Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
The Portland Trail Blazers, who went 2-1 against the Lakers to claim the head-to-head advantage, cruised past the Denver Nuggets in their regular-season finale against the Denver Nuggets. As a result, the Blazers secured the sixth seed in the Western Conference and doomed Los Angeles to the No. 7 seed.
The Lakers will face off with the Golden State Warriors in their first play-in game.
The reigning champions haven’t been in serious danger of missing out on the postseason at any point, but injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James have raised questions of whether they can make a successful title defense.
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel confirmed in February that Davis was dealing with a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis and would be out for four weeks. While obviously a setback, Los Angeles still had James, who has played at an MVP level.
However, those four weeks came and went as Vogel told reporters March 25 that Davis was “still a ways away.”
As one would expect, the Lakers struggled without their two best players.
Los Angeles remained second in the Western Conference at 28-14, 2.5 games back of the Utah Jazz, when it fell to the Hawks in March. The Ringer’s Zach Kram explained how the ground they lost in the standings could prove costly:
“Even if the Lakers stabilize sufficiently to avoid the play-in game, if they fall outside the top four in the conference, they’ll also sacrifice home-court advantage. That’s not a prohibitive loss, but mathematically, we’d expect best-of-seven series between evenly matched teams to go to a Game 7 about 30 percent of the time, and home-court advantage does matter in that situation. …
“The Lakers’ pessimistic forecast this postseason arises not because the Odds Machine believes the Lakers are bad, but because it believes the rest of the league’s best teams are so good that LeBron’s path will be harder than ever. Personally, I’d still take a healthy Lakers squad head-to-head against any team in any series. But against four high-caliber opponents in a row, without home-court advantage, and with questionable health for the two stars? That’s a lot of uncertainty stacked up, thus the model’s skepticism.”
Earlier this month, James said the person behind the play-in tournament concept “needs to be fired,” which some read as a tacit admission of how difficult life could be for his team.
The Utah Jazz have been the NBA’s best team. The addition of Chris Paul has had the intended effect of accelerating the Phoenix Suns‘ timeline. The Nuggets are stronger after having acquired Aaron Gordon ahead of the trade deadline. And the Los Angeles Clippers will be looking to atone for last year’s playoff collapse.
The Lakers are on pace to get the Suns or Jazz in the first round, and their road to the Finals won’t get any easier from there.
James has been so good at ensuring he’s capable of playing at a high level in the postseason, to the point where his teams have sometimes performed far better than they did in the regular season.
Nobody is writing Los Angeles off for good. But between the injuries to Davis and James and the mileage the players from last year’s squad have accumulated, the Lakers might end up running out of gas this summer in pursuit of an 18th ring.