The Los Angeles Lakers are headed to the postseason, that much we know for sure. But where, when, and who they will play is still yet to be determined.
Ahead of the final game of the regular season, the Lakers currently find themselves tied for 6th place in the Western Conference with the Portland Trail Blazers.
If you think the Lake Show are a lock to make the top six if they defeat the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday, think again. The Blazers currently own the tiebreaker and a Portland win over the Denver Nuggets in their home finale, would send the Lakers into the first ever play-in tournament.
Anything can happen in this elaborate and confusing inaugural play-in tournament. Including the Lakers losing back-to-back games and missing out on the NBA Playoffs altogether.
The good news is that both LeBron James (right ankle) and Dennis Schröder (health and safety protocols) returned to the court on Saturday in their 122-115 victory over the Indiana Pacers. Alex Caruso and Jared Dudley were both active as well, although they did not play in the game. For the first time all season, the Lakers had their full complement of players and appear to be relatively healthy entering the postseason.
The Lakers biggest concern moving forward is rust and cohesion. However, if you think they have their thoughts on who they might face in the playoffs or what seed they might get, think again. When asked about it after the game, LeBron James and Anthony Davis had a very straightforward answer.
"Let the chips fall where they may. Simple as that. We’re ready to go."
Well, if the players aren't going to worry about it, we'll take on that anxiety for them. There's still a handful of postseason scenarios for the Lakers entering int the final game of the regular season on Sunday. Here they are:
Best Case Scenario:
The Lakers defeat the Pelicans, the Nuggets defeat the Blazers, and Los Angeles secures the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
In this scenario, the Lakers avoid the play-in tournament and have a minimum of six days off to rest, recover, practice, and prepare for the Nuggets in the first round.
The Lakers defeated the Nuggets in five games last October in the bubble in Orlando, Florida and are arguably better this year. With the addition of a true point guard in Dennis Schröder, and big man Andre Drummond, the Lakers starting five is stacked.
Marc Gasol headlines a vaunted second unit that includes reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award winner Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, sophomore sensation Talen Horton-Tucker, plucky point guard Alex Caruso, veteran Markieff Morris and sharp-shooters Wesley Matthews and Ben McLemore. Needless to say, the Lakers are deep, and if they're at full strength they can beat anybody in basketball.
The Nuggets are also improved since the bubble, acquiring Aaron Godon, JaVale McGee, and Austin Rivers at the trade deadline. However, they are without their second-best player in point guard Jamal Murray, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
If the Lakers were to defeat the Nuggets, they would face either the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, or Memphis Grizzlies in the second round. In this scenario, they would avoid the L.A. Clippers or Jazz/Suns (best record in the NBA) until the Western Conference Finals.
Most Realistic Scenario:
Fearing a first-round matchup with the fully loaded Lakers, the Nuggets lose to the Blazers on Sunday and Portland avoids the play-in tournament altogether, sending the Lakers into a one-game, winner take all matchup with either the Warriors or Grizzlies.
The Lakers would play that game on Wednesday at Staples Center. Regardless of the opponent, the Lakers would be favored in either matchup and a win would secure the seventh seed and a first-round matchup with either the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz.
Either team would be a tough matchup for the Lakers, but if healthy, they would still be considered the favorites in either of those series. If they advance, they would face either the Nuggets or Blazers in the second round (see best case scenario), and either the Jazz, Suns, Clippers, or Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals.
In the above scenario, the Lakers could lose their play-in game on Wednesday against either the Warriors or Grizzlies and then have to face either of those two teams, or the Spurs in a do-or-die elimination game on Friday at Staples Center. A win, and they secure the eighth-seed in the Western Conference.
Similar to the above scenario, they would face either the Jazz or Suns in the first round, and the Clippers or Mavericks in the second round. If they happen to advance all the way to the Western Conference Finals, it could be a number of teams including the Jazz, Suns, Nuggets, or Blazers as their opponents with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
Worst Case Scenario:
The worst-case scenario is that the Lakers could miss out on the NBA Playoffs altogether. You might be asking yourself: 'How on earth could that possibly happen?' Well, let us explain:
If they defeat the Pelicans on Sunday, the Lakers will finish the 72-game regular season with a record of 42-30, that could be tied for the eighth best record in the entire NBA.
However, thanks to the new play-in format, the Lakers could find themselves on the outside looking in of the top six seeds in the Western Conference. They do not hold the tiebreaker over the Mavericks or the Blazers.
The Lakers could then lose their first play-in game on Wednesday against either the Warriors or Grizzlies, and then lose again on Friday against either of those two teams or the Spurs. If they lose back-to-back play-in games, they are eliminated from the postseason.
Got all that? Everything will be clearer after all 30 NBA teams take the court on Sunday. Not much will be decided however by the time the Lakers tip-off against the Pelicans at 6:00PM PT, as the Clippers, Mavericks, Nuggets, Blazers, and Jazz all start simultaneously. So you might as well just sit back and enjoy the show.
Related Lakers Stories:
The play–in tournament begins on May 18 as both games in the Eastern Conference are scheduled, followed by the Western Conference on May 19.
The NBA Playoffs begin on May 22 with the typical 1-8, 2-7, 3-6, and 4-5 seeding formats. The playoffs are expected to conclude with the NBA Finals no later than July 22.