Luke Walton has a very high opinion of his Los Angeles Lakers.
At six games under .500, the boys in purple and gold are displaced from the NBA’s playoff picture. They have not been mathematically eliminated just yet, but FiveThirtyEight gives them less than a one percent chance of joining the springtime fray.
In an alternate universe where the Lakers didn’t battle injuries this season, though, Walton believes they would be among that eight-team fracas—the one in which the No. 3 seed (Portland Trail Blazers) is just three victories ahead of the No. 10 seed (Utah Jazz).
This sounds crazy on so many levels, but Walton really believes it. He told reporters as much just before the Lakers’ win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, per the Orange County Register‘s Bill Oram:
As currently constructed, Luke Walton believes the Lakers should be a playoff team. Not this year; the gap between his team and the rest of the field is too great. But next season? Absolutely.
“I think if things worked out and we were able to stay healthy with this group, we’d definitely be one of those teams competing (for a playoff spot),” Walton said. “There’s 10 of them right now, we’d be on that list.”
The Lakers are 19-12 since the turn of the calendar, which is the equivalent of a 50-win pace. They have a positive point differential during that time, according to NBA.com, along with a respectable offensive rating and defense that sniffs the top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions. That’s a big deal when the stretch in question spans nearly half the season.
It’s also true they’ve dealt with key injuries, most notably to Lonzo Ball, and most recently to Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram. Given them a completely healthy slate all year, and they might be even closer to .500.
But the playoffs? Like, the actual playoffs? Making the postseason would be a stretch even at full strength. The Western Conference is hellaciously deep and, most of all, the relying on so many youngsters to generate your offense, which has struggled for much of this season, puts any team at a disadvantage.
Even getting back to the dance next year will be a tall order—provided they don’t sign one or two superstars in free agency. That’s the thing with youth movements: They offer encouraging signs, but the jump from promising to concretely good is a big one. The Lakers, as genuinely bright as the future might be, wouldn’t have been ready to make that leap this season.