Will the Los Angeles Lakers or the LA Clippers make the playoffs?
Up until recently, that was THE question which figured to play a promiment role in the lead up to Monday's showdown between Staples Center tenants.
Instead, the Lakers are now 4.5 games out of eighth place in the Western Conference while the Clippers sit in seventh place, closer to the third-place Oklahoma City Thunder than the 10th-place Lakers.
For now, let's table that initial question and instead focus on the questions that actually carry some weight entering tonight's matchup.
Just how bad is it for the Lakers?
It's not far fetched to call this a must win game.
As it stands, FiveThirtyEight.com's playoff projections gives the Lakers a 7% chance of making the playoffs which is actually more bullish than several of the other projection systems out there.
Things have certainly taken a turn for the worse since the last time these teams played back in January. In his first game back after missing 18 games, James led the Lakers to an overtime win to pull them to within one game of the Clippers for the eighth spot. Since then the Lakers are 3-8 while the Clippers have gone 8-5.
The Lakers can still win the season series and any potential tiebreaker with the Clippers as they have two more games after splitting the first two. Given that the Clippers own a better division record which is the next tiebreaker should they split 2-2, the Lakers likely need to win both of those games.
It's all the more imperative when considering the Lakers already lost the season series to the Spurs, their other main competition for the final spot.
If they're on the losing end of tiebreakers against both the Clippers and Lakers, they not only need to catch them in the standings, but also pass them.
According to TeamRankings.com, the Lakers have the 8th-hardest remaining schedule while both the Clippers and Spurs rank among the 10 easiest.
Should LeBron James shut it down for the rest of the season?
As long as the Lakers have a fighting chance, the answer is no.
We've seen James single handedly carry his teams for weeks on end and he's certainly talented enough to do it again.
However, if it crystallizes that a playoff appearance simply isn't in the cards, shutting down James might be the smart play. When factoring in regular season and playoffs, the only player in NBA history with more mileage at his age is Wilt Chamberlain. At this stage of his career, the addional wear and tear just isn't worth it.
That's before getting into the fact that losing games down the stretch could help the Lakers improve their own draft pick. Maybe they get lucky and win the lottery or snap a top-4 pick. Regardless of whether they keep it or trade it, losing games - and sitting James to help do so - could ultimately play a large factor in shaping the future of the franchise moving forward.
As it stands down, the Lakers have the NBA's 13th-worst record, just 2.5 games ahead of the Dallas Mavericks who have the 8th-worst record.
Drop from the 13th-worst record to the 8th-worst record and the odds of nabbing a top-4 pick in the lottery jump from 4.7 percent to 26.2 percent with the odd of landing the No. 1 overall pick going from 1.0 percent to 6.0 percent.
Where will the Clippers finish?
As mentioned in the intro, the Clippers are actually closer to third than they are the Lakers. It's anyone's guess as to where they might actually finish. Given the uncertainty at the top of the West with the Warriors and Nuggets both in contention for the No. 1 seed, there's a lot of moving pieces with matchups.
Inpredictable.com has odds for where every team could finish. While the Clippers are more likely than not to finish in the unenviable eighth spot, it's not out of the question for them to make a run up the standings either.
While they wouldn't be favoured in any matchup, they aren't exactly a pushover either. Since trading away Tobias Harris, they are 6-3 while posting a net rating that ranks seventh in the NBA, one spot behind the NBA-leading Bucks and one spot ahead of Harris's new team, the 76ers.
They are a pain to play against.
Since that trade, the five-man lineup of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari and newcomers Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac has a logged a team-high 101 minutes and rank first in the NBA in defensive rating over that span amohg all five-man lineups to play at least 75 minutes.
Doc Rivers is coaching up a team that is gelling fast and doesn't rely too heavily on any singular talent.
Although most of the attention on Monday will be on the Lakers, you'd be wise to pay attention to the Clippers who are a feisty bunch that could give plenty of teams considerable grief come April.
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