The start of the 2018-19 NBA season is getting closer each day. Training camp is less than a month away now, and still, no one can seem to agree on where the Los Angeles Lakers will finish in the crowded Western Conference next season.
Even with the addition of LeBron James, some have their doubts on whether or not the Lakers will end their five-season playoff drought next year. ESPN, who used their real plus-minus (RPM) model to predict that the Los Angeles will finish at the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference next season.
However not all of ESPN is down on the Lakers, and on Tuesday the network released their annual league-wide rankings using their Basketball Power Index and it painted the Lakers in a much more favorable light, at least in the regular season.
Like ESPN’s real plus-minus, BPI uses an advanced statistics to project how well a team will perform on offense and defense, however, unlike RPM, BPI also takes into account strength of opponent, pace, game location, distance traveled, rest and preseason expectations.
In ESPN’s latest BPI rankings, the Lakers were ranked No. 3 in the Western Conference and No. 7 in the league, with an 88 percent chance of making the playoffs. According to Neil Johnson and Seth Walder of ESPN, no James team in the past decade has had less than a 99.8 percent chance of making it to the postseason.
Once the Lakers get there, though, they’re not expected to make a deep run, according to the projections.
The Los Angeles Lakers, with James at the helm, have a 5 percent chance of representing the West in the NBA Finals this season. That might not sound like a ton, but it’s their best chance to pull off the feat according to preseason BPI since the 2011-12 season. And James’ move has sprung opportunity in the East, while the West has become more crowded.
In ESPN’s defense, not too many people expect the Lakers to be representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals this season. After all, in order to get there, they have to go through the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, who James has lost to in back-to-back Finals.
But five percent for a guy who has been in every NBA Finals for the past decade just seems too low. Even with the underwhelming talent the Lakers surrounded James with this offseason, besting the King in a seven-game series will be no cake walk.
There’s also no guarantee the Lakers will look the same after the trade deadline. Equipped with their own pick in next year’s draft and a handful of young players, the front office could look to make a blockbuster trade if they feel they’re close enough to contending. If not a blockbuster trade, then the Lakers could at the very least target a few role players that better fit Walton’s system.
The NBA Playoffs, let alone the Finals, are ages away, but who thinks the Lakers are contenders — and who thinks they’re pretenders — is going to be something worth keeping an eye on before the regular season tips off.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.