As the 2022-23 NBA All Star Weekend wraps up, NBA fans are starting to turn their attention towards the playoffs. Naturally, all eyes are currently on the Los Angeles Lakers. After all, they are by far the most popular team in the NBA, and they have the league’s most popular player in LeBron James. The question on everyone’s mind is will the Lakers make the playoffs? This post attempts to answer this question. As an accompaniment to this article, I have built a web tool that allows you to play with playoff scenarios for your favorite team.
So far, the Lakers have had a rough season. Plagued by injuries to stars like Anthony Davis and an arguably poorly constructed roster, they headed into the All-Star break a paltry 27-32 (0.458 win pct). That’s currently good for 13th place in the Western Conference (out of 15).
Luckily for the LeBron and the Lakers, the NBA recently expanded the playoffs so that the top 10 seeds in each conference make the playoffs in some way. Seeds 7-10 now participate in a “play-in tournament” in the following format:
The Race to the 10-Seed
So LeBron and co. just need to make it to the 10-seed to have a shot at the playoffs. But despite what LA fans think, the Lakers don’t play in a vacuum — there are other teams in the league. Currently, the Oklahoma City Thunder hold the 10-seed with a 28-29 record (0.491 win pct). And the Lakers only have 23 games left to catch up.
We can make a simple assumption that all other teams besides the Lakers will maintain their current win pace until the end of the season. Given this simplifying assumption, the Lakers will need to go 14-9 over their remaining 23 games to overtake the Thunder — a 0.609 win pct. Going 14-9 doesn’t sound that tough, but a team that has a 0.609 win pct would actually be the 3rd Seed in the West. In other words, the Lakers will need to perform better than the 3rd Seed (currently the Sacramento Kings) over their remaining games just to reach the 10-seed. The following image summarizes this:
Avoiding the Play-in
Even if the Lakers make the 10-seed, they’ll have to play two consecutive single elimination games just to make the round that Seeds 1-6 start in. In some ways, the NBA playoffs are a battle of attrition. Each round is a best-of-7, so teams must win 4 games to advance through each of the four rounds to the Championship (Round 1, Conference Semifinals, Conference Finals, and Finals). That means teams must win a minimum of 16 games to win a championship — and that’s assuming they sweep each round (which has never happened). Teams playing 7 games each round would play a maximum of 28 games en route to the Championship. To put that in context, that’s anywhere from 20% to 34% as long as the regular season in the playoffs alone.
Given this, it’s advantageous for NBA Playoff Teams to play as few games as possible until the NBA finals. This helps them avoid injuries and fatigue to their star players (let’s not forget that LeBron is 38 and his age has to start showing sometime ….right?). So ostensibly, teams would want to avoid the Play-in Tournament for this reason alone. We can also note that a play-in team has never advanced past the first round.
So tl;dr — what do the Lakers need to do to reach the 6-seed and avoid the Play-in Tournament? The Dallas Mavericks currently hold the 6-seed in the West, with a record of 31-29 (0.517). To surpass this (again, assuming all other performs maintain pace), the Lakers would need to go 16-7 (0.696) over their last 23 games. That win pct is even better than the current 1 seed (Denver Nuggets at 41-18, 0.695). See below for a summary:
538 to the rescue?
All of the above analysis assumes that each team maintains its current win pace. This is admittedly a very simple assumption. After all, many teams have sustained injuries or have majorly retooled through in-season trades (such as the Lakers). So we can perhaps use more advanced analytics to project how teams will fare during the rest of the NBA season. In that spirit, we can look to the 538 Projections for the NBA season, which attempt to take these factors into account.
Luckily for the Lakers, 538 is bullish and projects the Lakers to finish as the 10-seed. We can also take into account 538’s final standings to see what is required for the Lakers to end up as the 6-seed (assuming all other teams finish according to 538 projections).
Here, we see that if we take 538 final standings into account, things are just as dire for the Lakers’ chances of ending as the 6-seed. 538 projects that the Kings will finish as the 6-seed with a 43-39 record (note: 538 actually also projects the Warriors to end 43-39; tiebreakers are arbitrarily chosen by projected point differential). To outdo this, the Lakers would need to finish 16-7 (0.696) over their remaining games. Again, this is better than the current 1 seed (Denver Nuggets at 41-18, 0.695).
See for yourself (+ conclusions)
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I built a simple web tool that allows you to play with playoff scenarios for any team you’d like. The tool allows you to either assume that other teams will maintain their current pace, or use 538 final projections. All images from this article were actually taken from this app, which will automatically update as 538 projections and current standings change. Have funn and go nuts — I hope you enjoy the app!
Overall, things look a little dire for the Lakers. Although 538 projects to make the Play-in Tournament as the last seed, they have an uphill battle ahead of them.
If this post has sounded biased against the Lakers, that’s because it is. I’m an unapologetic Boston Celtics fan (proof). I may or may not have spent a day building this tool entirely to show off how screwed the Lakers are. But I also learned a long time ago to never bet against LeBron James, because he’s the King.
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