A swish. A buzz. A thud. Jordan Clarkson's layup swished through the net, and a few agonizing seconds later Robert Covington's desperation heave came well short of its intended target, thudding against the Wells Fargo Center hardwood as the claxon alarm of the expiring game clock added headache to heartache for those rooting for the Lakers to rise towards the third best lottery odds.
Monday's win dropped the Lakers 3 full games behind Philadelphia in the race to the bottom, making them essentially uncatchable. Minnesota (Tanking. Yeah I said it. Come at me, Flip Saunders) and New York (an atrocity against Phil Jackson's beloved basketball gods) are not realistic targets either.
Making matters worse, fourth best odds are not even assured. The Orlando Magic are playing like the exact opposite of magic. If they were actual magicians, their rate of trick failure would have already lead to countless rabbit fatalities and beautiful assistants sawed in half. Orlando has lost 9 of their last 10 games, compared to the Lakers going 3-7. The Magic have 8 games left, with their remaining opponents holding an average winning percentage of 45%, according to PlayoffStatus.com. The Lakers' remaining 9 opponents have won 48% of their games. So the Lakers have fourth place locked up, right? Let's take a deeper look at their remaining schedules:
Lakers: To end the 2015 season, the Lakers host New Orleans, Portland, and then the Clippers, followed by a "road" game against the Clippers, then on the real road again the following night versus Denver. They next play host to Minnesota and Dallas, and finish the season with a road and home series against the Sacramento Kings.
The Lakers are likely to lose those first four games to three teams that are all jockeying for playoff positioning (or in the case of New Orleans, to get into the big dance at all). The Nuggets are bad, but the Lakers never win that second night of a back-to-back game in Denver, so make it five losses in a row. The Lakers will win their home date against the tanking Timber-pups, lose to Dallas as Rajon Rondo nails his free agent audition in front of the Staples Center faithful, and then win one and lose one to the Sacramento Kings (in some order).
Those predictions would leave the Lakers with a season ending record of 22-60.
Magic: The Magic wind down 2015 hosting San Antonio (who will have just played in Miami the night before and may rest their starters), followed by a road back-to-back at Minnesota and Milwaukee, a three-game homestand with Chicago, Toronto, and New York, and then a two-game road trip to Miami and Brooklyn.
Even if we assume a loss to San Antonio (as you might have heard, they have pretty good depth), one would have to think the Magic could at least get one win between those games against Minnesota and New York barring a blatant act of tanking, which would leave them at 1-7 to close the season, giving them a season ending record of 23-59.
So the Lakers are safe, right? Not so fast, because those predictions cannot account for the randomness introduced by the contract statuses of the two franchises' various players.
The Lakers simply have more guys on their roster with something left to play for. Ed Davis, Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and Robert Sacre are all to some degree playing for their next contract in the league. Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, and likely Jabari Brown are playing to show they belong in the league.
Contrast that to the Magic's situation. The majority of their significant contributors are locked up for the foreseeable future. Yes, these are professional athletes and some will still play for their pride, but they may not be as motivated as a guy who is playing for his future earning potential. That is why the above win-loss predictions for the Lakers, while likely, are no certainty.
This intangible factor is reflected in how much better basketball the Lakers have been playing than Orlando since the All-Star break, with better Offensive (Lakers: 101 /Orlando: 100.3), Defensive (103.2/ 107), and Net (-2.2/ -6.7) ratings than the Magic.
The point is, the Lakers' recent 3-7 stretch has not only eliminated their ability to climb higher than fourth in the Tank Rank, it has potentially put said fourth spot in jeopardy. A couple more Mizzou backcourt outbursts, a Linsanity redux, or an "Ed Davis making the league's other 29 general managers look stupid" game could plausibly drop the Lakers into the fifth best lottery odds. Not only would this precarious position lead to further fan stress on lottery night, but could potentially deal a crippling blow to the franchise and set the rebuilding plan back years.