The Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference on Monday with their 116-108 win over the Utah Jazz. In a normal year, that would be a cause for celebration. Home-court advantage and a year's worth of conditioning would insulate the Lakers against possible upsets, and the remainder of the regular season would be meaningless. That isn't the case this time around. Every team is out of shape after four months off. No home court removes the advantage of being a higher seed. It is just a position on the bracket now.
If anything, being the No. 1 seed is a bad thing in 2020. Teams in the middle of the standings have room to maneuver in either direction. They can dictate their matchups. The Lakers, essentially locked into No. 1 from the moment the bubble plan was announced, largely couldn't. They, like the Milwaukee Bucks in the East, are subject to the whims of the bracket. There is very little they can do to avoid a bad matchup. Note that word choice. Very little. Not nothing.
The schedule makers granted the Lakers one chance, a golden opportunity to align the standings in their favor, avoid a potentially precarious scheduling quirk, experiment with some new lineups and save face from a PR standpoint all in one fell swoop. The Lakers are set to play the Houston Rockets on Thursday, and in the interests of their championship hopes, they need to do everything in their power to lose that game. Specifically, that means giving LeBron James and Anthony Davis the night off.
There are Laker-centric reasons for that and Rocket-centric reasons, and we'll start with the purple and gold. First and foremost, every team in the bubble was scheduled for one set of back-to-back games. It was a necessity if the league was going to schedule all of the games it wanted to play into the short period it allotted before the playoffs. The Lakers play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday. A day later, they draw the Rockets.
Back-to-back games are among the most dangerous on the schedule from an injury risk perspective, and teams are aware of that. LeBron sat out the second night of a back-to-back in January for that exact reason. Anthony Davis did so twice. Certain players, like Kawhi Leonard, don't play back-to-backs under any circumstance. Were this game being played in April instead of August, there is no question the Lakers would sit their best players. Why risk the health of their stars in a game with no stakes? The four months the NBA just took off adds another layer of risk. James is 35, and Davis has a lengthy injury history. Asking either to go from sitting for that long to playing on back-to-back nights is asking for trouble.
Enforcement of the NBA's rest policy complicates matters. James and Davis are technically healthy, and rules specifically prohibit teams from resting healthy players in high-profile nationally televised games like this one. It's worth noting, though, that the NBA would not technically lose revenue should the ratings for this game come in lower than expected. National television revenue is locked in. Its broadcasting partner, TNT, would take the immediate hit, but the counter is that the captive audience this pandemic has provided likely increases ratings for other games so much that one dud would only be a drop in the bucket. Neither the league nor TNT would be thrilled, and the Lakers would probably be fined. So what? The last violation of the rest policy came in February, when the Minnesota Timberwolves sat D'Angelo Russell out of a game for what they called "planned rest." They were fined $25,000. Jeanie Buss can afford that. The back-to-back nature of the game makes it entirely justifiable from a PR perspective. Health takes priority in the bubble.
Of course, other teams have already played back-to-backs without incident. There is no compelling evidence yet suggesting that all of the time players just lost makes them more susceptible to injury on the second night of a back-to-back than in a normal game. It's a logical assumption, but alone, it likely wouldn't be worth incurring the league's wrath. The real advantage comes in the form of bracket manipulation.
There are four teams reasonably in the running to face the Lakers in the second round of the postseason. They are 2-1 against the Denver Nuggets, but that one loss came without LeBron. They are 3-0 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, including a blowout win that came without either James or Davis. They are 3-0 against the Utah Jazz as well. None of those teams pose any sort of challenge to the Lakers in a series. Their goal should be to ensure that they play one of those teams in the second round rather than the Rockets.
What makes the Rockets so dangerous? Precedent, for one. They're the only team in the group to beat the Lakers at full strength, and they did so while test-driving their new small-ball lineup on the night of the trade deadline. That group has by far the most upside of any possible second-round opponent. After all, they have two more former MVPs than the other three teams combined in James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
But the real danger comes in Houston's mathematical advantage. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the team that employs Anthony Davis would start any series against a team that refuses to play centers with a significant edge. When they last met, Davis made 14 of his 21 shot attempts, seemingly proving that theory. Yet the Lakers were outscored by four points during the minutes Davis was on the floor. The Rockets won the game by 10. The same thing happened on Sunday when the Rockets beat the Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez combined to shoot 24 of 43 from the field. Yet the Rockets won the game, and essentially played the Bucks to a draw with Giannis on the floor. Conventional wisdom suggests that these dominant big men should be destroying the Rockets. They are ... statistically. But they're losing the games.
That's Houston's plan all along. The Rockets' entire roster is built around the idea that any points they give up easily in the paint, especially on inefficient post-ups, will be more than made up for with their advantage from behind the arc. The Bucks attempt the fourth-most 3-pointers per game in basketball, yet the Rockets took 26 more long-range shots in their game Sunday. Assuming percentages are equal, that is nearly the equivalent of starting a game with a nine-point advantage. Their defense exists to serve that same purpose. They switch every screen to take away open 3-pointers. They eschew rebounding in favor of winning the turnover battle knowing that steals create valuable transition shots. They are an analytically optimized team.
