Why Lakers winning West's top seed actually works against them in this NBA postseason

Dan Woike
·4 min read
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) brings the ball upcourt against the Utah Jazz during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)
Lakers forward LeBron James brings the ball upcourt against the Utah Jazz on Monday in Orlando, Fla. (Kim Klement / Associated Press)

Like the team logos and corporate advertisements digitally superimposed onto the courts, everything inside the NBA’s Disney World bubble isn’t always what it seems.

You might think that with games stacked on top of one another all day and no responsibilities other than basketball, it would be easy for players to focus.

But according to LeBron James, you’d be wrong.

“Nothing has ever compared to this. It’s a huge sacrifice that we’re all making,” James said. “I miss the hell out of family, my wife, my kids, my mother and so on and so on. It’s a huge challenge to be able to stay locked in.”

Almost halfway through the eight seeding games, figuring things out is trickier than ever, with unprecedented circumstances and small sample sizes clouding assessments and predictions.

Typically, the Lakers' win against Utah on Monday would be reason to celebrate, clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and forcing the path to the NBA Finals to likely go through Staples Center. But those advantages don’t exist in the bubble, where the difference between the home and road team is which conference room they use at their hotel.

And typically being the top seed in a playoff meant you have most, if not all, of the advantages. But according to some scouts and executives, the Lakers might have it a little tougher than the Clippers, who are battling Denver for the No. 2 seed.

“I’d prefer the second seed,” one Western Conference scout told The Times. “That eighth seed could throw a wrench in someone’s [plans].”

The biggest reason is the uncertainty that comes with being the top seed — the only team among the top seven seeds that won’t know its first-round opponent once the seeding games end. With the final playoff spot being determined by a play-in tournament if the ninth-seeded team is within four games of the eighth seed — and in the West, that’s almost 100% assured — the Lakers might be at a slight disadvantage.

“If knowledge is power,” one West executive said, “then the No. 2 seed would be more powerful.”

Phoenix Suns' Frank Kaminsky drives against Clippers' Kawhi Leonard on Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Phoenix Suns' Frank Kaminsky drives against Clippers' Kawhi Leonard on Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox / Associated Press)

It’s a “sprint,” the executive said, and with things moving so fast and team dynamics changing after the NBA’s long layoff, every minute focused on one opponent will count. And while teams have large scouting staffs accustomed to breaking down more than one team at a time — it happens during every tight playoff race — the compressed nature of the bubble games puts any certainties at a premium.

The Lakers’ pool of potential first-round opponents probably looks different than what they expected, with New Orleans playing unevenly early and Memphis being hit with a big blow — star forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will miss the rest of the season after tearing his meniscus Monday — that suddenly shakes the Grizzlies' grip on a spot in the play-in tournament.

One scout said he believed Portland would end up playing the Lakers in the first round, though Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs have been terrific even without LaMarcus Aldridge.

The scout said he views the suddenly healthy Trail Blazers, who added big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, as more like the fifth seed, maybe the sixth, in the West instead of the eighth. And a team with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony and Nurkic is probably a scarier matchup than the Grizzlies.

Even if the Pelicans surge and seize the No. 8 seed, they’ll likely have done it by unleashing Zion Williamson from the minutes restrictions that have cost New Orleans in the first week inside the bubble.

The Clippers aren’t guaranteed an easier road than the Lakers, though Dallas’ late-game struggles (even Tuesday’s overtime win against Sacramento wasn’t without issues) make the Mavericks a little less scary than their stellar advanced metrics would suggest. The No. 2 seed isn’t locked by any means, and if the Clippers fall to No. 3, they could end up in a series with Oklahoma City, another team that has impressed scouts.

The Clippers’ issues are more internal, where the full version of the team still is more imagined than actualized. But unlike the Lakers, when it comes to who they’re playing, the Clippers will have a head start. They’ll know who they must prepare for while the Lakers wait.

The Lakers aren’t running from a tough matchup, even relishing how good the quality of play has been in the restarted season’s first week.

“Guys are ahead of the curve. … Guys weren’t as rusty. You could tell guys were working during the hiatus. I think the level of competition has been amazing,” forward Anthony Davis said Monday. “ ... It’s been good for us, giving us a chance to see where we are.”

Davis should enjoy it now. Come the end of these eight seeding games, the Lakers are going to be the only ones who aren’t exactly sure what’s coming next.