The Spurs will face the Pelicans in a game that could determine the outcome of their season. Win, and the play-in becomes a very real possibility. Lose, and the chances to make the postseason shrink dramatically. It might be the most important matchup of the year for the Silver and Black.
But why is a team with a 29-44 record still in the run to make the playoffs this late in the season? And what would it actually mean to get a play-in spot? Here’s what you need to know.
What’s the play-in?
The NBA recently changed the way the postseason works. Instead of the top eight teams in each conference getting automatic spots in the playoff, only the top six do. The seventh and eighth seeds actually have to face each other to get in, and the loser faces the winner of the matchup between the franchises with the ninth and 10th best records.
The play-in has done a good job of curbing tanking, at least to an extent. The sixth seed has become much more important now and teams like the Spurs, who in other years would have had nothing to play for at this point, still get a chance to make the playoffs if they get hot at the right time.
With nine games remaining, San Antonio has the 11th best record in the West, while the Pelicans and the Lakers are tied for 10th best record — currently two games ahead of the Spurs — which is why this next game is so important.
Why are the Lakers involved in the play-in race?
Despite having the same record, the Lakers are actually now below the Pelicans in the standings due to New Orleans owning the tie-breaker. Since the All-Star break, the Lakers have been a disaster, and with Anthony Davis still out, they could continue to slide down the standings. There is an actual chance both the Pelicans and the Spurs make it and LeBron’s Lakers miss.
It’s technically not just a three-team race, as there are some teams below the Spurs that still can make it, like the Trail Blazers and Kings, but both appear to have given up on the season already, so we’ll leave them out of the discussion.
How have the Lakers, Pelicans and Spurs played recently? How do they look going forward?
In the past 10 games, the Spurs have fared better than their competitors, logging as many wins as losses. The Pelicans are hanging on, winning four out of their last 10, despite missing Brandon Ingram for eight of those matches. The Lakers have posted the worst record of the three, winning just three out of their last ten, but two of those wins have come in the last four games.
In terms of injuries, all three teams are hurting. The Spurs are missing a starter and a their sixth man right now, as Doug McDermott and Lonnie Walker IV are out. Walker could potentially return, but McDermott is likely done for the season. Keita Bates-Diop has also been sidelined recently but returned in their most recent game.
The Pelicans have been missing Ingram, who should return soon but will likely be out a couple more games. They haven’t had Zion Williamson available at all this season, and he might still not be ready to return any time soon. Larry Nance Jr. is back after missing time with a knee injury.
The Lakers have the most meaningful absence, as they are without Anthony Davis. The big man has started doing light work and could return for the end of the season, but he will be out a while longer. LeBron James is day-to-day, but doesn’t have a major injury.
Who has the toughest remaining schedule?
The Lakers have the toughest remaining schedule by a significant margin, with upcoming bouts against five of the six best teams in the West. But they will also play against the Pelicans twice, which means they are still very much in control of their own destiny.
The Spurs have some tough matchups ahead, but also two remaining games against the tanking Trail-Blazers and a game against the cellar-dwelling Rockets. As mentioned, they also get a chance to face the Pelicans, which could have a huge impact on their chances.
New Orleans also has a couple of games against the Blazers that can be penciled in as wins, but the three games against the Lakers and Spurs have huge implications for them. If they win those three, it’s hard to imagine them missing out on at least the 10th spot.
There you have it. The Spurs clearly have a chance to make the play-in, but they will need to be sharp to do it while also hoping that the teams above them lose a few winnable games. It’s not the best position to be in, but it’s enough to bring some excitement to the end of the season.