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The Lakers’ play-in hopes are in deep trouble after their loss to the Pelicans

The possibility of the Lakers falling out of the play-in game is suddenly very real after Sunday’s loss to the Pelicans.

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Los Angeles Lakers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

In short, the way Sunday played out was just about the worst-case scenario for the Lakers.

The team knew the importance of their game against the Pelicans. They spoke about it being a must-win. They treated it as such for half the game and then... yeah.

Not only did the loss drop them to the 10th seed, but it also handed the tiebreaker to the Pelicans. Now, the Lakers are staring up at New Orleans, and the Spurs are playing well enough to create a very real scenario where they knock L.A. out of the play-in game entirely.

Laying it all out, the Pelicans’ 32-43 record after Sunday’s win is a half-game better than the Lakers’ 31-43 mark. Behind them, the Spurs’ win over New Orleans on Saturday moves them to 30-44, one game back of the Lakers. The Pelicans have seven games remaining, while the Lakers and Spurs each have eight games left.

Not only do the Lakers continue to have the toughest schedule remaining, they’re likely going to have to play through it without either LeBron James or Anthony Davis, at least in the short-term. LeBron sprained his ankle against the Pelicans on Sunday and will be doubtful against the Mavericks on Tuesday after experiencing swelling overnight.

The news around Davis’ doubtful listing is far more encouraging, as he took part in practice for the first time since suffering his foot sprain on Monday, and his injury status is an improvement from being listed as out throughout recent weeks. Still, the end result is that neither are likely to be fully healthy as the Lakers trudge on to close out the season.

The Lakers will have another shot at the Pelicans this week, but they already lost the season series, and the Friday matchup will come on the second night of a back-to-back after playing in Utah on Thursday. So while that game will offer the team a direct chance to take a game away from the Pelicans, it won’t change the tiebreaker, and it’ll be their last game against either New Orleans or San Antonio on the schedule. Then they get to wrap up the next week with a game at home against Denver and one of the MVP favorites in Nikola Jokic.

So even with Davis’ return feeling imminent — with him potentially getting back on the floor at any point in this next stretch — the team’s remaining schedule is still brutal when looking at it all laid out.

  • 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)

On the flip side, San Antonio is set for a much simpler slate over the next week:

  • Rockets (Road, 3/28)
  • Grizzlies (Home, 3/30)
  • Trail Blazers (Home, 4/1)
  • Trail Blazers (Home, 4/3)
  • Nuggets (Road, 4/5)
  • Wolves (Road, 4/7)
  • Warriors (Home, 4/9)
  • Mavericks (Road, 4/10)

The Pelicans’ schedule isn’t quite as easy, though it’s still easier than the Lakers’ own remaining handful of games:

  • Trail Blazers (Road, 3/30)
  • Lakers (Road, 4/1)
  • Clippers (Road, 4/3)
  • Kings (Road, 4/5)
  • Trail Blazers (Home, 4/7)
  • Grizzlies (Road, 4/9)
  • Warriors (Home, 4/10)

Notably, both New Orleans and San Antonio will play Portland twice over the remainder of the season, all while the Blazers are in the middle of one of the most brazen tanking stretches the NBA has seen since the Process Sixers.

It all paints a pretty grim picture for the Lakers. FiveThirtyEight doesn’t offer a direct predictor for the play-in game, but they do for the playoffs, and the Lakers have the lowest percentage chance of making the postseason out of the three teams vying for the final play-in spots in the Western Conference.

In summary, for the Lakers to conceivably make the play-in game, they’re going to have to pull off numerous upsets in the final two weeks of the season while hoping the Spurs stumble at the same time along the way.

The small sliver of good news is the Lakers and Spurs tied their season series, which means the next tiebreaker for them would be conference records. The bad news is the Lakers are 16-28 vs. the Western Conference while the Spurs are 20-24. Simplifying things a bit is that every remaining game for both teams is against Western Conference foes, but it basically makes it highly, highly unlikely for the Lakers to win that tiebreak for the Spurs.

In the event of a three-way tie between the two teams, division records would come into play between the Pelicans and Spurs, and would be impossible to predict. For some simplicity, here’s a more simplified look at things, three-way tiebreakers notwithstanding:

  • If the Lakers even somehow go 4-4 in their final eight games, the Spurs have to go 5-3 to tie them, while the Pelicans would have to go 3-4 to match the Lakers' final record and win the tiebreak.
  • If the Lakers go 3-5, the Spurs would need to go 4-4 to catch the Lakers while the Pelicans would need to go 2-5 to remain ahead.
  • If the Lakers go 2-6, the Spurs would need to go 3-5 to catch the Lakers while the Pelicans would need to go 1-6 to remain ahead.
  • If the Lakers go 1-7, the Spurs would need to go 2-6 to catch the Lakers while the Pelicans would have the ninth seed sealed.
  • If the Lakers go 0-8, the Spurs would need to go 1-7 to catch the Lakers.

All of which is why Sunday’s loss to the Pelicans a killer. Instead of having even a small bit of wiggle room and margin for error, both have been completely wiped away. And with such a daunting schedule ahead of them the final two weeks and far from a full picture of health from their stars, the Lakers are heavily flirting with the disaster of not making the play-in game at all.

The week to come will go a long way in determining how likely that doomsday scenario is or isn’t, but things certainly look bad right now.

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