NBA play-in tournament a daunting prospect for LeBron and the Lakers
For the defending NBA champions, running back another title might require taking the scenic route.
The Los Angeles Lakers have lost three straight games in the NBA's congested Western Conference, cracking open the door for teams below them in the standings to potentially leap over the purple and gold.
A pair of those losses came against the Dallas Mavericks, who sat a game-and-a-half back of the defending champions for the fifth seed entering play Sunday.
Behind Dallas are the reeling Portland Trail Blazers, losers of four straight coming into Sunday's games.
At 32-27, Damian Lillard & Co. occupy the seventh seed, spotting the Lakers a two-and-a-half-game cushion.
That seventh spot is where the intrigue begins, as that's where the window for the NBA's new play-in tournament opens.
Held before the first round of the playoffs, the play-in tournament will determine the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference.
The teams with the seventh- and eighth-best winning percentages will duke it out for the right to be their respective conference's seventh seed, with the winner of one game claiming the spot.
The loser of the seven-eight game will get another crack at the proper postseason, as the team with the 10th-highest winning percentage will play the team with the ninth-highest winning percentage in each conference.
The winner of the nine-10 game will then play the loser of the seven-eight game for the No. 8 seed, setting the field.
As noted, the Lakers, sitting at No. 5, still have some runway. But with LeBron James' return still unclear, they aren't instilling a boatload of confidence that they can hang on to their position.
The way the field is shaking out, Emmanuel Acho of "Speak For Yourself" cautioned that the Lakers could be in trouble, should they find themselves among the play-in field.
"You have to be nervous about going to the play-in tournament," Acho said, "but then you also have to be nervous about who you may face in the play-in tournament and what those results just might be."
In Acho's mind, if the Lakers slide down to No. 7, it could be perilous.
Say, for example, the Mavericks and Lakers have to square off in that format.
Mavs star Luka Doncic is more than capable of taking over a game, as Acho pointed out.
"Luka can go for 50 [points], hit a buzzer-beater on a moment's notice, " he said.
What about the Golden State Warriors, who presently hold the No. 10 seed, with a record of 30-30?
"Steph Curry can go for 50, at least 40 on a moment's notice," Acho said.
"You're going to have to play a team that might not be dangerous, but boy, they've got some dangerous players," Acho noted.
Having already welcomed Anthony Davis back from a long injury layoff, the quickest way the Lakers can allay any fears is to get back on the winning track.
Of course, getting James back sooner rather than later would help, too.
As guard Dennis Schroder said, having the "best player in the world" makes a world of difference.
For now, the Lakers will turn their focus to Monday's game against the Orlando Magic.
At 18-41 for the season, Orlando could be just the thing the Lakers need to get back in the win column — and further away from any play-in danger.
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