That sound you hear is the clock ticking louder, and louder, on the Lakers.
One tick is external, and belongs to the looming trade deadline which is only four days away. The Lakers will undoubtedly continue to find themselves in trade rumors until then, as was most recently seen with their pursuit of Kyrie Irving before he was ultimately dealt to Dallas. It could be argued that there is now even more pressure on the front office to make a move with one big piece off the board.
The other tick echoes in the distance, but has rung within Los Angeles throughout the year and is now becoming increasingly more difficult to ignore. It is the sound of the season nearing completion, of hopes being extinguished and individual performances going squandered.
With only 28 games left in their campaign, the Lakers still find themselves on the outside looking in of the playoff hunt. When also considering the Western Conference logjam they’re smack-dab in the middle of, their margin of error is reaching minuscule proportions.
Losses like the one the Lakers had against the Pelicans — a team who had previously lost ten straight — on Saturday are the exact types of defeats the team can no longer afford. Leading by as many as 12 points in the third quarter, the Lakers fumbled away a chance to make up ground against the team directly ahead of them in the standings.
Whether a trade happens or not before Thursday, the team must focus on the urgency of each contest instead of the outside chatter. As of this article, the Lakers are sitting at 25-29 but remain just two games out of the final play-in spot, and three games out of sixth place.
While their remaining slate of games isn't a cake walk by any means, there are opportunities to make up ground if they could catch fire at the right time.
Let’s take a closer look at what awaits the team and what they need to accomplish in order to keep their postseason hopes alive.
The final 28
Fortunately for the Lakers, the rest of their schedule does lean more home-heavy than not. In fact, 16 (17 if including their “road game” against the Clippers) of their final 28 contests will be held in Los Angeles.
Of those games, are also two clusters of five-game home stretches to potentially help string along some wins in quick succession. Despite their sub .500 winning percentage on the season, the Lakers do have a winning record at Crypto this year, but only slightly with a 13-12 record. How well they can take care of business at home from here on out could end up being a decisive factor in their playoff pursuit.
While the Lakers should benefit from playing in familiar confines, it’s worth noting that they do have a potential landmine coming in the final few weeks in the form of a four-game road trip.
The Lakers may also catch a small break when it comes to the level of competition they have from here on out. According to Tankathon, the Lakers have the 12th easiest remaining strength of schedule in the league, and 6th easiest amongst Western Conference teams.
While they've definitely proven that they’re capable of losing to anyone on any given night, the team has consistently shown an ability to beat up on lesser competition as they are 14-4 against sub .500 clubs this year.
What likely ultimately will be the deciding factor in whether the Lakers can crack the playoffs or not, and in what slot, is how they fare against the very teams ahead of them in the standings.
Of their remaining 28 games, 22 will come directly against squads out West. They also have six matchups with their fellow Pacific division neighbors, teams the Lakers have struggled against all year as they are 1-9 in these contests on the season.
On one hand, having this many games left against the teams in direct competition for playoff seeding does give the Lakers an immediate chance to control their own destiny. However, if they happen to hit a snag at the wrong time, it will be very easy to both spiral down the standings and be on the short end when it comes to things like tie-breakers.
To help illustrate these opportunities or potential pitfalls, here is a quick glance at a few pivotal contests still left on the slate:
- 3 games against Oklahoma City
- 3 games against Golden State
- 2 games against New Orleans
- 2 games against Utah
- 2 games against Dallas
- 2 games against Houston
As is the case with life, it is often helpful to set goals. So when looking at the current standings, the Lakers should realistically set their sights at the six seed as their best case landing spot.
The Dallas Mavericks currently occupy that position, but sit at just 28-26. While things will certainly fluctuate before season’s end, finishing the year above .500 should put the Lakers at least in the running for a playoff spot and out of the play-in if teams continue on their current trajectory.
In order to do this however, the Lakers would need to go 17-11 in their remaining 28 games to finish the season at 42-40. It won't be easy, but it is also not impossible given how close the team has been in nearly every game this year.
With time quickly beginning to run out, and the standings only becoming more congested, moral victories simply will no longer cut it. Now is when the Lakers need actual tangible results in the win-loss column.
While the outside pageantry will continue to hang over the court until LeBron James sets the all-time scoring record and the trade deadline passes, what actually happens on it is where the team’s focus has to be if they hope to salvage their season.
The Lakers ultimately don't need to just beat their opposition on their final leg, but also, the unmerciful running clock itself. Tick tock.