What Must Happen for Los Angeles Lakers to Make the 2022 NBA Playoffs?

Breaking news: The Los Angeles Lakers are in the stretch run of a massively disappointing 2021-22 NBA season that has seen them fail to live up to the lofty preseason expectations and plummet toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Unfathomable as it may once have seemed heading into the season-opening contest against the Golden State Warriors, LA no longer controls its own playoff destiny during the final week of the campaign.

With Anthony Davis battling injuries throughout the year, Russell Westbrook struggling to play effective and efficient basketball on both ends of the floor, and LeBron James chasing the scoring title with only 56 games under his belt during the least impactful year he’s had in quite some time, the Lakers need some help from another Western Conference squad just to get into the play-in tournament and retain a shot at one of the eight postseason spots.

The Los Angeles Lakers currently sit at No. 11 and in a bad position

Anthony Davis looks down after a Los Angeles Lakers loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on after being defeated by the Denver Nuggets 129-118 | Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

To keep this disappointing season alive, the Lakers need only finish with one of the 10 best records in the Western Conference — tiebreakers included. But considering they’re coming out of the brief Monday hiatus with a 31-47 record that leaves them ahead of only the Sacramento Kings, Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Houston Rockets, they’re fighting an uphill battle.

Let’s take a quick peek at the relevant part of the Western standings, excluding the top eight seeds in the conference as those are already set in stone (as top-eight teams, not necessarily concerning the order in which they’ll finish):

Current SeedWLGB
9. New Orleans Pelicans344428.0
10. San Antonio Spurs334529.0
11. Los Angeles Lakers314731.0

With only four games remaining, the Lakers can’t chase down their fellow Hollywood-dwellers at No. 8. In fact, none of the teams listed above can catch the 39-40 Los Angeles Clippers, which means the squad awaiting a possible return from Kawhi Leonard can rest on its laurels (a bit) during the final week.

The Kings, sitting at No. 12 with a 29-50 record, are also basically irrelevant in this conversation. They could pass the Lakers to finish 11th, but they’re mathematically eliminated from play-in contention.

This comes down to the Pelicans, Spurs, and Lakers — three teams chasing two spots in the end-of-season tournament.

The Los Angeles Lakers also have a tiebreaker problem

Let’s say the Lakers somehow win their final four games. They still wouldn’t control their own destiny because their ensuing 35-47 record would be vulnerable to both the Pelicans and the Spurs. Even more problematically, they’d be the odd team out in the event of a tie with either or both of the opposing organizations.

The Pelicans swept the three-game season series against the Purple and Gold with victories on Feb. 27, March 27, and April 1 by a combined 39 points. And though LA and San Antonio split their season series, the latter has the tiebreaker because of a superior conference record.

Even in the event that all three teams finish with the same record, the Lakers would be in trouble because the first relevant tiebreaker is record in all games between the tied teams:

  1. San Antonio Spurs: 5-3 against the Pelicans and Lakers
  2. New Orleans Pelicans: 4-3 against the Spurs and Lakers
  3. Los Angeles Lakers: 2-5 against the Pelicans and Spurs

The Lakers have to finish at least a game ahead of either the Pelicans or the Spurs without any head-to-head games remaining between any of them, and that’s a tough ask. Even if they close out the season on a four-game winning streak, they’d need the Pelicans to go 0-4 or the Spurs to go no better than 1-3.

Sorry, Lakers fans, but it’s not going to happen

We’ve avoided actually analyzing the remaining games to this point, but let’s change that.

According to Tankathon, the Spurs do have a brutal remaining schedule that leaves them with a more difficult slate than every team but the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics. With games against the Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Timberwolves, all postseason squads jockeying for positioning, they could very well go 0-4.

The Pelicans, though, check in at No. 13 in remaining schedule strength. The games left on their calendar come against the Memphis Grizzlies, Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, and Sacramento Kings, and those last two aren’t particularly motivated outfits considering they’re already eliminated from contention and could be resting key pieces.

Even one victory guarantees New Orleans a finish ahead of Los Angeles. We can basically remove the possibility of passing the bayou-based squad.

So let’s assume the Spurs do actually drop each of their four remaining games. The Lakers would still have to finish with a 3-1 record in this best-case scenario. The problem, though, is that they have the No. 5 strength of schedule and would have to drop only one game against a murderers’ row that includes the Phoenix Suns, Warriors, Nuggets, and Oklahoma City Thunder.

The other problem? Anthony Davis is still reintegrating into the lineup, LeBron James has had difficulty staying healthy, and the Lakers as a whole have posted a -7.8 net rating since the All-Star break that tops only the marks earned by the Thunder (-8.5) and Trail Blazers (-19.8).

Until James is officially eliminated, it’s impossible to count him out entirely. But beating the Thunder and then two of the Suns, Warriors, and Nuggets, the last two of whom are battling for seeding in the top half of the West, is simply too tall an order for a team currently on a six-game losing streak.

It’s not going to happen. And even if it somehow does, navigating the play-in tourney to claim one of the eight Western Conference seeds would be tougher still.

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com and accurate heading into games on April 5.

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