Zwiller: Why the Lakers should be worried
Thomas Zwiller | Monday, March 29, 2021
When the Lakers player Anthony Davis went down against Denver Nuggets with an Achilles and calf injury, I wasn’t initially all that worried. I thought if the Lakers went just a bit over .500 for the next month, they would be fine. LeBron could power through it and keep them in position to stay in the West’s top four. The Lakers did just that; the Lakers went 7-6 from AD’s injury to the most recent development, LeBron James’s injury. James went down in a game against the Atlanta Hawks and is expected to miss four to six weeks. And now, the Lakers need to be worried.
The Current Western Conference Standings
The Utah Jazz are currently still the best team in the West; they are 34-11 and look like they should finish first. I say it looks like because the Phoenix Suns are only 3.5 games back and are quietly becoming one of the best teams in the NBA. The LA Clippers are only a half-game back from the Suns, placing them four behind the Jazz. The Lakers are now fourth (before the injuries, they were in third) and they are 1.5 back of the Clippers, which is good news. The bad news, they are only 1.5 games ahead of both the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trailblazers. Those two teams are 7-3 and 6-4 through their last 10, respectively, so there is no reason they shouldn’t catch the Lakers. In seventh are the San Antonio Spurs, who are 4.5 games back of the Lakers.
What all this means
The Lakers are sitting at fourth right now, meaning they would play the Nuggets if the playoffs started today, which is a tough enough matchup. But, with the loss of James until sometime in May, I think the Lakers will fall even further than fourth. The current schedule for the Lakers will have them play seventeen games between now and May 2. My current projections have them going 7.5 and 9.5 during that span, and that is a generous estimate; some estimates are closer to 6-11 or 5-12, which is feasible. That losing stretch will likely see the Lakers drop in the standings.
Denver has gone 7-3 in their last 10 and shows no sign of slowing. The Nuggets play 20 games between now and LeBron’s projected return, and I have them going somewhere around 13-7. This would be more than enough to put the Nuggets in contention for fourth, if not third (the Clippers giving away Lou Williams for Rajon Rondo could hurt the Clippers).
Portland has a similar case to Denver for moving up while the Lakers struggle. The Trailblazers will also play 20 games while the Laker’s stars are recovering. Like the Nuggets, there is no reason to think they won’t catch up and pass the Lakers. I can easily see the Trailblazers going, say 11-9 or 12-8 over the next twenty games. That should be more than enough for fifth, dropping the Lakers to sixth.
So, if my forecasts are accurate (which I believe them to be, my model picks at a 60% accuracy), the Lakers can fall somewhat easily to sixth by the start of May. That’s not the end of the world; the Lakers would still have seven games to try and catch the Nuggets and Trailblazers. I don’t think it would be enough to do so (as five weeks is optimistic for James) but assuming AD is back by then, it is possible, albeit unlikely. Something else that is possible, albeit unlikely, is the Lakers fall even further to the seventh seed. This may initially not seem all that bad, but those who follow the NBA know this is the first year with a play-in tournament.
The Play-in Tournament
The seventh seed would play the 10th seed, and the eighth seed would play the ninth seed. The seventh and eighth seed would only need to win one game, whereas the ninth and 10th need to win two. Should the Lakers stumble, and their losing streak continues through May, they could go to the seventh seed. The current seventh seed would be the San Antonio Spurs, but I think the more likely candidate would be the Dallas Mavericks. I have the Mavericks going 40-32, which is right around where the Lakers should finish. That means the Lakers could finish in seventh, meaning they would be in the play-in tournament.
Assuming the Lakers fall to the seventh seed, I think the odds are good they would play the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans are 1-1 against the Lakers, with the final game being on May 16th. I don’t think the Lakers would lose the Pelicans series, but it could go to two games. If they do survive the Pelicans, the Lakers could play either the Suns or the Clippers. Neither of those are a matchup the Lakers would like to see that early in the playoffs.
But remember, none of this is all that likely to happen, especially with the addition of former Cleveland Cavaliers Center Andre Drummond. I think they will likely fall to the fifth seed, or at best stay in the fourth seed. But still, the point still stands, the Lakers are going to slip and have a tougher go of the playoffs.
Any series between the Lakers and the Clippers or the Suns could extend to six or seven games. With LeBron and AD getting back from recent injuries, the more games they play, the higher the chance of reinjury. To quote my favorite basketball podcast, the Lowe Post (with Zach Lowe), the most significant reinjury indicator is prior injury. The Lakers would have to play the Suns, then the Clippers and then the Jazz. All of that, only to face the Brooklyn Nets or the Philadelphia 76ers in the Finals. Those are going to be long series even with a healthy LeBron and AD.
Much like Kevin Durant when the Warriors played the Raptors, the chance of re-injury is a good one, and it could derail the Lakers not only this season but future seasons. While being incredible when in games, Durant has only played 19 games this season, and that is after missing a whole year. Or look at Klay Thompson; he has missed the past two years due to two separate (albeit arguably related) injuries. The Lakers are an incredible team with LeBron and AD, don’t get me wrong, but these injuries may spell the Lakers’ end.
The Lakers will fall; there is no question about that. Just how far they fall, nobody knows. But I do know one thing; Lakers fans should be worried about their chances of defending their title.