Historically speaking, math is one of the biggest drivers of upsets. It's common sense. Low-variance teams tend not to score many upsets because they have no method of getting up to Goliath's level. But high-variance teams can, even if they risk falling quite a bit lower. And hey, if a lower seed falls to a favorite, there's no harm done. It's what was expected. But if the variance works in their favor, you have a recipe for an upset. Only two No. 8 seeds have ever beaten a healthy No. 1 seed. The 1994 Denver Nuggets, the first No. 8 ever to knock off a No. 1, literally took twice as many 3-pointers (103) as the favored Sonics (50) in the series. The 2007 Warriors averaged six more 3-point attempts per game than the Mavericks in their legendary upset. Almost every March Madness upset relies on this principle. A bad team gets hot from behind the arc, and the rest is history. It is in the best interests of the underdog to increase variance. It is in the best interests of the favorite to limit it. The Rockets create more variance than any team in the field. The Lakers, as a favorite, should want to avoid that.
What the Rockets are doing is unprecedented. There is no telling whether or not it will work across a seven-game series, let alone four of them, but do the Lakers really want to be the team that finds out? Their entire identity is built around their size. They hardly take any 3s, and they've missed the ones they've tried in Orlando. That doesn't exactly favor them mathematically, but the issues run deeper than that. They poured most of their offseason assets into acquiring Davis, and when they last met, the Lakers had to try taking him off the floor and playing LeBron at center to match up with Houston. If it turns out that Houston's thesis is correct and big men don't matter, the Lakers would essentially be playing a series in which they were nominally favored with one hand tied behind their backs. At the very least, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee are likely unplayable in that matchup. That's a lot of minutes for the Lakers to fill without Avery Bradley.
So what does sitting their stars accomplish? The Rockets currently trail the Nuggets by 1 1/2 games for the No. 3 seed. Each team has six games remaining. The Rockets are rolling after big wins over the Mavericks and Bucks. The Nuggets played Monday without their starting point guard, shooting guard and small forward. They are vulnerable, and they also have the Lakers on their schedule. If the Lakers roll over for Houston and then beat Denver a third time, two-thirds of that deficit evaporates. The red-hot Rockets would have five games left to make up the remainder and jump up to No. 3, sending either Denver, or whoever beats them in the first round, into the lion's den against the Lakers in the second round.
But what about the other side of the bracket? That's the best part. While the Lakers are dismantling a lesser opponent, the Rockets would have to jump into the Thunderdome with the Lakers' biggest threat in the Western Conference: the No. 2 seeded Clippers. Any outcome of that series would work in their favor. A Clippers win sets up the matchup the Lakers have been expecting all year. No harm, no foul, the dangerous high-variance Rockets are off of the board. And if the Rockets win? The Clippers are out and the Lakers don't have to worry about them. A long series tires out the victor. One could even argue that shifting the odds in Houston's favor is the fairest possible outcome. As things currently stand, the Lakers, the team with the best record in their conference, would have to face the two most dangerous teams in the West, while the Clippers would only have to face one.
This kind of bracket steerage is nothing new. It's been going on in some form or another for decades. Just a year ago, the Nuggets committed this exact sin when they sat most of their starters in an April game against the Portland Trail Blazers. The idea was to help get the Blazers up to the No. 3 seed, which would force the two biggest threats in the conference, Houston and Golden State, to face each other in the second round rather than the Nuggets. The plan worked as intended, though Denver lost to Portland in the second round. If you have a moral issue with the Lakers manipulating the standings in this manner, at least take solace in the fact that it would involve hurting Denver's seed a year after it did the exact same thing. That's karmic retribution, if nothing else.
So what are the possible downsides, aside from karma and an angered league office? There are a few. The Lakers have only eight seeding games to work with before the playoffs. Punting one away, even for wise reasons, is a lost opportunity to get Davis and James extra game reps that could prove important in the playoffs. Ideally, the opposite side of that coin is that it creates more minutes for role players who likely need them more. LeBron is going to do his job in the playoffs. An extra 30 minutes of playing time might go a long way in ensuring that new additions like Dion Waiters and Markieff Morris are capable of doing theirs. The other risk is psychological. If the Rockets believe the Lakers are trying to avoid them, and then face them anyway, they'll go into that series far more confident than they otherwise would've. A confident Russell Westbrook is a scary Russell Westbrook.
Even so, the pros vastly outweigh the cons. This isn't Little League. The NBA isn't handing out sportsmanship trophies here. The Lakers have one and only one goal in Orlando: to win the championship. Not games, not a few series -- the whole, entire thing. It may seem counterintuitive, but taking their foot off the gas pedal against the Rockets gives them their best chance of doing so.