The Play In Teams

by Will Rogers

LeBron James didn’t much like it when the NBA announced that this season would start only a few months after the Bubble Championship series in Orlando, and maybe now we know why.

With the start of the playoffs just around the corner, James has been hobbling around on a bad ankle that caused him to miss 24 of the Lakers’ first 67 games. When he comes back is anyone’s guess, and how he’ll play WHEN he does return is also a matter of conjecture.

Assuming James does return, there is a distinct possibility that it will be for a Lakers team that will be forced to fight for table scraps along with a few other under-performing teams in the Western Conference Play-In tournament. (Note: James, unsurprisingly, doesn’t like the new format any more than he liked the too-early late start to the season.)

Healthy, the Lakers were a solid +400 favorite to win it all again. Anthony Davis, it was figured, was good enough to take some of the pressure off James in James’s 36-year-old season, and the two had enough of a supporting cast to turn things on in the playoffs and grab their 18th world championship.

But James’s ankle sprain suffered on March 20 changed everything. LA was 28-14 when James when down, and after that won just 9 of the next 25. Even scarier, James has been musing that he may never be back to 100 percent.

Barring a strong finish, the Lakers may have to deal with being the Western Conference’s 7th seed and in a scary first game against the young-and-hungry Grizzlies or the Steph Curry-led Warriors.

As for the odds, James’s injury has created a betting opportunity for Lakers backers who believe that the King Unleashed will still find a way to get it done. Uber-talented Brooklyn has leap-frogged LA and is the +220 favorite, but the Lakers remain a favorite at +375 to come out of the West.

The Lakers aren’t the only NBA heavy hitter that could be forced to eat humble pie in the Play-In tournament. In the East, either Miami (which reached the Bubble Finals last year) or 17-time World Champion Boston appears likely to finish 7th.
Miami has spurted past the listless Celtics with decent play since late April, but the Heat have been playing catchup all year after a dreadful start. Whatever they had bottled in beating Boston to get to the Finals against the Lakers six months ago was lost in a sea of poor defense and poor shooting. The Heat lost a ton of games early despite having double-digit leads, and at their lowest point had fallen to 11th place in the East.

The Sons of Pat Riley didn’t figure to be in this position, especially after acquiring Victor Oladipo in a what they thought would be a right-the-ship move. But Oladipo has been out with a knee injury, and at best figures to be back at the start of the playoffs (if the Heat even get in a best-of-seven set). Never high on the Heat to begin with, oddsmakers had Miami at +3400 to win the championship entering this weekend’s play.

And speaking of disappointing, say hello to the Boston Celtics, who have been to the EC finals three of the last four seasons but have fallen on hard times. The Veteran Brain Drain (Irving, Marcus Morris, Hayward, Rozier, Theis, Horford) has taken a toll, and the young players have just not developed. On top of everything, All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have not shown to the leaders that the team had hoped. A string of bad losses to non-playoff teams has upset the apple cart big time, and the Celtics are now a long-shot at +6600 to get it together and win the title.

Having the Lakers, Heat and Celtics in the Play-In tournament might be great for TV ratings, but it was not what any of those NBA Mt. Rushmore teams had in mind.

“Everyone has a plan,” Mike Tyson used to say, “until they get punched in the face.”

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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