The 2-10 start, the injuries, the roster makeover, it’s all led to this. The Los Angeles Lakers have reached the final switchback of their turbulent season.
While the finish line is now in clear view with only 10 games left, there still lies a mountain of uncertainty of what will actually await them at the culmination. At 35-37, the Lakers remain in a crowded and heated battle for one of the final play-in spots within the Western Conference’s tight playoff picture.
Although others can still climb or drop on a moment’s notice, the squads the Lakers will be in most direct competition with for one of those last spots include: the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. All of whom are separated by just two or less games in the loss column.
As of this article, the Lakers are currently clinging onto 10th place after their 111-105 win over the Orlando Magic on Sunday night.
With no team making headway in cementing a spot as of yet, these final ten games present an opportunity for redemption for the purple and gold as how they fare will decide if they can salvage what was once seen as a lost season.
What follows is a preview of the team’s final stretch, and the multiple factors that may be in their benefit or disadvantage.
Strength of schedule
While there is no such thing as easy wins when it comes to this team, their recent loss to the Houston Rockets serves as a prime example, the Lakers could fortunately have an upper-hand in terms of favorable matchups the rest of the way compared to other teams vying for a playoff spot.
According to Tankathon.com, the Lakers have the 6th-easiest remaining schedule in the entire league, and 3rd-easiest amongst Western Conference clubs.
For comparison’s sake, the Mavericks are at 8th, the Warriors 10th, the Thunder 2nd, the Timberwolves 11th, and the Jazz have 2nd hardest remaining schedule.
Something like strength of schedule should be taken for a grain of salt however. A team like Chicago for example, who the Lakers still play twice, are a sub-.500 team but are also battling for a play-in spot of their own and will be hungry to come across wins.
There is also the chance that the upper echelon teams may rest players closer toward the end of the year, making those matchups potentially easier than what the strength of schedule takes into consideration.
So regardless of their opposition’s record, it will be important for the Lakers to approach every game with the appropriate level of desperation necessary.
Head-to-heads and Tiebreakers
Outside of their remaining opportunistic schedule, the Lakers also have the chance to both make up ground and create separation from the pack due to the number of head-to-heads they still have remaining against the aforementioned play-in cluster.
Of their final ten games, four (the most amongst the current play-in teams) will come against teams directly ahead or behind them in the standings. They have two left against the Jazz and one each against the Thunder and Timberwolves. Beyond the ability to quickly climb the standings with wins over these teams, they are also equally important when it comes to tiebreaker scenarios.
For context, this is what the Lakers’ current records are against the other play-in contenders:
vs Mavericks: 1-3
vs Warriors: 3-1
vs Thunder: 1-1
vs Timberwolves: 0-2
vs Jazz: 0-2
The Lakers have already lost the season series to both the Mavericks and Timberwolves, but there still remains a golden opportunity to secure tiebreakers against three of the five if they’re able to win out in their upcoming matchups.
If they don't, then these head-to-heads will only put the Lakers further behind the eight-ball in terms of leapfrogging.
Beyond their strength of schedule and number of matchups left against those also in play-in contention, there are other factors involved that may play a role in how the Lakers fare in their remaining slate.
Among those quirks is the element of six of their final ten games taking place in Los Angeles. While the obvious benefit of playing at home is notable, the Lakers should also have an advantage when considering that the non-Clippers’ teams they will face at Cyrpto.com Arena have a combined road record of 57-107 this season.
Another component that could swing the Lakers’ postseason fate will be how they do against three specific teams: the Chicago Bulls. Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz. The team will face this trio six times in their final ten. Beating a team multiple times in a short time span is always difficult, but it will be pivotal for the Lakers to find a way to do so.
If the Lakers hope to claw their way in to the playoffs they will also have to be as close to full strength as possible. One potential snag to this is how the team handles Anthony Davis in their final back-to-back of the season.
There has been reportedly an “organizational decision” to keep Davis out of back-to-back’s in order to prevent further damage to his foot, which the team hasn't wavered from as of now. With one remaining in their final four games of the season, it will be interesting to see how steadfast this decision is if the Lakers are teetering in or out of a playoff spot.
LeBron James’ return?
On the injury point, the biggest question mark surrounding the Lakers in their final ten games continues to be the status of LeBron James.
Despite their recent struggles, the team have mostly done an admirable job staying afloat during James’ absence going 6-5 in their last 11 games. That said, with his return date and severity of his injury still in the dark, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst he’s been told that James is “not close to returning.”
The longer James remains on the sidelines will obviously hinder the team’s short and long-term chances, so this report does throw some water on the fanbase’s hopes of a nearing return.
That said, while Windhorst’s words hold weight — especially given his past relationship with James — the most recent news coming from the the team directly does suggest there’s still hope James shouldn't be ruled out yet.
Prior to the Lakers’ win over the Magic, Darvin Ham offered perhaps the most encouraging update we’ve received on James since he suffered his injury three weeks ago, as he stated the team “anticipates” James will be back this season.
Obviously a huge boost if this comes to fruition, what level James is able to perform after missing considerable time will ultimately determine how much noise the Lakers can make the rest of the way. James is scheduled for a revaluation on March 23rd.
Although they have suffered some slippage to varying heartbreaking degrees recently, the Lakers still may hold their postseason fate in their hands.
Whether it’s the matchups against those in direct proximity in the standings or James potentially nearing a return, their best route to the playoffs ultimately comes down to winning. Other teams hitting a decline will help, but as long as they handle their own business, the Lakers can keep finding a way to play basketball a little longer.
The season that was once previously written off, somehow keeps adding chapters.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.