The third year of the NBA Play-In Tournament begins April 12th, and the San Antonio Spurs might just make it in by default.
Understandably, there's been much debate about whether the team should bother to play for an eighth seed that would almost assuredly lead to a quick series loss to Phoenix. Still, there's a lot to be said for competing until the bitter end, and the Spurs might just have their chance to compete beyond the regular season even if they don't light the nets on fire in the last nine games.
Through Wednesday's action, San Antonio sits just two games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the 9th spot in the play-in tournament. Much of that can be attributed to the absolute freefall the purple and gold have been experiencing starting January 9th. They're just 10-23 since then and haven't won two straight games since January 7th.
On top of all that, the Lakers have the second-toughest remaining strength of schedule of all 30 teams, with games against the Nuggets, Suns, Warriors, Jazz, and Mavericks still on the docket. Meanwhile, here's what the strength of schedule looks like for the likely competitors for the 9th and 10th seeds (1st means toughest).
New Orleans Pelicans - 24th
San Antonio Spurs - 15th
Portland Trail Blazers - 30th
Sacramento Kings - 26th
It's no surprise, then, that people are starting to look ahead at the teams that could potentially spoil the Lakers' hopes of even making a play-in appearance.
The San Antonio Spurs could play spoiler this April
Let's take a look at what it would take for San Antonio (29-44) to surpass the Lakers (31-42) for good as the season approaches its end on April 10th. Obviously, ending up with a better record than them outright would likely eliminate Los Angeles from the play-in. If they end up with the same record, then it goes to tiebreakers.
Since the Spurs and Lakers split the season series, the next tiebreaker would be how each team fared against the Western Conference.
In an unlikely scenario where the Lakers lose the rest of their games, they'd end up with a record of 31-51. That would mean they'd end with a record of 16-36 against the Western Conference. The Spurs would need to win just two of their last 10 games to secure the tiebreaker over L.A. since they've won 18 games against the West this season.
After March 23rd, both teams will exclusively play West teams until the end of the season, so that tiebreaker is still very much up for grabs. Keep in mind, though, that the Spurs are playing Portland two more times over that stretch -- a team that officially shut down Damian Lillard for good and lost to San Antonio by 31 and 37 already this season.
If, say, the Spurs go 4-5 over the last nine, they'd end with a record of 33-49. That means the magic number for the Lakers to avoid being passed up is three wins over their last nine games. That's far from a guarantee but it's also doable when you have LeBron James on your team.
While other teams like the Kings or Trail Blazers could end up playing spoiler, they don't seem as set on continuing to play for the play-in as the Spurs do. The last few weeks are bound to get very interesting for two teams who used to dominate the Western Conference for the better part of the 2000s.