With the trade deadline a few weeks back in the rearview mirror, we enter the final three weeks of the NBA season. The league has worked hard to provide for a full season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and to date, every team has managed to play at least 60 of 72 scheduled games thus far. Barring a major disaster, the league will head into a 20-team playoff beginning on or around May 22.
For the Los Angeles Lakers, the playoffs can’t start soon enough. Los Angeles started the season strong and had the league’s best record heading into All-Star weekend. But injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James have turned what was a juggernaut team into a squad that is simply trying to make it to the end of the season in playoff contention.
The Lakers have fallen five places in the Western Conference to 6th place since losing Davis and James, and risk falling further back in the pack if they can’t find a way to finish strong. Conversely, they remain the favorites to win the Western Conference. According to betoclock.com, the Lakers are a +250 favorite to repeat as Western Conference champions despite their free fall in the standings.
New Playoff Format
The league has decided to expand the playoffs this year from 16 to 20 teams. The top 6 teams in each conference will automatically advance to the playoffs. The next 4 teams from each conference (teams seeded from 7 to 10 in the standings) will be involved in a play-in tournament to fill out the final 4 spots.
The play-in tournament in each conference will work as follows. The 7 and 8 seeds will play one game, and the winner will secure the 7th spot and advance to the playoffs. The loser of the 7th and 8th seed will play the winner of a game between the 9th and 10th seed, with the winner of this game will advance as the number 8 seed.
In this format, the 9th and 10th seed will have to win two games in order to advance and secure the 8th seed in the conference standings, wherein the 7th and 8th seed need only win a single game to secure a position. Once the play-in tournament is complete, teams will face each other in the traditional 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc. format.
The Lakers are currently on the play-in bubble, in 6th place in the Western Conference with only two games separating them from the 8th seed.
Who Will Los Angeles Face?
With just 11 games remaining in the season and so much uncertainty regarding the return of Davis and James, forecasting who the Lakers might face in the playoffs is difficult. However, if we look at the standings it’s possible to narrow it down somewhat.
With a 36-25 record, Los Angeles sits in 5th place, 6 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers. 1 game in front of the Dallas Mavericks, 2 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers, and a full 4 games better than the Memphis Grizzlies. Catching the Clippers seems out of the question, as does falling behind the Grizzlies.
This means it will likely boil down to a race between three teams, the Lakers, the Mavericks, and the Trail Blazers for the 5-6-7 seeds. With only two games separating the three teams, it’s almost impossible to guess which two teams avoid the play-in scenario. In terms of the Lakers, their playoff fate likely rests not the return of both Davis and James down the stretch.
All Bets Are Action
Despite this uncertainty, bookmakers are still handicapping possible playoff opponents. Currently, odds for a first-round matchup include the Clippers at +525, the Utah Jazz at +750, the Phoenix Suns at +1,000, and the Denver Nuggets at +2800. If you prefer, you can place your action on long shots such as the Mavericks at +4000, the Trail Blazers at +6500, or the super long shot San Antonio Spurs paying +50000.