The Los Angeles Lakers are in serious danger of missing the playoffs. But will they?
What about the rest of the Western Conference, which, aside from the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder, is basically up for grabs?
And the East? The Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are locks, but it’s a mess after that.
With the final stretch of the 2018-19 NBA regular season upon us, USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt, Martin Rogers, AJ Neuharth-Keusch and Matt Eppers take a look at three of the league’s burning questions in this NBA roundtable.
Will the Lakers make the playoffs?
Zillgitt: One thing I’ve learned over the years covering LeBron James: Never count him out. James last missed the playoffs in 2005, his second season in the league. That’s 13 consecutive playoff appearances and 13 in a row with winning at least one series. James’ streak of reaching the Finals for the ninth consecutive time is in serious jeopardy, but getting to the playoffs, even though the Lakers are in 10th place and three games behind the Clippers, is doable. When the Lakers were healthy this season, they were a top-four team in the West. If they can replicate a portion of that, they can get to the playoffs. But they need James engaged. The faster Lonzo Ball returns to the lineup, the better, too.
Rogers: Not this year. James has the forcefulness to carry a team on his back, but having to do that for seven weeks is a mighty task. Sure, James is enough of a competitor that he won’t love the idea of missing the playoffs, but sneaking in just to be served as Warriors fodder doesn’t sound like a ton of fun. James’ supporting cast looked disinterested and bereft of confidence before the break, and those frailties persist. A mid-March trip will be the acid test, though if they survive it, the home-heavy end to the schedule offers relief. The deciding factor will be that despite James’ influence, there are other teams that are hungrier, and more cohesive.
Neuharth-Keusch: Nope, and it’ll be due to a Sacramento team that hasn’t made the postseason since 2006. James’ groin injury forced him to miss 17 consecutive games, and the Lakers went 6-11 and dropped from fourth in the West to ninth during that span. It’s not insurmountable, and I’ll probably eat my words for betting against LeBron, who says his playoff mode has been “activated.” But I’m doing it anyway. Also worth noting: The Lakers have the ninth-toughest schedule in the league for the remainder of the season, per Tankathon.
Eppers: Yes, but with a bit of trepidation. Los Angeles is teetering on the brink, with most statistical models currently having the Lakers out, and the last seven weeks are going to be a real fight. The Clippers and Kings aren’t going away, and even Minnesota is still lingering. But the Lakers have the ultimate deciding factor in the best player, and I’m still not ready to bet against a LeBron-led team making the playoffs. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Final three teams to make East playoffs?
Zillgitt: It’s essentially six teams – if you want to count Washington – vying for the final three spots. Sixth-place Brooklyn has been consistent enough all season to earn a spot, which leaves five teams for two spots: Charlotte, Detroit, Miami, Orlando and Washington. All five are under .500 and have been inconsistent enough to make this a difficult decision. It’s a bit of a crapshoot, but I’m going with Charlotte and Miami. The Hornets believe it’s important to get in, and the Heat have been good enough on the road to sneak in – if they can win games at home.
Rogers: Much-matured DeAngelo Russell will ensure the Nets hold their advantage and lock up sixth. The Magic are surging behind Nikola Vucevic and should ride that momentum into the postseason. The Hornets will need to make the most of having seven of their first eight post-All Star games at the Spectrum Center. But I don’t like the look of their schedule, packed with late road swings and match-ups against teams with plenty to play for. Instead, the Pistons are good for eighth, provided Blake Griffin remains productive.
Neuharth-Keusch: Brooklyn, Miami and Detroit. The Nets have the best chance of any of these teams to do it. The Heat and Pistons could very well lose out to the Hornets and Magic, but the Heat are on the verge of getting Goran Dragic back and the Pistons have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league. The Magic do, too, but I’m rolling with the Dwane Casey-led group that only has one playoff appearance in the last nine years.
Eppers: Brooklyn, Detroit and Miami. With Caris LeVert back, Brooklyn is the safest bet to make the playoffs among teams in the 6-11 seed range. Detroit appears to have righted the ship after a dismal December and January. Miami lacks a true No. 1 option but has a better collection of talent than Charlotte, Orlando or Washington, and will be motivated to send the retiring Dwyane Wade out with one final playoff appearance.
Final five teams to make West playoffs?
Zillgitt: Six games separate fifth place from 11th place in the West, and two games separate sixth place from ninth place. Houston, Utah, Portland and San Antonio are in. That leaves one spot among the two Los Angeles teams and Sacramento. The Clippers have to give up their first-round pick if they make the playoffs, so what’s best – keeping their pick or losing in the first round? Easy. Keep the pick. The Kings want in and have a good chance, and it would be fun to see the upstart squad in the postseason. Don’t discount LeBron for a Lakers-Warriors first-round series.
Rogers: Portland and Houston are in, and are mainly concerned with clinching home-court, plus capitalizing on any slips from the Thunder. After shaky starts, the Jazz and Spurs are well equipped to withstand any late push from below, and will have some confidence going into any non-Warriors postseason series. Truthfully, this is a race for eighth, brought into sharper focus by the Clippers shipping off their best player, Tobias Harris. The Kings are in the best form but are low on veteran experience, while the Lakers’ problems have been detailed. It might boil down to who wants it most. The Kings let leads slip too often but have shown the most pluck all season.
Neuharth-Keusch: The Rockets are getting Clint Capela back, the Jazz just had their best month of the season and the Blazers’ additions of Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter make them much deeper. Those three teams are in. The Spurs are, too, because they’ve never missed the playoffs under Gregg Popovich and that’s not changing. As for the eighth spot? Welcome back to the postseason, Sacramento. Not only are the Kings fun and motivated, but they’re actually good. De’Aaron Fox is becoming a star, Buddy Hield might be the best shooter in the NBA not in Golden State, and Marvin Bagley III has shown flashes of greatness.
Eppers: After the top three teams, Houston, Portland and Utah all appear to be safe playoff picks barring any catastrophic injuries or unforeseen collapses. In typical fashion, San Antonio is quietly chugging along in seventh place and also well-positioned for the postseason, with FiveThirtyEight giving the Spurs a 91 percent chance of making it. The only real drama will be for the eighth seed, and as noted above, the presence of LeBron gives the Lakers the edge for the final spot.