With half of their season in the books, we have a pretty decent sample size from which to glean knowledge about the Los Angeles Lakers. The team has defined strengths (a league-average offense) as well as glaring weaknesses (one of the worst defenses in the league). Knowledge in hand, let’s look into our crystal ball to try and figure out the answers to the team’s biggest question heading into the second half of the season:
Do the Lakers have a chance to make the playoffs?
41 games into the year it’s fair to say the Lakers have outpaced the modest expectations most had for them. The team sits at 15-26 after their recent two-game winning streak, a mark which leaves them just two games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
As a reminder of how far they’ve come in less than a year, the Lakers won a franchise-worst 17 games last season, so the team just has to go 3-38 the rest of the way to technically show “improvement.”
The Lakers should easily surpass that pace down the stretch, and we’ve officially entered “it’s time to legitimately have a conversation about their postseason chances” territory.
A playoff berth is certainly possible, but it also hardly seems like the most likely outcome. Let’s take a look at who the Lakers are competing against:
For the sake of argument, let’s assume (barring an inexplicable run of injuries) that the top-seven teams are locks. Let’s also assume the three teams below Los Angeles won’t pass them. That leaves the baby Lakers left to beat out the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets, and New Orleans Pelicans for the last playoff spot.
Passing up the Nuggets seems eminently doable. They’re a young team that might be a seller at the trade deadline, and the loss of their veterans would seem to guarantee a drop in their level of play.
The Kings (the current eighth seed) are a total wildcard. They’re a DeMarcus Cousins injury away from being arguably the worst team in the West, but Cousins is so good he would seem to be able to win them enough games by himself to stay ahead of the Lakers’ current pace. That being said, him doing so (or the Kings not, well, being the Kings and doing something crazy) is no guarantee, so it’s totally possible the Lakers pass them. The Pelicans and Blazers, however, would seem to be a different animal entirely.
New Orleans struggled to start the year, losing nine of their first ten games, but have rebounded since Jrue Holiday returned to the lineup. The Pelicans are 12-11 with Holiday in the lineup, and while assuming he’ll stay healthy all year given his injury history isn’t wise, as long as neither he nor Anthony Davis miss extended time it would seem more likely than not that they finish with a better record than the Lakers in the second half of the season.
Portland also feels like a safe bet to beat out the Lakers, although not as safe as most prognosticators thought heading into the season. Just a year ago seemingly everything went right for the Blazers, who rode their good fortune all the way to the fifth seed in the Western Conference and a second-round playoff appearance.
After a summer that saw them spend big in free agency, the Blazers were expected to at the very least be a playoff lock. A defense that as of today ranks as slightly more porous than the Lakers’ (allowing 109.8 points per 100 possessions, second-worst in the league) and the rise of the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets has knocked them down a few pegs, and they could end up on the outside looking in when the music stops on this game of “get swept by the Golden State Warriors in the first round” musical chairs.
Those caveats aside, the Blazers still boast more talent than the Lakers do as of this moment. The long-term sustainability of a Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum backcourt has been called into question, but both players are currently better and more explosive than anyone the Lakers have right now. The Blazers are scoring 107.4 points per 100 possessions, which is the eighth-best rate in the NBA and is probably enough to counterbalance their defense woes as they battle for the last playoff spot.
Now for the positives in Los Angeles’ favor: the team has the 13th best net rating in the entire NBA over their last ten games, outscoring opponents by 0.4 points per 100 possessions. That may not sound like much, but it’s better than any of their competition for the eighth seed. Ten games is a smaller sample than 41, but if the Lakers can manage to approximate this pace it’s not unreasonable to dream of them getting spanked in the first round by the Warriors.
The main point is that with all four of those teams at the very least having arguments to finish ahead of the Lakers, it’s impossible to consider a playoff berth the most likely outcome for “Yung Showtime” right now.
The major thing to take away from that is not disappointment, but rather excitement that we’re halfway into the NBA season and asking “can the Lakers make the playoffs” is an actual question worthy of debate, instead of a good joke to tell your coworkers or classmates as everyone starts to filter back to routine following a holiday break.