For much of the season, the Lakers final week of the season looked set to be a daunting one. Matchups with the Clippers and Suns were always going to be tough, but the Jazz emerged as one of the surprises of the season and were only set to make it more difficult for the Lakers.
Fast forward to current day, and Utah looks more like the tanking team many projected them to be, partially due to their own decisions and partially due to injury. The latter of those will serve to be most impactful as the team announced on Monday that standout rookie Walker Kessler had entered concussion protocol. With just a week remaining in the season, his rookie campaign is likely over.
Source: Jazz rookie center Walker Kessler is entering concussion protocol, likely ending his season.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) April 3, 2023
Kessler is expected to be an All-Rookie selection after averaging 9.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting 72% from the floor.
The Lakers are set to play the Jazz on Tuesday and Sunday this week. The first of those contests will certainly not feature Kessler and the latter is a little more up in the air.
Given some other decisions made by Utah of late, it’s likely they won’t risk bringing Kessler back. Last week, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the team had effectively shut down Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton, something head coach Will Hardy pushed back against.
Will Hardy says Jazz haven’t shut down Collin Sexton or Jordan Clarkson for the season (as reported here: https://t.co/q7ROPtA8mG), and that he hopes both of those players return soon. Both players played 3-on-3 after shootaround today. https://t.co/P15B0M2bwm— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) March 31, 2023
Even still, Clarkson has played one time since Feb. 25 and Sexton hasn’t played since Feb. 15. It would make little sense to bring them back for a final week that is effectively meaningless.
Technically, Utah is in the play-in race still but 1.5 games behind the Thunder for the 10th seed and do not hold the tiebreaker against them, though they could still tie the season series with a win this week. For all intents and purposes though, they are out of the running.
The Jazz have also already lost six of their last seven games and are falling further and further back of the play-in spots with their only win in that span coming against one of the league’s worst teams in the Spurs.
Perhaps of more interest for Danny Ainge and the franchise is the fact they are nearly as close to finishing with the seventh-best lottery odds as they are the 10th seed in the play-in race.
Without three of their best remaining players, though, the team is low on depth. While All-Star Lauri Markkanen is still playing, but the team has relied heavily upon Talen Horton-Tucker with mixed results, Kris Dunn — who wasn’t in the league as recently as mid-February — and Juan Toscano-Anderson.
None of this is to necessarily indicate it’ll be an easy game, but it’ll be an easier game for the Lakers than previously believed. And that could be a big difference-maker for a team looking to potentially avoid the play-in game.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.