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LeBron James isn’t expected to return to the lineup until the end of April after suffering a high right ankle sprain. Anthony Davis could return next week after missing time with a calf strain. In the meantime, the Lakers have been falling in the Western Conference.
The Lakers have consistently been tabbed as the favorite to win the NBA title. But they have gone 4-5 without James and Davis and have dropped to No. 5 in the West. It’s not inconceivable that they could fall to the No. 7 seed and be forced to participate in a play-in game to advance into the postseason.
What would such a scenario mean for the Lakers?
That’s just one of many questions we have about the NBA. With news that James Harden suffered a hamstring strain and will miss at least 10 days, what does that mean for the Nets’ championship prospects?
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This week’s NBA roundtable tackled those questions and more. USA TODAY Sports’ Larry Starks moderated the discussion with a panel of NBA experts from around the USA TODAY Network: Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports, Jim Owczarski of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Evan Barnes of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Berry Tramel of the Oklahoma City Oklahoman and Chris Iseman of the Bergen County Record.
Starks: I want to start with what could be a crazy thought. With the continued absence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are the Lakers in danger of dropping to the No. 7 seed and facing the possibility of a play-in game?
Tramel: I guess falling to 7 is a real threat, but to me, an even bigger problem could landing in the 4-5 series, with the Clippers as the opponent. Utah, Phoenix and Denver all seem capable of finishing 1-2-3. An all-LA first-round series would not be good for either Los Angeles team.
Owczarski: I’m not sure that’s a crazy thought. Having just seen the Lakers up close without those two (and just a few minutes of Andre Drummond with 10 toenails), they look like a team that would be at the fringes of the playoff picture.
Barnes: I would’ve doubted this right when LeBron got hurt because I figured the gap was too wide. But while I think they’ll win enough games to stay out of it, they’ll flirt with the play-in tournament a lot closer than expected until LeBron returns. Even when Davis gets back first, they’re a much different team.
Zillgitt: It does seem strange, but the Lakers are 2½ games from the seventh seed. But as long as LeBron James comes back for the final month or so of the season, I don’t see that happening. And I like Berry’s point about playing a really difficult first-round series. Yet, home-court advantage doesn’t mean exactly the same thing this season and as LeBron has noted many times throughout his career, home court doesn’t matter unless it goes to seven games. The opposite is also true -- how would you like to be the third or fourth seed and get the Lakers as the fifth or sixth seed in the first round? That’s not your typical fifth or sixth seed by any stretch, especially with James and Anthony Davis.
Iseman: I think it’s certainly possible, especially considering teams like Portland and Dallas have begun playing real well amid the Lakers’ struggles. Missing LeBron and Anthony Davis has significantly hurt the Lakers on the offensive end. The longer they’re out, the more tenuous the Lakers’ spot in the standings is going to be. That said, when they do return they’re still so supremely talented that once the playoffs start, they’re going to be just fine anyway.
Tramel: To me, the big question is LeBron. He’s missed so little time over his career, will this long break make him even more fresh, or is this the first sign that he indeed might be human and susceptible to the same aging rigors that afflict most NBA players?
Barnes: I agree with Berry and Jeff. Imagine a dangerous 2nd round series where the Lakers are the 3 or 4 seed and they’re fully healthy? All that matters for them is getting to the postseason and while they won’t fall to No. 7, that’s a tough deal for Utah or Phoenix, who are hoping to put together a deep runs for the first time with these groups.
Starks: Does that mean they’re no longer the team to beat?
Owczarski: Larry, they’re the team to beat if they’re all healthy. Just like Brooklyn in the East. But right now that’s just assumption. So until that actually happens to start the playoffs -- I like Utah as the best in the West.
Tramel: As long as Davis is OK, too, the Lakers will be the team to beat.
Zillgitt: Still the team to beat with the necessary caveat: a healthy James and Davis.
Iseman: I agree with Jim, the Lakers are still the team to beat -- provided they’re healthy, and it’s a big question when that will happen. But it’s hard to ignore what Utah has done and the way Denver is playing right now.
Barnes: If LeBron and Anthony Davis are healthy, the title goes through the Lakers. The Jazz are still learning how to be in the lead as I watched them struggle twice against the Grizzlies (albeit, without Donovan Mitchell in one of those games). We’ve learned by now you can’t bet against LeBron but that's only if he’s healthy.
Zillgitt: Really like Chris’ point about Denver. Lookout for the Nuggets. The Aaron Gordon addition should work out great for them.
Starks: What about the East. There’s a logjam at the top. Are the Nets a shoo-in for the Finals?
Owczarski: I don't know if two of the three in Brooklyn gets them to the Finals. Not if the Bucks (Antetokounmpo) and 76ers (Embiid) are at 100%. And it may even depend on which two are healthy. If it’s Harden and Irving, but Durant is out, I don’t think that’s a shoo-in.
Tramel: It sure seems like the Nets are the class. Most of America wants to pull for the Bucks, but we’ve seen Milwaukee fall short the last two years against teams far short of Brooklyn’s talent. It appears to me the only thing that can stop the Nets are injuries and chemistry. And the chemistry seems to be fine in the limited time all three superstars have been together. As for the 76ers, they seemed to have enough -- until Brooklyn upped the ante.
