It’s official. The Los Angeles Lakers are locked into the seventh seed, setting up a play-in tournament matchup against the Golden State Warriors.
The headline for this one is obviously the heavyweight matchup between the two biggest stars in the NBA: LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry. But while the one on one matchup looks cool on paper, do non-Warriors fans actually believe that the Lakers might actually get upset by the Dubs in this one?
Now to be clear, this isn’t going to be an argument revolving around LeBron James’ health status. The King re-aggravated his right ankle injury that’s kept him out from 26 games for the Lakers this season. If James is out or a shell of himself for LA in a potential play-in matchup with the Dubs, that’s an entirely different story. But even if LeBron ends up fine, this game isn’t an open-and-shut case for the defending champions.
Lakers vs. Warriors Play-In: Closer than you think
The Golden State Warriors do not have the best offense in the NBA. In fact, despite having Stephen Curry, they’re far from it.
The Warriors rank a miserable 20th in offensive rating this season. Their mark of 110.5 falls well behind true offensive juggernauts like the Sacramento Kings (12th) and the Indiana Pacers (14th). Despite everyone’s expectations and fears about the Warriors knocking off the Los Angeles Lakers by an offensive barrage courtesy of Stephen Curry, that’s not what makes them dangerous.
In fact, unless the Warriors get that spicy Curry explosion, they don’t really stand much of a chance. Penciling in a huge night from Stephen Curry is the only conceivable way that Golden State can win in the first place. But it’s not the ace in the hole that people are claiming it to be, it’s actually their only real lifeline to be in the conversation and the reason they got here in the first place. His 46 points to beat the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 72 to get the 8th seed is proof of that.
Despite the fact that their superstar players could not be more different from one another, the Warriors and Lakers are actually much more similar than they seem on paper. While Golden State rates, as mentioned earlier, as a below average offense at 20th, one of the teams they’ve outperformed at that end are the Lakers themselves. Los Angeles ranks as the 24th best offense, just ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, and Houston Rockets.
Now granted the Lakers played much of their NBA season without both James and Anthony Davis. LA’s stars have missed a combined 63 contests for the Purple & Gold this year, with Davis missing exactly half of the 72-game total.
But last season painted an eerily similar picture for them, even with a much healthier team
During the 2019-20 season, the eventual champion Lakers didn’t finish in the top five in offensive rating for the year. In fact, they weren’t even in the top 10. Los Angeles finished as the 11th best offense, ranking them just decimals ahead of the 35-39 Phoenix Suns team, a mediocre Utah Jazz squad weighed down by a hugely disappointing offensive season from Michael Conley.
LeBron’s Lakers were actually the first team to win the title as a team outside of the top 10 in offensive ratings since Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in 2010. But that team might have been in hibernation move because they had also just won a title the previous year, when they were ranked 3rd in the NBA.
The 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers instead hung their hat on defense, ranking as the 3rd best in the league on D last season. This year, they’ve gotten even better on that side of the floor. LA ranks ends the season as the number one defense in the NBA. They’ve practically had to by necessity after their main offensive guns were sidelined for such long stretches.
Warriors’ Key To Lakers Play-in Upset
Before you conclude that the Lakers’ top-ranked defense is poised to stop Stephen Curry, peep the rankings and check out who else is in the top five. You guessed it, the Golden State Warriors.
The Dubs are 5th in the NBA on defense and that’s what’s honestly been helping them win these games. Saying sounds crazy when Stephen Curry leads the league in scoring, but that’s more of a testament to how abysmal they’d be on offense without him more than anything.
The fact that the Warriors can junk this game on the defensive side of the floor is exactly why they could make this play-in contest a real tight affair. The Lakers’ offense has struggled mightily all season. Even with LeBron James and Anthony Davis back on the court, they haven’t had much time to build chemistry with the new weapons they have this season. Facing a team that’s also a top five defense won’t make things any bit easier.
At the end of the day, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are still favored in this one. But the blueprint is there for the upset of the season.