Should we be concerned about the Lakers? The reigning champions are 7th in the Western Conference right now and if they lose next two games (against Suns and Knicks), they will probably play against the Warriors in a play-in game for the 7th seed in the West.
While LeBron James can hate the format all he wants, it puts the Lakers in a tight situation. There’s a legitimate 50-50 shot that the Lakers are either going to play in a winner-take-all play-in game or go straight to the seven-game series. With just enough season left in the tank, the Lakers have the chance of playing 10 different teams in the first round.
Let’s take a look at the best and worst matchups for the Lakers in the first round of the 2021 playoffs.
5 Best Matchups
5. Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers have one of the best one-two punches in the NBA with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. With a healthy Jusef Nurkic, the team could match up well with the Lakers. On paper, the Trail Blazers have a talented roster, but their recent playoff history shows that this would be a good matchup for the Lakers.
For starters, the Lakers easily disposed of the Trail Blazers in last year’s playoffs with practically the same Portland team on paper. The Lakers upgraded their roster with Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell. Assuming the Lakers are healthy, Portland would live in the Lakers’ shadow once again.
4. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic nearly took down the Los Angeles Clippers by himself last season. The Mavericks stretched the series to six games in part to Doncic’s heroics, including a game-winning dagger. With Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks are a sneaky dark horse that could be a hard mismatch for opposing teams.
What faults the Mavericks is the "Russell Westbrook Theory." Doncic is very similar to Westbrook in the way the two pile up stats. Westbrook has historically been unable to lead teams by himself. Porzingis has not proven that he is reliable. As long as the Mavericks future is in the hands of only Doncic, there is no real threat of defeat.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
With Zion Williamson hurt, the Pelicans would be a prime playoff candidate in the first round or the playoff play-in. This is all assuming that the Pelicans make the playoffs. Currently, the Pelicans are the No. 11 seed.
The Lakers have a clear advantage inside and out. Brandon Ingram does not match up well against the interior or Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, and Marc Gasol. All it would take is one wing defender to take away his game. If Zion came back, this would be an interesting series, but even so, the 20-year old is not skilled enough to take on Anthony Davis and win that matchup.
2. San Antonio Spurs
It feels like this is Gregg Popovich’s last ride. The team’s core players don't have enough talent to take down the Lakers core. DeMar DeRozan hasn’t been able to take down LeBron once in his career in the playoffs. Why would he start now with Patty Mills and Rudy Gay at his side?
While the Spurs have a promising group of interesting young prospects, this is not the same team from the days of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. Even if the team makes the play-in, the Spurs are not a real threat.
1. Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Jonas Valanciunas have kept this team competitive. If we look at the matchups, this is a dream scenario for the Lakers. LeBron and Davis are superior to Anderson and Jackson. Valanciunas is having a career year, but even so, Drummond can battle with him in the paint.
Schroder will give Morant a tough time defensively, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should go back-to-basket with Brooks. On paper, the Lakers have more superstar talent than the Grizzlies.
5 Worst Matchups
5. Utah Jazz
The Jazz and Lakers are toe-to-toe in points allowed per game this season. The two teams are practically the same by the numbers. The Jazz is the second-best team in the league to avoid getting shots blocked. Meaning, Donovan Mitchell and Co. are very effective at getting shots off.
Can the Lakers slow Mitchell down? Can Drummond neutralize Rudy Gobert? the glass. There are a lot of questions here.
4. Phoenix Suns
Fun fact about LeBron and Chris Paul. LeBron leads the all-time series against his friend 15-13; however, the two have never faced each other in the playoffs. For the bulk of LeBron’s career, he played in the Eastern Conference, while Paul played in the West. The only way the two would meet if it was in the NBA Finals, which Paul has never made.
Still, this would be an interesting first-round matchup. The Suns are contending for a No. 1 seed. If the Lakers continue to lose, the two could meet in the first round. After all these years of failing to make the biggest series in basketball, could Paul be given the chance to quiet all the haters by taking down LeBron and the defending champions in the first round?
3. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets allow the NBA-lowest among rebounds. The Lakers have two rebounding threats in Davis and Drummond. Adding Aaron Gordon to the team was a game-changer in the matchup department. Last year in the conference finals, the Nuggets might have been able to matchup had they had Gordon in the mix.
However, the Nuggets are still hurting with Jamal Murray out of the postseason. With that said, Nikola Jokic is going to win the MVP. We have seen special players do special things in big moments. With the best player in basketball, the Nuggets could get revenge this time around.
2. Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry is on a tear. The Warriors are the most deadly team to play in the play-in game. Not to mention, Curry has LeBron’s number. Curry beat LeBron three times in the NBA Finals. Nobody has forgotten about that.
The two teams would most likely meet in the play-in game if the two teams collided. In a one-game winner take all, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Curry could go off for 50 points and lead the Warriors to a Cinderella story. That is terrifying if you are L.A.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers swept the season series with the Lakers. If there is any team that should make the Lakers feel sick before playing, it’s their rivals right across the other side of the city.
With the Lakers not fully healthy, this is primetime for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to take advantage. The Clippers nearly met the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals before blowing a 3-1 lead last year. The Clippers are better and Leonard and George are playing their best basketball. Taking out the Lakers in the first round? That would almost feel like a conference championship.