Every preseason during the dead months with nothing of substance to talk about, ESPN releases their projections for every team in the NBA’s win-loss record for the upcoming season.
Kevin Pelton of ESPN uses his real plus-minus stat to do his best to figure out around where each team will rank in the coming calendar year (a full explanation of real plus-minus can be found here, but it’s basically a more advanced plus minus that attempts to account for statistical noise created in basic plus-minus by which players the player being valued is sharing the floor with).
It should go without saying that these projections aren’t always perfect, but they are usually a fairly decent barometer for where the league’s teams are going to rank during the upcoming campaign.
If the Lakers aren’t one of the team’s the statistics miss on, then it appears they are set to miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year. Pelton projects the Lakers to win 33 games, good for the 13th-best (third-worst) record in the Western conference and eighth-worst record in the league.
Pelton also gave a brief explainer with context on the numbers for each team. Here was what he had to say about the Lakers:
Baby steps for the Lakers, as they move back toward competitiveness after the worst four-year stretch in franchise history. With the additions of No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball, guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and center Brook Lopez, RPM projects the Lakers to improve nearly to league average on offense. They still look like one of the NBA's worst defenses (28th).
As Pelton notes, this is progress for the Lakers, who if these projections hold will have won their most games in a season since the last time they made the playoffs with a 45-37 record during the 2012-13 campaign. Plus, they aren’t that far off from some of the teams ahead of them, with the Philadelphia 76ers (33.2) only projected to win a fraction of an extra game despite playing in an easier conference and coming off of a far more ballyhooed offseason.
There are ways the Lakers could outperform this projection. Lonzo Ball could have a magical rookie year, and it might be hard for numbers to account for the affect the ball movement he’ll bring to the Lakers will affect the team. Players like Julius Randle Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance, Jr. could be empowered in the open court by playing with a ball-mover like Ball, and could also show growth in their fourth, second and third seasons, respectively. Jordan Clarkson could be a major boon off the bench when finally given a consistent role. Luke Walton could improve as a tactician and overall coach in his second season at the helm, as young coaches are wont to do.
Those things are all true, but for the Lakers to make the playoffs, everyone on the roster would have to outperform expectations, and that’s precisely why it’s so unlikely. The Western Conference got even better and more competitive this season, and it’s really hard to project the Lakers even leapfrogging all four of the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans (all teams ESPN has projected ahead of them). Maybe one or two of those teams, but not all four, and even then they’d only be the ninth seed.
The point is that the Lakers will be better, but anyone talking playoffs already should probably slow their roll and take a look at the context of the West, because even with what will probably be a poor defense yet again, the Lakers not making the playoffs is more about what the Western Conference is than what the Lakers aren’t.
This season is about the Lakers showing enough growth to demonstrate to 2018 free agents that they’re worth playing with, and if these projections hold, they’ll have a good shot at doing so. That improvement and progress, in addition to a more exciting brand of basketball, should be more than enough to get enthused about after such a dour past few seasons in Los Angeles.