Lakers, Warriors in Precarious Positions as NBA Season Winds Down

The two teams were in a virtual tie for ninth place in the West, meaning a win-or-go-home play-in game is likely.
Lakers, Warriors in Precarious Positions as NBA Season Winds Down
LeBron James (23) drives to the basket against Sacramento at Arena in Los Angeles on March 6, 2024. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Dan Wood

While it might not have seemed particularly likely beforehand, considering they each had to beat a higher-seeded team to get there, the longtime-rival Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors treated California basketball fans to an entertaining second-round NBA playoff series last spring.

Chances of a repeat scenario playing out this year are remote at best.

With each of their regular-season schedules more than 75 percent complete, Los Angeles and Golden State are hurting, in more ways than one. Entering a March 8 home game against the Milwaukee Bucks, who were sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference, the Lakers were in a virtual tie with the Warriors for ninth place in the West.

That’s a bad place to be under the NBA’s current post-season arrangement, adopted in 2021. The format calls for the ninth- and 10th-place teams in each conference to play one win-or-go-home game as part of the league’s play-in tournament.

Given that the Lakers (34–30) and Warriors (33–29) were both five and a half games ahead of the 11th-place Utah Jazz, they don’t appear likely to fall out of play-in position. Unless either can rise in the standings, however, the post-season stay for one or the other will be short and not at all sweet.

Even the winner of such a play-in game would remain in a precarious position, needing another victory, on the road, against the loser of the play-in game between the seventh- and eighth-place teams to advance to a first-round series against the Western Conference regular-season champion.

Among other things, all of this means that California’s contingent of NBA teams, which also includes the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings, is not likely to duplicate last year’s first-time feat of all reaching the playoffs in the same season.

The Clippers, fresh from a 122-116 road victory March 6 over the Houston Rockets, are solidly in a playoff spot, standing fourth in the West at 40-21 entering a March 9 home game against the Chicago Bulls. The Kings, meanwhile, are in seventh place at 36–26, three games ahead of the Lakers and Warriors, with a March 10 date opposite visiting Houston up next.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) shoots against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker  during a game in San Francisco on Feb. 10, 2024. (Jed Jacobsohn/AP Photo)
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) shoots against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker  during a game in San Francisco on Feb. 10, 2024. (Jed Jacobsohn/AP Photo)

The picture, however, is by no means as pretty for the Warriors, whose 2022 NBA championship was their fourth in eight years, or the Lakers, who captured their record-tying 17th title in 2020.

Making matters even more problematic, each team’s biggest star, LeBron James of Los Angeles and Golden State’s Stephen Curry, is dealing with a troublesome ankle injury. James has been hampered since before the NBA All-Star Game nearly a month ago, and the Lakers announced prior to the March 8 game against Milwaukee that James would not play. Curry, meanwhile, suffered his injury late in a 125–122 loss to visiting Chicago on March 7.

The Warriors provided no immediate update on the severity of the injury to Curry. As further evaluation took place in advance of a March 9 home game against the San Antonio Spurs, reports were that the injury was not particularly serious, and any Curry absence would likely be minimal.

“I know we’re going to miss him if he does have time off,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson told reporters after the loss to Chicago. “We’ve been in this position before where he has had time off, and we’ve just got to do it collectively. I know he’ll be ready to go when he does come back, whenever that is.”

A two-time league most valuable player set to turn 36 on March 14, Curry has experienced problems with the troublesome right ankle previously during a superlative 15-year NBA career. He leads the Warriors in scoring, averaging 26.9 points per game.

James, 39, is a four-time MVP in his 21st NBA season. He tweaked his bothersome left ankle while putting the finishing touches on a 31-point, 13-assist performance March 6 in a 130–120 loss to visiting Sacramento.

“Some games, it’s better than others,” James told reporters. “I didn’t feel it during the Oklahoma City game (March 4), and I didn’t feel it tonight until the fourth quarter. Some days are better than others.”

The Lakers, who have listed James as questionable on their injury report since the all-star break, have been hoping to build on last year’s trip to the Western Conference finals, where they were swept by the eventual NBA champion Denver Nuggets. That came after the Lakers had finished seventh in the West during the regular season, beaten the Minnesota Timberwolves in their one play-in game, and then dispatched the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and Warriors in six-game series.

The way things look now, however, even reaching this year’s playoffs, let alone returning to the second round or claiming another NBA championship, seems an awfully long ways off for the Lakers. Ditto for the Warriors, who as the West’s No. 6 team last year, edged third-place Sacramento in a seven-game, opening-round series before falling to the Lakers.

Dan Wood is a community sports reporter based in Orange County, California. He has covered sports professionally for some 43 years, spending nearly three decades in the newspaper industry and 14 years in radio. He is an avid music fan, with a strong lean toward country and classic rock.