When the season resumes on July 31, perhaps the most watched storyline over the final eight games of the regular season is who will end up with the 8-seed in the Western Conference.
The Memphis Grizzlies currently occupy that spot with the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns are looking to get in the mix.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Blazers superstar Damian Lillard was asked about the possibility of playing the Lakers in the first round and he didn't mince words when pontificating about a potential run-in with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the presumed top team in the West.
"I think we could beat them."
While we don't have juicy quotes to help stir the pot from the other contenders for that coveted eighth spot, here's a closer look at each of the Lakers' potential first round matchups along with the varying threat levels posed by each of them.
New Orleans Pelicans
Season series: Lakers lead 4-0
Playoff experience: Four players, 192 games
When you think of the Pelicans, you think of No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson and how he's widely regarded as the best prospect since LeBron James. Williamson himself poses a threat to the Lakers in that he's become one of the league's most prolific inside scorers less than 20 games into his career.
And it's not just Williamson, either. New Orleans has a young core comprised of former Lakers in Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and All-Star Brandon Ingram, a trio that would have plenty of motivation to deliver memorable postseason performances against their old team.
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The Pelicans' unique roster also has four veterans in Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday, E'Twaun Moore and J.J. Redick, who have a bevy of playoff experience and could help keep the young guys even-keeled as they adjust to the newness of postseason basketball.
Of the teams in contention for the eighth seed, the Pelicans are by far the more complex and in turn, the most intriguing. It seems like James and Anthony Davis have acknowledged this as well.
The Lakers would be tuned in from the get-go in a potential series against the Pelicans, as evidenced by these individual performances from James and Davis during their head-to-head meetings this season.
|November 27||Lakers 114, Pelicans 110||41 PTS (15-30 FG), 9 REB, 3 STL, 1 BLK||29 PTS (10-18 FG), 11 AST, 5 REB, 2 STL|
|January 3||Lakers 123, Pelicans 113||46 PTS (15-21 FG, 13-13 FT), 13 REB, 3 STL||17 PTS (7-17 FG), 15 AST, 8 REB, 2 STL|
|February 25||Lakers 118, Pelicans 109||21 PTS (6-21 FG), 14 REB, 6 BLK, 3 AST||40 PTS (17-27 FG), 8 REB, 6 AST|
|March 1||Lakers 122, Pelicans 114||DNP||34 PTS (14-21 FG), 13 AST, 12 REB|
|AVG||-||36.0 PTS, 12.0 REB, 2.7 BLK, 2.3 STL, 50.0 FG%||30.0 PTS, 11.3 AST, 8.3 REB, 57.8 FG%|
New Orleans has a talented roster but it doesn't have an answer for L.A.'s All-Star duo, which has led to a 4-0 season series thus far. Davis didn't even play in the fourth matchup as LeBron took care of business on his own, finishing with a 34-point triple-double in a game the Lakers trailed entering the fourth quarter.
Despite the head-to-head record, there's no doubt that the Pelicans and Lakers would make for an electric first round series.
Portland Trail Blazers
Season series: Lakers lead 2-1
Playoff experience: Seven players, 292 games (Nurkic and Collins, 25 games)
In Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers have the best player among all the teams vying for the eighth spot. This season, Lillard is averaging 36.0 points, 9.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds through three games against the Lakers.
With Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland boasts a prolific backcourt that provides matchup problems for Los Angeles. Who do you turn to in order to slow them down? Is it Avery Bradley? Alex Caruso? Danny Green? Rajon Rondo?
That the Trail Blazers have such a strong backcourt shifts the focus to the frontcourt, where the Lakers have the clear upper hand with James and Davis. But Trevor Ariza and Hassan Whiteside each have the defensive pedigree to at least make things difficult for them because, if we're being honest, stopping them isn't in the cards for anyone anymore.
This is also where the unusual circumstances of the delayed season plays to Portland's benefit as the Blazers should have both Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in the lineup to help against Davis. With the two bigs back, the Blazers are in position to surge over the eight regular season games in Orlando.
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Also worth keeping in mind? Portland also has an abundance of postseason experience through the above four players as well as Carmelo Anthony, who has gone up against Playoff Bron before and has been a reliable offensive threat this season.
All of that aside... it's pretty clear that Portland just wouldn't have enough to make things that difficult for L.A. While I consider the Blazers the biggest threat because of Lillard's potential to take over at any point, the Lakers' star-studded duo would ultimately overpower its foes from the Pacific Northwest.
Season series: Lakers win 3-1
Playoff experience: Seven players, 134 games
The Grizzlies have been one of the league's biggest surprises and are way ahead of schedule thanks to the young duo of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. This promise was on full display in late November as Memphis led by as many as 15 points until the Lakers duo of James and Davis overpowered them to escape the FedEx Forum with a one-point win.
Close, but not close enough.
The above sentence sums up a game that represents the gap between the Grizzlies becoming a team that could truly cause the Lakers to sweat in a first-round series. Jonas Valanciunas (42 games) is the team's most seasoned playoff veteran, while guys like Jordan Bell (32 games) and Kyle Anderson (30 games) have been before, albeit in much different roles than they find themselves with Memphis.
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Unlike New Orleans' group of veterans, it'll be a bit more difficult for the Grizzlies' more seasoned players to help their young teammates remain calm once the game speeds up in the postseason.
And, of course, there's the question of who guards James and Davis.
Memphis is a fun young team and will only get better in the coming years, but this year isn't the year for it to be much of a formidable foe for L.A.
Sacramento Kings: With a core of De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento is young and talented. There's a sense of familiarity with former Lakers head coach Luke Walton at the helm for the Kings but this team still isn't quite at the point where they could push the Lakers in a series.
San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs are the Spurs and since 1998, there hasn't been a postseason without Gregg Popovich and company. They faced an uphill climb to extend their playoff streak and that was even before news of the season-ending shoulder injury to LaMarcus Aldridge that will prevent him from suiting up in Orlando. Some Popovich magic along with DeMar DeRozan just isn't enough to pose much of a threat should they make it.
Phoenix Suns: The Suns are still technically in the picture but short of Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton morphing into Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, the Suns just aren't ready. They should still benefit from the experience of a playoff-like atmosphere in Orlando.
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