No, the Lakers should not intentionally lose Play-In to avoid Nuggets — but not for reason you might think

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Gregg Popovich is probably having a good laugh about the dilemma the Los Angeles Lakers are facing right now. The San Antonio Spurs coach who, by all accounts, holds a particular distaste for the team he has faced seven times in the postseason, accidentally steered his eternal rivals into an iceberg when his young Spurs team stunned the Denver Nuggets on the second-to-last game of the regular season. That victory knocked the Nuggets from the top spot in the Western Conference to second. Now, should the Lakers defeat the New Orleans Pelicans in Tuesday’s Western Conference Play-In Tournament game, they would face the defending champs in the first round of the playoffs.

If the Lakers do indeed face the Nuggets in the first round, they will lose that series. Forgive the certainty behind that statement, but it’s based in history. The Lakers have lost eight games in a row to Denver. Every game follows more or less the same trajectory. The Nuggets play with their food for 40 minutes or so before deciding to eat it and stomp the Lakers in the final frame. The Lakers got outscored by 15 points in 11 clutch minutes against Denver in last year’s Western Conference finals. They’ve been outscored by 17 points in seven clutch minutes against them this regular season. Short of a significant injury, the Lakers are not going to beat the Nuggets. Denver outclasses them in pretty much every regard.

So dire is a possible rematch with the champs that a growing contingent of fans and critics have suggested that the Lakers intentionally lose their play-in game against the Pelicans on Tuesday. Doing so would put them in a do-or-die (but home) play-in game against the winner of the night’s other West matchup between the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors. Should the Lakers win that game, which would be played Friday night on two days rest, they would face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, a team they went 3-1 against this season. 

The Nuggets would face the Pelicans in the first round and then either the Suns or the Timberwolves in the second. The best-case scenario would be for one of those teams to knock the Nuggets out before a possible Western Conference finals rematch with the Lakers. If the Nuggets present an immovable obstacle to winning the championship, this theory posits, then the only logical approach to contending would be to sidestep them entirely. 

It’s about as galaxy-brained an approach to the playoffs as one could conceive. There are about a dozen viable reasons why the Lakers won’t, and shouldn’t, do it. Here’s the obvious: you have to actually make the playoffs to win the championship. Beating the Pelicans gets you there. Losing sets up a win-or-go-home scenario against either a Kings team that has beaten you five times in a row or a Stephen Curry-led Warriors squad that has won 10 of its last 12 and also three straight over Los Angeles. Those are two opponents the Lakers would probably prefer to avoid — perhaps not as badly as they’d like to avoid Denver, but badly enough not to tempt fate with an intentional loss.

There is a school of thought suggesting that competing for the championship is going to mean facing Denver sooner or later. By at least engineering the matchup right now, you ensure that you’re entering it as healthy as possible rather than subjecting LeBron James and Anthony Davis to two more rounds of wear-and-tear. Also, champions don’t run away from a challenge. So if the Lakers aren’t champion material, well, then they frankly aren’t going to be much of a match for the top-seeded Thunder in the first round anyway.

But these aren’t the best reasons to avoid the Nuggets. To find the single most important motive behind playing the Nuggets early, we have to go even more galaxy-brained and counterintuitive. The exact reason the Lakers should want to face the Nuggets in the first round is precisely because they cannot beat them.

Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. The Nuggets have spent the past two seasons proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Lakers cannot beat them in a playoff series. Beating the Nuggets is likely going to be a prerequisite to winning a championship at any point in the near future. It therefore stands to reason that the Lakers need to find a way to somehow beat Denver before James and/or Davis age out of their current stardom if they plan to win another championship with that duo as their core.

And that is exactly why the Lakers need to lose to Denver here and now, because the last thing this team needs is to go on another lengthy playoff run that instills false hope before ultimately meeting the same fate. The Lakers reached the Western Conference Finals last season largely as a result of a favorable bracket. They were satisfied enough with that result, independent of their sweep at the hands of the Nuggets, that they more or less ran last year’s team back. Now they find themselves in nearly the exact same position: a play-in team destined to lose to Denver if they don’t lose sooner. The only difference is that James and Davis are a year older.

One could argue that the Lakers probably should have been better this season had they been properly managed. It’s a reasonable argument. Darvin Ham played last postseason’s starting lineup for a grand total of 68 possessions this season. He yanked D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves in and out of the starting lineup for a two-month period that saw the Lakers play their worst basketball of the season. Their postseason hopes flipped when Ham inserted Rui Hachimura into the starting lineup in February. It shouldn’t have taken three-plus months to realize that the fourth-best player of their 2023 playoff run should probably start. The Athletic all but reported in January that Ham had lost the locker room. No reporting has refuted that since. A coaching change here is probably a necessity.

So are roster tweaks. The early-season Lakers thrived on defense. The late-season Lakers were an all-offense team. Ham never found that goldilocks middle ground because the roster didn’t offer it. Besides James, not a single Laker registered a Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus above +1 while also averaging at least one made 3-pointer per game. This roster badly needs 3-and-D players it does not have. If nothing else, it can’t hope to contain Jamal Murray without a better point-of-attack defender than they currently have. Murray averaged 32.5 points on 53-41-95 shooting against the Lakers this postseason. There’s no reason to think he couldn’t do the same against a starting lineup whose best perimeter defender is … Reaves?

The James-Davis window isn’t over. They’re both going to make All-NBA Teams this season, after all. But, to quote the great Bob Ryan, we’re on “year five of a three-year plan” here. A fool’s gold playoff run would do far less for the Lakers in the long run than another embarrassing loss to Denver. If the Lakers can’t beat the Nuggets in the first round, they can’t beat the Nuggets in any round. The sooner they come to that conclusion, the likelier they are to take the steps they actually need to take in order to change that.

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