The Los Angeles Lakers have been locked in a spirited battle with the Phoenix Suns for last place in the Western Conference. The purple and gold are doing their part, as they were embarrassed by the Suns in the final game before the All-Star break, have not won a game since, and are currently in the midst of a six game losing streak.
The Suns, with a record of 20-42, were keeping pace but have just won two in a row, dropping the Lakers to the bottom of the Western Division standings to the delight of fans who want to see the team tank. With their latest defeat to the Boston Celtics, Luke Walton’s crew is sitting with a conference-low 19 wins against 43 losses.
No one is going to catch the Brooklyn Nets, who are trailing everyone by a wide margin and are a lock for the league’s worst record this year. However, the competition has been fierce between Phoenix and Los Angeles for the second worst record.
At stake for the Lakers is their foreseeable future. As everyone knows, if they don’t end up with a top-3 pick in this year’s draft, they forfeit their selection to the Philadelphia 76ers. Not only that, but they would also lose their first round choice in the 2019 draft.
The lower a team finishes in the standings, the better the statistical odds of securing a top-three pick in the lottery. Finishing with the second-worst record would give the Lakers a 55.8 percent chance of keeping the pick and a 19.9 percent chance of landing the top overall selection. If the Lakers were to have the third-worst record those percentages would drop to 46.9 and 15.6 respectively.
Los Angeles desperately needs the pick, either to draft another top young prospect or to use as a valuable asset in a trade. After enduring such a miserable season, it would be devastating were they to walk away with nothing.
The Suns and Lakers have no real competition at this point other than themselves. The teams nearest to them in the standings are the Orlando Magic and the Philadelphia 76ers, both of whom have 23 wins. With the way they’re playing right now, it seems highly unlikely that the Lakers will win four more games this season, and if they do, that the Magic and the 76ers won’t win at least another game or two themselves.
There is reason for optimism if you are a Lakers fan. On paper, the Suns should be better than the Lakers and it is not all that close. They have three great scorers at the guard position, Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, and Brandon Knight. Up front they have a good veteran center in Tyson Chandler and another big body who kills the Lakers every time they meet in Alex Len. Marquese Chriss has also been one of the league’s top rookies this season. Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley are solid veterans off the bench.
If there was any question about which team is better, that debate pretty much ended when the Suns crushed the Lakers by 36 points last month in Phoenix, in one of the worst defeats of the year for Luke Walton’s squad. The Suns have regularly beaten the Lakers the past few years, and look good doing it. Unfortunately, they seem to save their best for when they play the purple and gold because they struggle to defeat any other team.
Phoenix and Los Angeles both have 20 games remaining until their seasons their seasons come to an inglorious end. They face each other one more time, on March 9 in Phoenix, in a contest that is currently scheduled to be broadcast on national television. Of the Suns’ 20 remaining games, 11 are at home and 9 are on the road, but their away schedule includes a six game east coast road trip which the Lakers have mercifully already endured and put behind them this year.
Among the difficult opponents that Phoenix will face over the next five weeks are the Washington Wizards, Boston Celtics (twice), Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, and Houston Rockets. Of course, they also get to face teams that are struggling right now like the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks (twice), Sacramento Kings (twice), Brooklyn Nets, and Detroit Pistons.
Of their 20 remaining contests, the Lakers will play 12 at Staples Center (13, actually, since they will play the Clippers one more time as the road team). Among the biggest challenges will be the Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzles, San Antonio Spurs, and the Golden State Warriors.
Among the teams the Lakers will play who are struggling right now include the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves (twice), and Sacramento Kings (twice). Of course, as the Lakers have shown repeatedly this season, none of these opponents will go quietly. The Lakers have already lost to most of them this year, including two of the season’s most embarrassing defeats which came at the hands of the Mavericks.
The Lakers have more at stake since they risk losing their top pick altogether, while the Suns are not in that position. It could be a real nail-biter, and Lakers fans will no doubt be rooting for the Suns to win as much as they’ll be rooting for the Lakers to lose. What a strange era this is for Lakers basketball.