How Far Can Last-Place Lakers Go?

When the Lakers qualified for the NBA playoffs this season, they became only the fifth team in NBA history to finish last in their division, yet do so.

(The Toronto Raptors also saw postseason action despite finishing last in the Atlantic Division, but they lost to Chicago 109-105 in a play-in game — and since they were the 9-seed in the East, that loss eliminated them).

Then, by defeating the Timberwolves in a play-in game as the West's 7-seed, the Lakers became the first last-place team in NBA history to advance beyond the preliminary round — something that none of the other four last-place playoff teams did.

In 1983-84, the then-Washington Bullets made the playoffs despite a basement finish in the Atlantic Division — but then they lost in four games in a first-round best-of-five series to the Celtics.

Two years later, the Spurs, cellar-dwellers of the Midwest Division, got swept in three games by the Lakers in the first round.

In 2005-06, the Bucks, last in the Central Division, lost in five games in the first round to Detroit (starting with the 2002-03 season, first-round series were lengthened to best-of-seven).

And in 2014-15, the Pelicans, last in the Southwest Division, got swept in four straight in the first round by Golden State.

The Lakers, however, got off to a promising start indeed toward evading the fate of the other four last-place teams to make the playoffs when they pounded the second-seeded Grizzlies 128-112 in Memphis on Sunday — a win that made them 19-7 in their last 26 games.

Did someone say "peaking at the right time?"

But it would be far more difficult for last-place teams to get into the playoffs, if the NBA emphasized division rivalries. And please, don't bring up the Malice at the Palace between two teams that just happened to be in the same division, to offer up a ridiculous narrative that such incidents are more likely to occur in same-division games.

To debunk that claim, what about "The Punch" of Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich by Kermit Washington of the Lakers on December 9, 1977? The Rockets and the Lakers weren't even in the same conference back then — let alone the same division.

So, now that the fear of more intradivisional games leading to more Pier 6 brawls (as the late Ralph Kiner called them) has been put where it belongs — the booby hatch — the NBA schedule can be modified to make it more "unbalanced." And borrowing from the ABA, which played an 84-game schedule, the NBA can play an 84-game schedule now, which will allow all division rivals to play each other six times instead of four, with all teams in different divisions within the same conference having three meetings, and all teams not in the same conference continuing to have two meetings.

(Hey, and bring back the ABA's red-white-and-blue basketball, too.)

The NBA playoff format can also be changed, guaranteeing not only a playoff spot to the top two teams from each division in each conference, but also guaranteeing that they will not have to participate in the play-in, which would feature all three third-place teams in each conference plus the fourth-place team with the best record.

However, once the two play-in qualifiers are determined, the eight survivors are then seeded strictly by record, without regard to where they finished in their division. Then the winners of the conference quarterfinals are re-seeded again for the conference semifinals.

Last-place teams have no business in the playoffs — and if every team has to play 24 games within their division instead of 16, it probably would never happen again anyway.

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