The Los Angeles Lakers entered the season as the heavy favorite to win the NBA championship for the second straight season after LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Co. dominated the league’s restart bubble last year. The Lakers’ reward for their 2020 championship was the shortest offseason in league history, with just 71 days separating their title-clinching Game 6 victory over the Miami Heat from their opening night game against the Clippers to start the new season. If that felt like an ominous sign for the Lakers’ title defense, everything that has happened since has only added doubt.
First, the Lakers watched the Brooklyn Nets add James Harden to form a new superpower in the Eastern Conference. Then Anthony Davis missed 35 games with a calf strain and LeBron James missed 21 games with an ankle injury before both returned to the lineup for the stretch run of the regular season. While the rest of the Lakers did an admirable job staying afloat without their two superstars, the Lakers’ recent struggles have put them in jeopardy of falling to the No. 7 seed and thus needing to compete in the play-in tournament just to make the playoffs.
The Lakers have lost six of their last seven, including losses to the lowly Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors over the weekend with James and Davis back in the lineup. The Lakers are now in a three-way tie for the No. 5 seed with the red hot Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers. One of these teams is going to need to go through the play-in tournament to qualify for the playoffs.
After the loss to the Raptors on Sunday night, James said whoever thought of the play-in tournament ‘needs to be fired.’
LeBron James on the play-in tournament: "Whoever came up with that s--- needs to be fired"— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) May 3, 2021
James might not like the idea of having to go through the play-in tournament, but in reality there will be no easy paths through the Western Conference playoffs this year, especially for the three teams caught in the middle of the playoff standings.
Right now, the No. 6 seed — the final team safe from the play-in — would have to face the Denver Nuggets and MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic in the first round. Yes, the Nuggets are unfortunately without star Jamal Murray who is out for the season, but Denver remains formidable. The team that gets the No. 5 seed would currently have to play the Los Angeles Clippers, who are one of the favorite to win the title.
James is catching some heat for criticizing the play-in tournament after his team is in position to have to compete in it, just like Mavs owner Mark Cuban earlier this year. In fairness to James, he said he wasn’t a fan of the play-in tournament when first asked about the idea in 2018:
James did like the idea of a play-in tournament last year when the regular season was paused because of the pandemic. With the Lakers holding the No. 1 seed in the West last year in the bubble, here’s what James said on the play-in tournament idea:
You got Portland. You got Memphis...New Orleans and Sacramento tinkering around there...so if there’s five or ten games left...why not those guys battle it out? Make them play each other all five games?
It seems like James has always disliked the idea of the play-in tournament, but supported it last year because of the unique circumstances of the bubble.
How the NBA play-in tournament works
The play-in tournament has a simple format in 2021 that is different from the the version in the bubble last year. Here’s how it works:
- The No. 7 seed will play the No. 8 seed in each conference. The winner advances to the playoffs.
- The No. 9 seed will play the No. 10 seed in each conference. The loser of that game is eliminated and will be in the lottery.
- The loser of the 7-8 matchup then plays the winner of the 9-10 matchup. The winner of that game make the playoffs, while the loser is eliminated.
The Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors, and San Antonio Spurs will be the other three teams in the play-in tournament, with the Griz and Warriors currently fighting for the No. 8 seed that provides more margin for error.
The Lakers, Mavericks, and Trail Blazers each have eight games left in the regular season before the play-in tournament begins on May 18. James might not like the idea, but it sure has added intrigue to what’s typically a pretty boring end to the regular season.