Could the Los Angeles Lakers actually miss the NBA play-in tournament?
That’s been the question on many fans’ minds since Sunday, when the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Atlanta Hawks to move to 30-41 on the season, tied with the Lakers in record, but moving ahead of them in the standings by virtue of their dominant victory over Los Angeles last month giving them a 1-0 lead in the season series.
The Lakers play the Pelicans two more times in the next two weeks to finish up their three-game series with them this season, and so they could still theoretically reclaim that tiebreaker. However, given this team’s apparent commitment to embarrassing and disappointing its fanbase at every turn, it’s hard to believe they’ll win both of those games.
But let's put the “race” between the Lakers and Pelicans for homecourt advantage in the 9/10 play-in game aside for a second: Is there actually any chance that Los Angeles could fall all the way out of the play-in bracket entirely, and miss any chance to enter the postseason?
It’s more possible than you might think, and (slightly) more realistic than I was giving it credit for on Twitter this morning. Let’s dig into the math.
Who is behind the Lakers in the standings, and how close are they?
Right now, the only (seemingly) realistic challenger to pass the Lakers (30-41) in the Western Conference standings and knock them out of the top 10 in the conference is the San Antonio Spurs, who at 28-44 are just 2.5 games back from the Lakers for the 10th spot.
Now, 2.5 games is a lot to make up with just 10 games left to play for San Antonio (the Lakers have 11 games remaining, including Monday’s matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers). But still, that much time leaves it at least theoretically possible that Lakers could fall out, if things go really, really badly. Which is at least on the table, considering the disparity in difficulty in the two team’s remaining schedules.
The Spurs’ remaining ten games will see them play:
- Trail Blazers (Road, 3/23)
- Pelicans (Road, 3/26)
- Rockets (Road, 3/28)
- Grizzlies (Home, 3/30)
- Trail Blazers (Home, 4/1)
- Trail Blazers (Home, 4/3)
- Nuggets (Road, 4/5)
- Timberwolves (Road, 4/7)
- Warriors (Home, 4/9)
- Mavericks (Road, 4/10)
Per Tankathon, that is the 13th-easiest remaining schedule in the league by opponent winning percentage (.490). The Lakers, meanwhile, have the hardest (.563) schedule left, an 11-game slate that will see them face:
- Cavaliers (Road, 3/21)
- 76ers (Home, 3/23)
- Pelicans (Road, 3/27)
- Mavericks (Road, 3/29)
- Jazz (Road, 3/31)
- Pelicans (Home, 4/1)
- Nuggets (Home, 4/3)
- Suns (Road, 4/5)
- Warriors (Road, 4/7)
- Thunder (Home, 4/8)
- Nuggets (Road, 4/10)
Now, some of those games might be easier than they look on paper, because the end of the season is a wonky time when good teams may rest their best players with seeding secured (or, in the case of the Warriors and Stephen Curry, injury rehab) and young players might actually be playing harder than the veterans on teams with their spot in the standings locked on. So take projections of remaining schedule difficulty based on past results with a grain of salt.
But with that noted, could the Lakers actually finish the mission their players appear to have been on for the last month and drop out of the play-in entirely?
Well... let’s take a look.
So how many games would the Lakers have to lose to fall out of the play-in?
For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that the Pelicans don’t fold entirely — a dangerous assumption, given their franchise history — and stay ahead of the Lakers by finishing with at least around the same record and going at least 1-1 in their remaining two games against L.A., and get the ninth seed.
Let’s also assume that the blatantly tanking Portland Trail Blazers (26-44, 1-9 in their last 10) and hilariously inept Sacramento Kings (25-48, 2-8 in their last 10 despite going all-in for the play-in at the trade deadline) don’t catch them (both likely safe assumptions).
Within those permutations of reality, how many games could the Lakers lose and still make the play-in? Well, the Lakers tied the Spurs in the season series 2-2, and neither team is going to win their division, which means that the next tiebreaker would go to their record against fellow Western Conference opponents because they’re not in the same division. The Spurs currently have a two-game lead in wins there, but all of their remaining games are against West teams, so I’m not even going to try and project both team’s finish in that at this stage.
So let’s just do this under the auspices that San Antonio would have to finish one game ahead of the Lakers to seize the final play-in spot. The Lakers are 3-7 in their last 10 games, and the schedule only gets harder. But the Spurs are only 4-6 in their last 10, albeit with — as noted above — a far easier road the rest of the way, at least on paper.
So with that in mind...
- Even if the Lakers go 2-9 (32-50), the Spurs would only have to go 5-5 in their last 10 to pass them at 33-49.
- If the Lakers go 1-10 (31-51), the Spurs would only need to go 4-6 in their last 10 to pass them.
- If the Lakers somehow lose all of their 11 remaining games, the Spurs would only have to win three of their final 10 games to pass them.
- However, if the Lakers can manage to win just three of their final 11 games, the Spurs would have to go 6-4 to pass them.
- If the Lakers can manage four victories (which, given this team’s season-long commitment to failure, admittedly seems unlikely), the Spurs would have to go 7-3 to straight-up pass them.
So math is (mostly) on the Lakers’ side here, as long as they don’t entirely crap the bed. Which, again, given...
**gestures at everything the team has done this year**
...seems entirely possible, if not probabilistically likely. So we’ll see if this team can disappoint everyone who has ever supported them one last time, but circumstances are not on their side as they look to begin their vacation early. Despite their best efforts — or lack thereof — they will probably have to play at least one play-in game before heading to Cancun.