaits with the postseason just a month and change away.

As I wrote last week, the NBA has a top tier of eight teams this season. Five of those eight teams play in the West—meaning the only way for the Lakers to avoid facing one of the others in the first round is to land a top-three seed. But given their current standing, injuries, and schedule, the Odds Machine forecasts only an 8 percent chance the Lakers will finish that high.

And the outlook could easily worsen, especially if LeBron and Anthony Davis (Achilles) don’t return soon. This chart shows the odds that the Lakers finish the season in each spot in the standings.

Lakers’ Projected Regular Season Finish

Seed Odds
Seed Odds
1 <1%
2 1%
3 7%
4 18%
5 43%
6 20%
7 10%
8 2%
9+ <1%

Compare that chart to this one, showing the breakdown of every NBA champion and finalist by seed since the introduction of the shot clock. The 1994-95 Rockets are the only champion that entered the playoffs with a 5-seed or higher—the Lakers’ most likely starting point this postseason.

NBA Playoff Performance by Seed in the Shot-Clock Era

Seed Number of Finalists Number of Champions
Seed Number of Finalists Number of Champions
1 80 47
2 30 11
3 13 6
4 5 1
5 1 0
6 2 1
7 0 0
8 1 0

The Lakers’ considerable downside stems from their remaining regular season schedule, which is the fourth-hardest in the league by opponent record and the fifth-hardest by opponent point differential, with injuries factored in. And it’s particularly brutal in the next two and a half weeks, when the Lakers, perhaps without their two stars, play:

  • Miami
  • Brooklyn
  • Boston
  • Utah (twice)
  • Dallas (twice)

The Lakers’ play-in risk is real, and those dual Dallas games, both on the road, could prove crucial for their chances of avoiding it. Right now, the Mavericks are the West’s no. 7 seed, but they’re playing well of late and boast one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules. And they’re only three back of the Lakers in the loss column now—a gap they could all but erase in that back-to-back this month.

(If Dallas wins those two games, it would also have the tiebreaker over the Lakers in the event the two teams finish with the same record. The Lakers are currently 1-1 against both Denver and Portland, with one game remaining against each team to determine those tiebreakers; they’ve already ceded tiebreakers to both the Suns and Clippers, as they’re 0-2 against both.)

L.A. would certainly be heavy favorites to advance in a play-in scenario—they’d have the best team, and almost certainly be in the 7-8 game, meaning they would have two tries to win once—but that’s not the gamble any contender wishes to take in starting a playoff run.

Even if the Lakers stabilize sufficiently to avoid the play-in game, if they fall outside the top four in the conference, they’ll also sacrifice home-court advantage. That’s not a prohibitive loss, but mathematically, we’d expect best-of-seven series between evenly matched teams to go to a Game 7 about 30 percent of the time, and home-court advantage does matter in that situation.

All of this concern comes with the obvious caveat that, well, LeBron is LeBron; some have already begun downplaying the Lakers’ upcoming challenges because James “has been in this position before.” But he actually hasn’t. Zoom out, and it’s clear that barring extreme upsets elsewhere in the bracket, this postseason will force LeBron to travel the toughest road he’s ever traversed to reach the Finals.

Out of the 30 opponents LeBron has vanquished en route to the Finals thus far in his career, only four had a net rating of plus-5 or better, as the Jazz, Suns, Clippers, and Nuggets all do now.

This graph shows every playoff opponent before the Finals in LeBron’s career, measured by regular season net rating. Two relevant takeaways are clear: First, LeBron’s few losses before the Finals have almost all come against great teams; and second, he didn’t face many great teams during his ludicrous Finals streak of the last decade.

Most seasons that LeBron reached the Finals, he didn’t have to face a team with a plus-5 net rating or better to get there. In 2015 and 2018, he had to beat just one each (the Hawks and Raptors, respectively); in 2011, he had to beat two, the Celtics and Bulls. This season, he’ll most likely have to beat three.

That history of rather weak competition isn’t really a knock against LeBron. He can beat only the teams on his schedule, and after all, the Cavaliers, Heat, and Lakers have almost always earned one of the top playoff seeds, facilitating a lighter first-round matchup to ease the start of their playoff runs. But it’s not taking anything away from the 10-time finalist to note that he has been a bit fortunate, on occasion. Just last year, his first in the Western Conference playoffs, there were five great teams in the regular season, and the Lakers didn’t face a single other one all postseason. When the Lakers went up against the Heat in the Finals, two of Miami’s best players suffered injuries in Game 1.

The fact that the other top teams faltered earlier than expected suggests just how arduous the bubble was. The Lakers deserve full credit for navigating those intangible obstacles; their title comes with no asterisks whatsoever. But they were surely thrilled when the Nuggets stormed back against the Clippers in the conference semifinals, removing the conference’s best competition from the Lakers’ path.

This season, conversely, the Nuggets are better, especially after winning the trade deadline with the Aaron Gordon trade. The Suns and Jazz are obviously better, too. The Clippers are just as formidable. All of which conspires to make the West much deeper at the top than a season ago, when it was really a two-team race and one of those teams choked in the conference semifinals.

The Lakers’ pessimistic forecast this postseason arises not because the Odds Machine believes the Lakers are bad, but because it believes the rest of the league’s best teams are so good that LeBron’s path will be harder than ever. Personally, I’d still take a healthy Lakers squad head-to-head against any team in any series. But against four high-caliber opponents in a row, without home-court advantage, and with questionable health for the two stars? That’s a lot of uncertainty stacked up, thus the model’s skepticism.

After last season’s title, LeBron said he believed he’s collected the two “hardest championships in NBA league history,” referring to his 2016 triumph over the 73-win Warriors and his 2020 title. That assessment of the latter stems from the difficulty of the bubble and the state of the world last summer. But just from an on-court perspective, a repeat this summer would actually be the hardest championship of LeBron’s career, from postseason start to finish.

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