When this season began, both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics probably thought their clash scheduled this Saturday would hold a little more significance.
The Celtics were coming off a stellar 55-27 season with a team flush with both veterans and young talent, and led by superstar Kyrie Irving. They returned nearly their entire rotation while re-adding Gordon Hayward, who missed nearly of all last season with a fractured tibia. No team outside of the Golden State Warriors could boast a stronger starting five from top to bottom.
The Lakers weren’t nearly as good last season, but they had a young core and added LeBron James, which meant they were expected to sit around the top of the Western Conference. Those are the expectations that come with signing James.
Both teams were expected to be powers in the current NBA landscape, ready to pounce this season and in the future if the Warriors’ machine loses some major pieces this offseason. And yet, one is now expected to open the playoffs on the road after a frustrating, mystifying regular season and the other is probably not going to make the playoffs at all. Both James and Irving have had their leadership questioned.
Their meeting Saturday carries little meaning beyond the usual mythos of Lakers-Celtics. So, how did we get here?
The Lakers’ long, long playoff odds
It’s safe to say Lakers are an absolute mess right now. Since James’ triumphant return from injury on Jan. 31, they’ve gone 3-8 with losses to the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies and, most recently, Phoenix Suns. They currently sit at 30-33, the 10th-best record in the West and 4.5 games back from the eighth-place San Antonio Spurs, who own the tiebreaker against them.
If the Spurs only go .500 for the rest of the season, the Lakers would need to go 15-4 to finish with a better record than them. The Lakers still have games against the Nuggets, Raptors, Bucks, Warriors, Jazz left on their schedule. Basically, the Lakers need to beat at least one of those teams and take care of business against everyone else, even though they’ve lost to three of the NBA’s worst teams in the last month.
No oddsmaker likes their chance of doing that. FiveThirtyEight gives the Lakers a seven percent chance of making the playoffs after that Suns loss, their lowest mark of the season. Basketball Reference’s playoff probabilities are even more bearish, pegging them at 1.3 percent and likely to finish with the fourth-worst record in the conference thanks to their schedule. ESPN’s BPI agrees with that projection, giving them 0.9 percent odds of getting a playoff spot.
Vegas is a little more friendly, as it only has the Lakers at -900 odds, essentially a 1-in-9 chance.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) March 3, 2019
None of this means the Lakers are already out of the postseason picture, because, again, they have LeBron James. Unfortunately, they’re probably also going to need more than James, even if he’s been “activated,” and what was once a promising young core is not looking very promising these days.
One of its past members is already taking shots at the old team.
Zubac after the Clips took care of business vs. the Knicks: "That's how we gotta be. When I was with the Lakers, we didn't have nights like this. Every game was a close game for us, but now with the Clippers, this team is really locked in, every possession against every team."
— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) March 3, 2019
Currently, James and JaVale McGee are the only players currently on the Lakers with an above-average PER, and the team also lacks the outside shooting James has thrived next to in past seasons. Brandon Ingram has taken a step forward in recent weeks, averaging 27.8 points while shooting 57 percent from the field in his last six games, but Kyle Kuzma and the currently injured Lonzo Ball still haven’t developed as hoped.
To make the playoffs, the Lakers probably need them to in the span of 19 games.
Are the Celtics ever going to turn it around?
Unlike the Lakers, the Celtics are almost certainly making the playoffs. The team is 38-26 and currently holds the fifth seed in the East. The Lakers, and plenty of other teams, would be envious of that position.
Problem is, the Celtics were expected to be in a much better place at this point, and they don’t really have any good excuses for why they’re not. Al Horford’s seven-game absence in December represents the longest time missed by a significant contributor. Horford is also the only player over 30 among the eight Celtics to post at least 1,000 minutes this season.
This was a team that won at least 50 games the previous two seasons and had held as many young, growable assets as any team in the NBA. They just haven’t been able to find the right rhythm or the right lineup.
The Celtics looked like they had pulled themselves together after a rough start with an eight-game winning streak between November and December. Then they lost five of their next eight. Then they went on a 10-1 run starting at the end of December. Since then, they’re 3-7, most recently losing to the Houston Rockets on Sunday.
The Celtics are still 12 games over .500, but, unlike the Lakers, this was supposed to be a team at its reasonable best. And now they’re four games behind a Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers team in the standings and on pace to open the playoffs on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers.
And again unlike the Lakers, the Celtics might lose their superstar in the offseason, as Irving has sounded increasingly likely to give free agency a good hard look despite previously saying he planned to re-sign with the team.
What can the Lakers and Celtics hope for going forward?
Being a talented team that hasn’t put it together is a double-edged sword: The team might be frustrating, but the talent is still there. Maybe James catches fire and the rest of the Lakers’ core is inspired enough to rip through the West and sneak into the postseason. Maybe the Celtics finally figure out their best lineup and make noise in the playoffs.
One of these teams has to win Saturday, and it would be a decent momentum-changer for either.
Right now, though, it looks like both teams are going to face tough questions this offseason. Splashes will have to be made to again reach the expectations they had entering this season. Unfortunately, only one can likely land Anthony Davis.
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