The Los Angeles Lakers are now tied with the Mavericks and the Blazers for the 5-7 spots in the Western Conference, which makes for a very real scenario in which the defending champs find themselves in the NBA’s new play-in tournament.
With eight games to play — including a very important game in Portland that will decide the tiebreaker between those two teams — the Lakers need to figure something out to turn around a current 1-6 run of play. Doing so will be difficult, as Dennis Schröder may be out for all eight games in the league’s health and safety protocols, while LeBron James is actively battling continued discomfort in the ankle that kept him out for 20 games and forced him to leave Sunday’s loss to the Raptors midway through the fourth quarter.
After the game, frustrations were evident in the Lakers locker room, and LeBron had some choice words for the league and their new play-in format.
LeBron James on the play-in tournament: "Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired"
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) May 3, 2021
James joins Luka Dončić and Mark Cuban of the Mavs in being teams that have found themselves somewhat surprisingly in play-in range and suddenly voicing their displeasure with the format. For both, it’s understandable, as they feel like it has been out of their control that they’ve slid to this point, battling various injuries and COVID issues. On the other hand, the league is getting what it wants from the play-in, which is teams in the middle of the playoff pack — teams that normally would have little to play for in the 5-7 range down the stretch — suddenly in games that matter every night.
The point of the play-in was to make for more things to play for in the regular season, and it has delivered exactly that. There aren’t really races for the 10-seed, although it’s possible the teams in 11th make a late push like the Raptors and Pelicans, but the battle for 6th and avoiding the play-in and the battle for 8th to avoid needing two wins to make the playoffs are both very real in both conferences. That’s what the league wanted, and while it surely didn’t want to see the Lakers as one of the teams in the play-in, I bet the NBA won’t be too sad that Lakers fans, Celtics fans, and others are having to be more dialed in late in the regular season and, possibly, to an extra game or two prior to the playoffs.
There has been chatter that if the Lakers missed the playoffs due to the play-in the league would reconsider its stance on keeping it longterm, but if the Lakers can’t win one of two games against the 8 and 9 or 10 seeds, they probably would’ve had a short trip to the postseason in the first place. Alternately, the story of L.A. making a run from the play-in to go deep in the playoffs (while also getting one or two additional Laker games on TV) would be even better for the league, so I wouldn’t expect any change of mind as to the efficacy of the play-in moving forward.