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Will the Lakers Make the Playoffs? Here's How it Can Happen

The Los Angeles Lakers are easily one of the most underachieving teams in the entire NBA. That’s a tough sentence to write, especially after they won the NBA Championship just over two years ago in October of 2022.

In the LeBron James era, the Lakers have been one giant rollercoaster ride of an NBA franchise. James signed with the Lakers in the summer of 2018 and instantly made the team a championship contender. Expectations went through the roof, but LeBron’s inaugural campaign with the purple and gold was a disappointment, to say the least.

James injured his groin on Christmas Day of that season, and the Lakers spiraled in the standings, missing the playoffs altogether. Things changed in the summer of 2019 when the team acquired All-Star center Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans.

The team instantly gelled and came together. By the All-Star break of 2020, they had the best record in the Western Conference and had their sights set on a NBA-tying 17th championship. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the NBA season came to a screeching halt.

By the time the season resumed over four months later inside a bubble environment at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the Lakers were inconsistent and unreliable, finishing 3-5 in their final eight regular season games before the NBA Playoffs.

Once the playoffs started, the Lakers caught fire, dispatching of any and all opponents that stood in their way. Thanks to a dominant performance by James and Davis in the NBA Finals, the Lake Show defeated the Miami Heat and hoisted their 17th Larry O’Brien trophy.

2020 NBA Finals - Game Six
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates with Quinn Cook #28 of the Los Angeles Lakers and teammates after winning the 2020 NBA Championship in Game Six of the 2020 NBA Finals at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on October 11, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

The following season was marred by injuries. Both James and Davis missed several weeks, but the Lakers still managed to make the playoffs. They held a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series against the Phoenix Suns, but a groin injury to Davis derailed their chances of back-to-back titles and they lost the next three games in blowout fashion.

In the offseason, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka blew up the roster, and traded away championship pieces in Kuly Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and more for former MVP Russell Westbrook.

Most knowledgeable fans knew that Westbrook, alongside James and Davis, would be a bad fit. The 2021-2022 season played out as most expected: with Westbrook struggling all year long, the oldest team in the NBA battling a myriad of more injuries, and bouts of inconsistency that saw the Lakers once again miss out on the postseason. If you thought LeBron’s first season was bad, the 2022-23 season was ranked as “the most disappointing season in Lakers history.”

Most thought Pelinka would pull the proverbial parachute on the Westbrook experiment, but instead, he made head coach Frank Vogel the scapegoat. Vogel was fired, and first-time head coach Darvin Ham was hired in his place. Westbrook returned alongside more ill-fitting pieces that despite being younger and more athletic, simply did not provide the necessary shooting and rebounding around James and Davis the team so desperately needed.

Inevitably, that also failed, and the Lakers finally pushed the eject button on the experiment two-thirds through the 2022-23 NBA season. Westbrook was finally traded in a three-team trade with the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves. They were six games under .500 at 25-31 at the time.

Los Angeles Lakers v Toronto Raptors
Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the game against the Toronto Raptors on December 7, 2022 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images)

Since then, they’ve gone 3-1 with their collection of new players and find themselves once again sniffing the postseason. With 22 games left in the final stretch run of the regular season, fans and analysts all want to know the same thing: will the Lakers make the playoffs?

Let’s take a closer look at their current situation, their future outlook, and their chances of playing beyond April 9th.

As of February 24, 2023, the Lakers are 28-32 and currently in 13th place in the Western Conference. As a refresher, the top six teams automatically make the playoffs. Teams seeded seven through ten participate in a play-in tournament to determine the final two playoff spots. For the sake of argument, let’s call the play-in tournament the postseason, and the first round the playoffs.

If you haven’t seen the NBA standings recently, reading the Lakers are in 13th place and need to get to at least 8th place to make the playoffs and 10th place to make the postseason. To most people, that might make their chances seem improbable.

However, the Western Conference is stacked this season and teams 1-13 are only separated by 14 games. Teams 2-13 by only eight games, and teams 3-13 by just six games.

Yes, we know the Lakers find themselves at the bottom of that pile and are currently on the outside looking in of the postseason, but they are a lot closer to the playoffs than most people think.

The Lakers currently find themselves just one and a half games out of the 9th seed in the Western Conference and just three and a half games out of the sixth spot. Even more fortuitous, the Lakers will play all of the teams in front of them over the final 22 games of the regular season.

According to Tankathon, the Lakers have the 23rd hardest strength of schedule remaining. To put it another way, the Lakers have the 8th easiest schedule remaining with two games against the Rockets, Bulls, and Thunder on the docket. It all starts with winning those games.

After that, the Lakers have games against playoff contenders they need to chase down ahead of them in the standings. Including matchups against the Timberwolves, Warriors, Pelicans, Jazz, and Thunder. Win those games, and the pathway to the postseason is more open than a 7-11 convenience store.

Oddsmakers currently have the Lakers finishing the regular season with a record of 41-41. Sure that’s not great, but among the teams currently in the Western Conference things could potentially shake out like this:

  1. Denver Nuggets 57-25
  2. Memphis Grizzlies 49-33
  3. Phoenix Suns 46-36
  4. Dallas Mavericks 45-37
  5. LA Clippers 45-37
  6. Sacramento Kings 44-38
  7. Golden State Warriors 43-39
  8. New Orleans Pelicans 42-40
  9. Minnesota Timberwolves 41-41
  10. Los Angeles Lakers 41-41
  11. Oklahoma City Thunder 38-44
  12. Utah Jazz 38-44
  13. Portland Trail Blazers 39-43
  14. San Antonio Spurs 23-59
  15. Houston Rockets 20-62

Based on the current betting line projections, the Lakers will make the postseason and face off against the Timberwolves in the play-in tournament. However, those same oddsmakers have the Lakers’ chances of advancing past the play-in tournament and into the NBA Playoffs at +155. Meaning, they believe they will lose at some point in the play-in tournament.

Nevertheless, if the Lakers can make the play-in tournament, we like their chances against any of the three aforementioned teams, and even though their reward for winning back-to-back games would be a first-round meeting with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and the first-place Denver Nuggets, we wouldn’t be surprised to see many analysts take the Lakers to pull off the 8-1 upset.

With all that said, the Lakers postseason prospects depend on one very important thing: health. Right now, the Lakers are as healthy as they have been all season. They will need that to continue as they acclimate and build chemistry with the collection of new players on their roster. As currently constructed, that roster is younger, more athletic, more versatile, and deeper than it has been since their 2020 championship run. Their new complement of players also fills the holes they’ve had for most of the season, most notably rebounding and three-point shooting.

Even if they remain healthy, the Lakers still face an uphill battle in their quest to make the playoffs. During NBA All-Star weekend in Salt Lake City, Utah, LeBron James had this to say about the team’s remaining schedule.

“These are 23 [now 22] of the most important games of my career for a regular season,” James said. “I’m going to figure out ways to make sure I’m available and on the floor for every single one of these 23 games.”

Ultimately, the Lakers playoff chances will depend on how many games James and Davis can stay on the court, and how many of the teams in front of them they can beat head-to-head to leapfrog them in the standings.

Source: NBC Los Angeles

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