If things feel a little grim for the Lakers right now after closing out their road trip with a 2-4 record and three straight losses, it’s because they are. Sunday’s loss dropped them to 24-27 on the year — the furthest from .500 they’ve been all season — as the calendar turns over to February.
The possibility of missing the playoffs has never been much of a topic of conversation this season for the Lakers. As much as the Lakers have struggled this year, the Western Conference as a whole has been disappointing this season. It’s allowed the Lakers to remain relatively comfortable in their position in the standings, all things considered.
But this latest stretch of losses coincides with a number of teams trending in the other direction, and the result is the Lakers looking up at most of playoff teams. The Lakers’ loss to the Hawks paired with the Timberwolves’ win against the Jazz has the purple and gold securely in the ninth seed, 1.5 games back of both Minnesota and the Clippers in the eighth and seventh seeds, respectively.
While the Lakers remain 2.5 games up on the 10th-seeded Trail Blazers — a team they will play twice in the next five games — they are, in fact, just as close to falling out of the playoffs entirely as they are to getting out of play-in range, with five games separating them either way.
The most worrisome part for the Lakers is that the easiest part of their season is in the rearview mirror. According to Positive Residual, the Lakers have the hardest remaining strength of schedule in the league. A number of teams they’ll be contending with for playoff positioning — Portland, Minnesota, Dallas — all rank in the bottom third of the league in strength of schedule remaining.
Of the Lakers’ final 31 games of the season, 17 of them will be on the road, 16 of them will be against teams currently above .500 (heading into games on Jan. 31) and only 11 come against teams below .500. Six of their final 10 games of the season will be on the road, and seven of those will be against current playoff teams.
The Lakers still have to play the Western Conference’s current No. 1 seeded Suns two more times, the No. 2 seeded Warriors three more times, the No. 4 seeded Jazz two more times and the No. 5 seeded Nuggets two more times. Those nine contests will all come in the final 25 games of the season, accounting for over one-third of their schedule in that span.
Making up ground will already be difficult, but the Lakers also have few games against the teams they’re chasing. The team has one game left against Minnesota, and two against Dallas, though they will have three meetings against the Los Angeles Clippers. Oddly, all three of those games will come in a span of 10 games beginning on Thursday and running until March 3 with the All-Star break in-between.
If you aren’t feeling optimistic, you shouldn’t be!
Minnesota has the fourth-easiest schedule remaining. Dallas has the 12th-easiest. Denver, who is technically as many games ahead of the Lakers as the Mavericks are, has the easiest schedule remaining in the league. Only the Clippers are on level footing with the Lakers, and passing them only improves the Lakers’ seeding in the play-in game currently.
The (tepid) good news is Lakers will have the opportunity to stave off some of the teams that could be looking to pass them. The Lakers will play the No. 10 seeded Blazers twice, the No. 11 seeded Spurs once and the No. 12 seeded Pelicans three times. But, again, those will be games to just keep them in the play-in game.
In short, if the season ended today, the Lakers would need to win two play-in games just to officially make the playoffs, hosting the Blazers in the first game before meeting the loser of the Clippers and Timberwolves on the road. Obviously, one of those contests would hardly be a road game, but needing to come out ahead of a pair of must-win games is a daunting task considering what the Lakers have (or haven’t) shown this season.
For all those reasons, the likelihood of the Lakers making the playoffs are slim. FiveThirtyEight’s playoff predictor, which is based on their own RAPTOR player ratings, has the Lakers’ odds of making the playoffs at 23% currently with a projected record of 37-45. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) playoff odds are slightly more favorable, giving the Lakers a 29.6% chance at making the playoffs with a final projected record of 38-44.
None of this even touches on the fact that if the Lakers are simply able to hold steady, make the play-in game and advance to the playoffs, they’ll almost certainly be facing either Phoenix or Golden State, with an outside chance at the Memphis Grizzlies, three teams that have delivered multiple beatdowns to the Lakers this season.
All of that is what makes losses like Sunday — ones where the team had a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter — even tougher to swallow. The Lakers are in a position where they can’t afford to give games away, as they’re trying to chase a playoff spot. When Anthony Davis says after the game on Sunday that he thinks the Lakers are a good team and people will see it once the team gets to the playoffs, he’s making big some assumptions about the rest of the season.
A healthy version of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Davis — something the Lakers have hardly had together this season — would go a long way in helping those playoff odds, and helping the Lakers outperform their metrics so far, making these current formulas look slightly obsolete or lacking context in retrospect. But as things stand right now, the Lakers have a steep uphill battle awaiting them to even make the playoffs this season, a far cry from the expectations of contention coming into the season.
If they’re going to show us there is a good team in here, it’s now or never.