With 23 games left in their regular season schedule, the Los Angeles Lakers have an opportunity to clinch a spot in the 2020 NBA playoffs as soon as Tuesday night. While they won’t know exactly where they’ll be seeded for a little while longer, they currently sit atop of the Western Conference — the same place they’ve been since the start of November — with a 5.5 game cushion over the No. 2 seed, the Denver Nuggets.
The Lakers are in a great spot, but are they contenders or pretenders? That’s the question that’s been on everyone’s minds all season, and their tough March schedule will give us a better idea as to what the answer to that question is.
Over the next 28 days, the Lakers will see six teams that are ranked in the top-10 in net rating this season: The Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, LA Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks. Of those six teams, four of them are ranked in the top-five in defensive efficiency, with the fifth spot belonging to the Lakers, who are ranked third in defensive rating (104.9). Only three teams have both an offense and defense that is ranked in the top-five in terms of efficiency: The Bucks, Clippers and Lakers.
The Lakers have winning records against the Jazz (2-0) and Nuggets (2-1) this season, and they’re tied with the Rockets in the season series (1-1), but they’ve yet to beat the Clippers (0-2), Raptors (0-1) or Bucks (0-1). While it’s hard to call any regular season game “must-win” given the position the Lakers are in, there’s no denying that the perception of them would change if they managed to pull the rug out from under the Clippers, Raptors and Bucks.
Alternatively, losing to all three would give the Lakers’ doubters all the fuel they need going into the playoffs. There is also historical precedent at play here.
If the season ended today, at 14-10 against teams over .500, the Lakers would have the worst winning percentage (58.3%) against such teams of any champion since ... last year’s Raptors (22-20, 52.3%). But prior to that, it would be the worst since LeBron James’ 27-21 Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 (56.2%). The 2011 Dallas Mavericks (25-19, 56.8%) also offer hope that a team can get hot at the right time even if they aren’t dominant against winning teams during the regular season.
Still, last year’s Raptors were load managing Kawhi Leonard all year, and those Cavaliers were also clearly not putting their foot on the gas for the entire regular season. As Lakers fans well remember, the 2011 Mavericks just got hot at the right time. Despite a few low-effort outings here and there, the Lakers have mostly gone all-out this year, and so how they fare this month will tell us quite a bit about how this team stacks up against other historical champions.
The postseason is obviously a much different beast than the regular season, but that doesn’t mean that certain games can’t be played with playoff intensity — just think back to how LeBron James performed against Zion Williamson in their two meetings over the last week. The Lakers have a chance to make a statement over the next few weeks, and it’s important they capitalize on that opportunity, if only for the sake of their worrisome fans.
If they don’t, head coach Frank Vogel will be forced to re-evaluate his rotation and overall gameplan a month before the start of the postseason, which isn’t ideal. General manager Rob Pelinka would also need to look at his roster and see if he thinks it needs an infusion from the buyout market, and potentially question whether he should have been more aggressive at the trade deadline.
That’s not to say the Lakers would have to start from scratch if they lose these games, but they’d definitely need to make some changes at that point, whether schematically, in the rotation, or via buyout addition.
The Lakers will get their first crack at a legitimate title contender on Friday, when they’re set to host the Milwaukee Bucks at Staples Center. Two days later, they’ll play their third game against the Clippers. After that, we’ll know a lot more about the ceiling for this team.