On Nov. 11, the 2-10 Los Angeles Lakers had the worst record in the NBA. Less than a month later, on Dec. 7, the New Orleans Pelicans took over the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Both teams would move around the standings a fair bit even early on, but generally speaking, there was a sentiment for the first two months of the season that the Lakers were going to be among the NBA's worst teams when the season ended and that the Pelicans were going to be among its best.
This was a critical development early on because New Orleans, thanks to the Anthony Davis trade, has the right to swap first-round picks with the Lakers in the upcoming 2023 NBA Draft. That draft happens to include Victor Wembanyama, arguably the best prospect to come to the NBA since LeBron James. Once the Lakers won the championship in 2020, it became impossible for them to lose the Davis trade, but had they handed the Pelicans Wembanyama on a silver platter, it would be hard to argue that New Orleans hadn't at least come out of it as co-winners. Given the turmoil Lakers management has faced over the past few years, that sort of embarrassment could have been disastrous.
That made Tuesday's Lakers victory over the Pelicans somewhat symbolic. Less than a week ago, the Lakers passed the Pelicans in the standings for the first time all season. New Orleans clawed it's way back to a tie with Los Angeles ahead of Tuesday's game, but with their victory, the 34-35 Lakers now sit a full game ahead of the 33-36 Pelicans.
The Lakers are now 9-4 since the trade deadline despite having James for only three of those games. The Pelicans, meanwhile, are now 10-24 since New Year's Eve and trending in the wrong direction. Zion Williamson may or may not return this season. Brandon Ingram is dealing with an ankle injury. Their offense as a whole ranks 27th in the NBA over the past two months, which is even worse than the tanking Rockets. The Lakers have the NBA's easiest remaining schedule. New Orleans is about to embark upon the easiest four-game stretch on its slate (Rockets twice, Spurs and Pelicans), but after that, the Pelicans might be underdogs in all of their remaining games.
You can never say never in the modern NBA. That is especially true in the flattened lottery era. But with the Lakers thriving despite the absence of James and the Pelicans reeling with no Williamson return in sight, it's starting to become clearer and clearer that the nightmare scenario in which Los Angeles sends Wembanyama to New Orleans can probably be put to bed. As it stands, the Lakers are currently seeded ninth in the Western Conference, putting them two play-in wins away from falling out of the lottery entirely. Even if they remain there, no play-in team can have odds greater than 2% of actually winning the lottery.
The likeliest outcome, at this moment, is that the Lakers and Pelicans remain where they are. Not only would New Orleans miss out on a potentially high Lakers pick, but their slide would ensure that the Lakers themselves keep a relatively valuable mid-first-round pick whether the Pelicans exercise their swap or not.
New Orleans can still feel good about the haul it received for Davis in the grand scheme of things. Ingram has grown into an All-Star as a Pelican. Josh Hart was a critical trade component that brought them C.J. McCollum. The Lakers gave the Pelicans the No. 8 pick in last year's draft, which they used on Dyson Daniels, and New Orleans will get one more pick in the deal, which will come in either 2024 or 2025 (the Pelicans have the right to choose which year).
But, in this small way, the Lakers can breathe a sigh of relief. They may still have a ways to go before they can get back into the championship picture, but at least they can sleep easy knowing that the odds of them sending the best prospect in a generation to New Orleans have slid almost down to zero.