Zillgitt: Not a given with the Nets for the same reason we were just talking about the Lakers: health. Kevin Durant has missed significant time though he is expected back “soon.” James Harden had a short-lived return (Monday) night. And I still need to see the Nets play some D in a long series unless the plan remains just to outscore everyone but at some point, history says a team needs to be a solid defensive team in the playoffs.
Iseman: With the Nets, it’s a similar situation to the Lakers: If KD, Kyrie and Harden are all healthy and playing, I don’t see any team winning four games against them in any series. They’re just too talented, and their role players -- Harris, Claxton -- have stepped up around them.
Owczarski: You’re right Berry, I think the chemistry thing was solved when everyone told them they'd have bad chemistry. It's all about are they healthy enough and again, at this point, why should anyone just assume the “big three” will be ready to rock for 33-40 minutes a night in the postseason?
Barnes: The Nets are a big if. How healthy will Kevin Durant be? Will they be able to defend in a 7-game series against veteran coaches who can scheme against them. Let's not forget Steve Nash is learning on the job. Playoffs aren't just about outscoring guys, it's stopping them and I don't know if the Nets can handle that despite their talent.
Zillgitt: I really like the top four in the East (minus Atlanta but give the Hawks credit for turning it around after Lloyd Pierce's dismissal) and I can see any of Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Miami winning it, and I'd really enjoy seeing that final four in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Owczarski: The point about not playing defense in the postseason matters. I literally just ran through the highest-scoring teams in NBA history last night for an upcoming piece at The Journal-Sentinel, and only a handful won a title that year. And most were the Celtics of the 60s.
Iseman: One other thing: The playoffs is a whole other animal from the regular season. We really haven't seen the Big 3 together much in the regular season. How are they going to work together in the playoffs, when there's so much more on the line? I still like their chances and see them going to the Finals, but that's going to be so interesting to watch.
Tramel: The one chemistry concern for Brooklyn is the guy we all thought was such a level-headed cornerstone all those years. Durant. He's turned into a wild card mentally.
Barnes: I'm with James. Chemistry won't be an issue with Brooklyn. But it'll come down to defense and coaching. The 76ers and Bucks should be the East favorites because of both but we've all seen where their coaches have cost them postseason series. So it's a tossup but it'll be a fun one to see unfold. I wouldn't be surprised if the Nets came out on top or lost in the second round.
Zillgitt: With Chris' point about the Big 3, I admit I've been impressed with how Harden has played and really fit. He has sacrificed some scoring and ball-handling/usage while increasing assists and rebounds. And still scores a lot. There's a reason he moved up the MVP board.
Zillgitt: Since we’re diving into some Bucks talk, what does the Jrue Holiday extension do for Milwaukee short and long term?
Tramel: I'm so dang happy for Milwaukee, having Jrue and Giannis locked up. That can't be anything but helpful for the Bucks not just long-term, but this year. So many issues arise when the future of the roster is in question.
Owczarski: Speaking of chemistry, that is coming together in Milwaukee now that Holiday seems to be at near full-strength after a bout with COVID-19. It means Jon Horst got his man, after mortgaging so many draft picks to New Orleans, Holiday elected to stay rather than try for a bigger dollars on the open market. The gambit paid off there. Now, they're locked in. They're done, cap wise, for at least this year and next. This is the group.
Iseman: Agree, Jeff. And Harden's played almost every game since he arrived while Kyrie and KD have obviously not been available nearly as much.
Owczarski: To your point, Berry, they've all three of their all-stars extend. That's an unheard of scenario in Milwaukee sports.
Zillgitt: Unheard of in Milwaukee and really rare for that market size.
Starks: But that means they now have to win. Is Giannis there for the long run if they continue to stub their toe in the playoffs?
Zillgitt: My informed conclusion is that small-market execs are secretly cheering for the Bucks.
Tramel: I can tell you that Oklahoma City is all-in on the Bucks. As for keeping Giannis even with the new contract, who knows? It's like Michael Martin Murphy sang. Doesn't anybody ever stay together anymore?
Zillgitt: Given that Antetokounmpo extension doesn't begin until next season, the Bucks have a few seasons to get it right. After that, Milwaukee certainly could be in a difficult position. But GM Jon Horst been booted that can down the road a few years.
Iseman: These situations are always hard to predict, but I can't see Giannis going anywhere anytime soon. The Bucks' playoff struggles have been almost hard to believe, but Holiday could end up being sort of that missing piece that they've needed in the postseason.
Owczarski: Of the three, Khris Middleton is now the one that would be in any conversation if they felt a roster shakeup of big salaries / all-stars is needed. But we're talking a couple years down the road. As Barnes, Evans said, Holiday is older. He'll be 31 this summer. Are point guards the NBA version of NFL quarterbacks, able to play well until they're 36? Clearly the Bucks hope he can get close to that.
Barnes: I think Holiday helps give them another offensive threat but I think coaching will be the thing to watch in the playoffs. How long with Bucks fans be frustrated with bowing out earlier than expected with "better" teams.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lakers face daunting playoff scenario; are Nets lock for the Finals?