Why LeBron James and the LA Lakers Should Embrace Their Spot in the NBA Play-In Tournament

Given his recent comments, LeBron James obviously isn’t a fan of the new NBA play-in tournament. But if LeBron and the LA Lakers want to win a second consecutive NBA title, it’s essentially now a guarantee that’s the road they’ll have to take as it’s going to be very difficult for them to move into the top six in the Western Conference standings during this final weekend of the regular season.

But you know what? The Lakers should actually be embracing it at this point.

The Lakers are essentially guaranteed to end up in the NBA play-in tournament

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Mathematically, the Lakers still have a chance to get into the top six in the West and could even claim the No. 5 seed. But the actual chances of that happening are quite low.

With two games remaining on their schedule, the Lakers are currently 40-30 and sit in seventh place in the West, a half-game back of the Portland Trail Blazers (41-30) and a full game back of the Dallas Mavericks (41-29). The bad news for LA is that it loses the tiebreaker to both teams. And both are 8-2 in their last 10 games, the only two teams in the West with such a mark in that span.

The Lakers finish the season on the road as they visit the Indiana Pacers on Saturday and the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday. Whether LeBron James plays in those games remains to be seen. He’s apparently set to return, but that hasn’t yet been officially confirmed at the time of this writing.

So if the Lakers win both and the Blazers lose their final game to the Nuggets on Sunday, LA can slide into the No. 6 spot as it would be 42-30 with Portland at 41-31. For LA to pass Dallas, the Mavericks would need to lose to both the Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves this weekend, which would also put the Mavs at 41-31. But if the Lakers lose one of their final two games, they’re automatically in the NBA play-in tournament. And one win from Portland or Dallas does the same.

LeBron James could use more rest, but the NBA play-in tournament gives him time to get back into the swing of things

LA Lakers star LeBron James warms up ahead of a March 2021 matchup with the Atlanta Hawks
LA Lakers star LeBron James warms up ahead of a March 2021 matchup with the Atlanta Hawks | Michael Owens/Getty Images

If and (likely) when the Lakers end up in the NBA play-in tournament, they’re guaranteed two games. They can’t finish lower than seventh in the West as they’re three games up on both the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies with two games to go.

So let’s say LeBron returns on Saturday afternoon against the Pacers and then also plays on Sunday in New Orleans. That’s two games to help him get back into the swing of things after missing all but two games since March 20 with an ankle injury. There would then be the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup in the play-in tourney.

If LA wins that, it wouldn’t have to play a second game as it would automatically get the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference bracket. But if it loses, it would still get a second chance as it would face the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 game. The winner of that contest would get the No. 8 seed in the West bracket.

Is it ideal? Certainly not. But whether it’s one extra game or two, it’s time for LeBron to get his timing back, not to mention the chemistry with his teammates. Sure, an extra six days off by avoiding the play-in tourney would be nice, but this could end up working out in their favor, not just in terms of getting James more reps but also in who the Lakers would play (or not play) in the first round if they got there.

The matchups for the Lakers are better if they’re the seventh or eighth seed

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If the Lakers somehow do end up getting the No. 6 seed, they’d obviously square off with the No. 3 seed in the West, which is currently the LA Clippers. And that’s not a matchup the Lakers want, at least not right away. When they’ve had some time to amp up, sure, that would be a great series. The Clips could still lose the No. 3 spot to the Denver Nuggets over the weekend. But with games against the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, that probably won’t happen.

The Lakers are far better off taking on one of the top two seeds in the West, the Utah Jazz or the Phoenix Suns, who are both better matchups for LA. The Jazz would be a bit more of a concern, but they’re certainly not as strong as they were even two months ago and are dealing with some injury issues of their own.

As far as the Suns are concerned, the Lakers just proved they can hang there as they bested the Suns by 13 within the last week without James in the lineup. Sure, it took 42 points from Anthony Davis to do it, but if LeBron comes back and AD stays healthy, the Lakers would probably be the favorite against the second-seeded Suns if that’s how things play out.

Again, none of this is ideal for the Lakers as nobody thought they’d be in this position when the season started. But they’re here now, and all they can do is make the best of it.

Standings and schedules courtesy of NBA.com