Wednesday, August 10 2022
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The Los Angeles Lakers opened the 2021-22 NBA season as Western Conference favorites. They’ve steadily tumbled down the leaderboard since. They’ve now fallen to seventh, as Caesars Sportsbook is offering +2000 odds on the Lakers reaching the Finals. The Lakers would love to be in seventh place in the standings right now. In actuality, they’ve tumbled all the way to No. 9. Their position there is not even a certainty.

The Lakers (28-36) have just 18 games to turn things around, and with only a bit more than a month left in the regular season, it’s time to take a look at what is realistically possible for the opening night Western Conference favorites by the time the standings lock. Spoiler alert: It’s not looking good.

Can the Lakers avoid the play-in round?

No. Rarely does it make sense to issue such firm proclamations when it comes to the standings. After all, it took the Brooklyn Nets only 17 days to fall from No. 1 to No. 8 in the Eastern Conference earlier this season. One hot streak can usually change everything. It can’t for the Lakers.

As it stands right now, the Lakers trail the No. 6 seeded Denver Nuggets by 10.5 games. If the Lakers were to win their last 18 games, they’d need the Nuggets to lose at least 10 out of their final 17 games, including both of their remaining head-to-head matchups. That is not happening. The Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors all have even bigger cushions. The Lakers cannot mathematically catch the top-seeded Phoenix Suns. So no, the Lakers will not eke their way into the top six.

OK, fine, can they at least sneak into the top eight?

As the No. 7 seed a year ago, the Lakers had a relatively clear path into the postseason. They opened the play-in round at home against the Warriors. A win pushed them into the playoffs. A loss would have netted them another home game against the Grizzlies. The path this year is probably going to be more complicated. The Lakers don’t have much of a shot at catching the Minnesota Timberwolves at No. 7.

Those Timberwolves lead the Lakers by eight games in the standings. If you doubt their ability to catch Denver, Minnesota is probably out of reach as well. The Wolves have already beaten the Lakers twice, and if they win their next matchup, they’ll secure the tiebreaker as well. Things start to look slightly more attainable when you slide down to No. 8.

The Los Angeles Clippers currently occupy that position, and while passing them would not earn them home court against the Timberwolves in the first play-in matchup, it would at least give them two bites at the apple. The Clippers lead the Lakers by 4.5 games in the standings and have already clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker. That makes them the heavy favorite to finish No. 8, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Lakers could catch them, especially since they trail their Staples Center co-tenants by only three games in the loss column. That gives the Lakers slightly more control over the situation, but in all likelihood, the Lakers aren’t finishing in the top eight.

So … the Lakers aren’t finishing in the top eight … what happens then?

A year ago, LeBron James said that whoever came up with the play-in concept “needs to be fired.” Now, it might be his team’s salvation. As recently as 2019, his ninth-seeded Lakers would have missed the postseason entirely. Now, he at least could have a chance to sneak in. As the No. 9 seed, the Lakers would host the No. 10 seed in the first play-in game on the Western Conference schedule. The winner of that game would go on to play the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game at that team’s home stadium.

But are the Lakers a lock for No. 9? Not in the slightest. The New Orleans Pelicans are gaining on them and trail by only 1.5 games as of this writing. The two sides still have two games against one another, so not only is the tiebreaker up for grabs, but both can seriously impact the other’s place in the standings. At this stage, a Lakers-Pelicans matchup in the No. 9 vs. No. 10 matchup is likely. It’s mostly a matter of figuring out who’s going to host it. That is, unless someone winds up crashing the party.

The Lakers can’t miss the play-in entirely … right?

Probably not, but stranger things have happened (especially to this Lakers team). The Portland Trail Blazers at No. 11 are only three games behind the Lakers, but they are so decimated by injuries and so incentivized to tank that they have effectively taken themselves out of the running. The same cannot be said of the San Antonio Spurs, who beat the Lakers on Monday and trail them by only 3.5 games at this stage. 

Monday’s win was especially important for San Antonio if it hopes to catch up. It tied the season series between the Lakers and Spurs at 2-2, pushing them down to conference record as the next tiebreaker. Right now, the Spurs (15-22) have a slight advantage over the Lakers (16-24). Those records are still being formed and it will only matter if they tie. That’s possible. The Lakers have the NBA’s hardest remaining schedule. The Spurs are closer to the middle. San Antonio is healthier. Gregg Popovich would love nothing more than to embarrass his old nemeses in Los Angeles. For now, though, that gap appears wide enough to significantly favor the Lakers. As of right now, FiveThirtyEight’s projection model has the Lakers just barely edging past the Spurs with a 34-48 record compared to a projected 33-49 finish for San Antonio. 

If the Pelicans hit their projected mark of 37-45, the Lakers would have a very difficult path into the playoffs. They would first have to win in New Orleans as the No. 10 seed, and then they would have to defeat either the Clippers or Timberwolves in a second road game just to squeak into the No. 8 seed. Even if they manage to do all of that, their reward would be a first-round date with the top-seeded Suns. Suffice it to say the Lakers probably won’t be living up to their preseason Western Conference Favorite status. 



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