The reigning NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers will take a surprising next step in defense of that crown. On Wednesday, the LA Lakers host the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference play-in tournament. The winner of that game secures the No. 7 seed and a first-round meeting with the Phoenix Suns.
The Lakers-Warriors loser still has another chance for a playoff berth. The loser will host the winner of Wednesday’s San Antonio Spurs-Memphis Grizzlies elimination game. That game on Friday will be a winner-takes-all matchup for the No. 8 seed and a matchup with the top-seeded Utah Jazz.
LA will be attempting to do something never before done; win an NBA championship from one of the bottom two rungs on the playoff bracket. It makes sense no team has ever done it. A marginal playoff qualifier having to fight upstream without home-court advantage and against the top tier of their conference faces long odds. But the Lakers, while wounded, are still the champs until someone proves otherwise.
History not on the side of the LA Lakers
Since the NBA expanded the playoffs to a 16-team field for the 1983–84 season, only 10 teams seeded in the last two spots have advanced through the first round. Just two of those teams advanced to the conference finals and only one, the 1999 New York Knicks, went to the NBA Finals. No team seeded lower than sixth (the 1994–95 Houston Rockets) has won a championship.
Only one defending NBA champion has been in the low-rent district of the bracket. The 2011–12 Dallas Mavericks finished seventh in the Western Conference, and the Oklahoma City Thunder quickly swept them out of the first round. But that Mavs club had some obstacles. They were the NBA’s oldest team at an average age of 31.3. Point guard Jason Kidd missed 18 games with injuries. And there was the unfortunate Lamar Odom experience that helped fracture team chemistry,
Including that Dallas club, five teams have been seeded fifth or worse the year after winning the title. One defending champion missed the field entirely (still in play for the Lakers with two losses this week). The 1999 Chicago Bulls, however, resembled the 1998 version of the team in that the uniforms were the same. That was about it.
Here are how those previous five defending champions fared from the lower part of the bracket:
- 1994–95 Houston Rockets: No. 6, won NBA title
- 1995–96 Houston Rockets: No. 5, swept in conference semifinals
- 2002–03 LA Lakers: No. 5, lost 4-2 in conference semifinals
- 2011–12 Dallas Mavericks: No. 7, swept in the first round
- 2014–15 San Antonio Spurs: No. 6, lost a first-round Game 7
The LA Lakers do have reason to believe they have some factors in their favor as they embark on their postseason journey.
How the Lakers differ from their predecessors
The 2020–21 LA Lakers are not the 2011–12 Dallas Mavericks. There are similarities, however. Each team defended its title in a disrupted season. The Mavericks faced the lockout-shortened season that didn’t begin until Christmas Day in 2011. The Lakers dealt with a four-month delay in 2019–20 due to COVID-19, didn’t wrap up the championship until Oct. 11, and had to open a compressed 72-game schedule a little more than two months later.
LA is one of the oldest teams in the NBA, with an average age of 28.2, but that is significantly younger than the team that defended the title in Dallas. The Lakers have a pair of superstars, and each of them missed significant time with injuries. LeBron James was out for 27 games with an ankle injury, while Anthony Davis missed precisely half the season (36 games) with various health issues.
Along with the other bumps and bruises (and coronavirus protocols) of the season and LA was in a state of flux, deploying 25 starting lineups in 72 games. More than half of those units, 13, were one-offs, and the Lakers were just 4-9 in those games. The encouraging part of this is that in 20 games with their most often used lineup (James, Davis, Dennis Schröder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Marc Gasol), LA was 15-5.
The LA Lakers still have to get there, though
Unlike any of the other teams from other seasons mentioned above, the Lakers aren’t assured of anything yet. The new play-in format brought added interest to the end of the regular season, to be sure. James, however, was not a fan of the play-in tournament when it became apparent his team was likely to be involved in it.
But should the LA Lakers win on Wednesday or Friday, either the Suns or the Jazz will have their hands full dealing with a defending champ trying to prove it can make an unprecedented run.
Historical data courtesy of Basketball Reference.