Kevin PeltonESPN Senior Writer4 minute reading
Can the Los Angeles Lakers still reach the play-in tournament with LeBron James sidelined by a tendon injury in his right foot?
The Lakers announced Thursday that James will be reevaluated in about three weeks after he missed their last two games with the injury. That timeline puts James’ return in late March at best, with the end of the regular season looming.
With 19 games left to play, the Lakers are in 11th place in the Western Conference, one game behind the New Orleans Pelicans for the final play-in spot.
James’ injury, which came during a promising comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks, likely ends realistic hopes of avoiding the play-in by climbing all the way to the sixth seed.
But that doesn’t mean we won’t see the Lakers in the playoffs at all. After bolstering their roster at the trade deadline, can the Lakers move up into the playoffs — or at least stay in contention for it — while James heals?
Let’s consider the cases for optimism and pessimism about their chances.
Why the Lakers’ trade deadline was clutch
Wednesday’s win over the slumping Oklahoma City Thunder brought the Lakers to 6-10 this season with James sidelined. Perhaps more notably, it was their second win in six games without either James or Anthony Davis, who sat out the second game of a back-to-back with a stress injury in his right foot.
That result was a tribute to the Lakers’ improvement at the deadline. Although guard D’Angelo Russell also missed Wednesday’s game with a sprained ankle, newcomers Mo Bamba, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt all started for the Lakers, with Rui Hachimura — added in an earlier trade this season — playing 27 minutes away. bench.
Even when the newcomers don’t excel, they push those who started earlier in the season into smaller roles. Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker IV both came off the bench Wednesday, combining for 32 points. Meanwhile, Patrick Beverley and Juan Toscano-Anderson, who started the games James missed early in the season, are not on the roster.
As a result, I wouldn’t necessarily read much into the Lakers’ overall record without James. This is a far deeper, stronger team than the one that started 1-4 this season in games both James and Davis missed.
The schedule is back in LA’s favor
If beating the Thunder, who have lost their last five games to fall one game behind the Lakers in the standings, was an indication of the Lakers’ potential after the trades, then Tuesday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies despite 28 points and 19 boards from Davis was a reminder of their limited margin for error.
That’s why it’s important that the Lakers, after completing a three-game road trip, have seen the schedule turn back in their favor. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers have an easier schedule the rest of the way, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI), with the Lakers set to play 12 of their final 19 regular season games at home.
The downside is the most challenging part: The remaining schedule comes during the period James will miss. Including a rematch with the Grizzlies next Tuesday in LA, the Lakers’ next six games are all against teams with superior records. Three of them are doubly important because they come against other teams in the West play-in mix, including visiting the Pelicans on March 14.
The schedule will begin to level out in mid-March, when the Lakers will face just two teams that will currently reach the postseason over the course of seven games, with five of them at home. The Lakers must collect wins during that span to keep pace in the West play-in race. It’s possible James could be back at the end of those games, which include a home set against the Chicago Bulls.
The other good news for the Lakers is that none of the five teams currently in the play-in mix have gone better than 4-6 over their last 10 games. Several of those contenders are dealing with injuries of their own, including Karl-Anthony Towns still sidelined for the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans playing without frontcourt starters Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas.
If the Lakers can just go .500 with James out of the lineup, that could be enough to put them in play-in position when he returns.
Why play-in seeding is also important
There is a tendency to discuss the play-in tournament as a binary issue – either in or out. While finishing 11th would give the Lakers zero chance of making the playoffs, the path is much more difficult for the ninth- and tenth-place teams, who must win twice to advance through the play-ins.
That’s where the math is less favorable for the Lakers. The odds of them taking one of the four teams ahead of them in the standings are good, but passing several teams this late in the season will be challenging. Projections using BPI have either ninth or tenth as the most likely outcome for the Lakers.
If the Lakers are stuck outside the West’s top eight going into the playoffs, that means playing two games to reach the first round while their potential opponent — almost certainly the top-seeded Denver Nuggets in that scenario, because a team going into the playoffs — in ninth or 10th could end up just like the eighth seed — resting and preparing for the playoffs.
As a result, the implications of James’ current injury could still be felt in April even with the Lakers do advance to the playoffs.