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Are the Lakers the best 7-seed in NBA history?

The Los Angeles Lakers are aiming to become the first team to win a championship from a bottom-two seed.

Or, as Jared Dudley described their tall order: “The hardest challenge any team has ever had in NBA history.”

Los Angeles, of course, is not your average 7-seed. The Lakers are coming off a title, and slipped in the standings as a consequence of 63 combined missed games from LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Now, both superstars are back, and the Lakers enter the 2021 postseason on a six-game winning streak after a bonkers 103-100 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.

Understandably, the defending champions don’t seem overly concerned about their position.

“We don’t view ourselves as the seventh seed,” Wesley Matthews said. “So that’s that, I guess.”

The Lakers — after adding more depth — were on their way to a top-3 seed when AD injured his calf on Valentine’s Day (James was sidelined on March 20). That morning, Los Angeles sat at 21-7, with the fourth-best net rating and the leading MVP candidate.

Yet, here we are. James will enter his 16th postseason with a bottom-4 seed, and without home-court advantage, for the first time in his illustrious career.

Fortunately, James’ blind heroics provided Los Angeles with three even-more-clutch rest days, and placed them on a friendlier path to the Finals. Instead of dealing with the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers will face the Phoenix Suns (the first playoff meeting between James and Chris Paul) before the winner of Portland Trail Blazers-Denver Nuggets. Favorable matchups, all around.

The road may present fewer obstacles, but the Lakers will be going up against history. Since the NBA expanded the playoff field to eight teams per conference in 1983-84, the 7-seed has produced less postseason success and fewer Cinderellas than any spot.

The 2020-21 Lakers (42-30) finished the regular season with a winning percentage of .583 and a net rating of 2.9 — down from 7.0 before AD’s absence. For comparison, below are all the instances in which a 7-seed has finished with a higher win percentage than this year’s Lakers, along with their net rating, and their fate:

  • 2018-19 San Antonio Spurs: 48-34, 1.6 net rating, lost in first round
  • 2014-15 Dallas Mavericks: 50-32, 3.2 net rating, lost in first round
  • 2013-14 Memphis Grizzlies: 50-32, 1.7 net rating, lost in first round
  • 2009-10 Spurs: 50-32, 5.4 net rating, lost in conference semis!
  • 2008-09 New Orleans Hornets: 49-33, 1.8 net rating, lost in first round
  • 2007-08 Mavericks: 51-31, 4.8 net rating, lost in first round
  • 2004-05 Nuggets: 49-33, 2.2 net rating, lost in first round
  • 2000-01 Blazers: 50-32, 4.2 net rating, lost in first round

Seventh-seeded squads have won just five first-round series, ever, and only once in the best-of-seven era. The 2009-10 Spurs, a 50-win squad in a loaded West, upset the Mavs thanks to championship DNA, then got swept by Steve Nash and the Suns.

The other four:

  • In 1987, the 39-win Seattle SuperSonics took out the Mavericks and sixth-seeded Houston Rockets before getting swept by the Lakers. This remains the only time a 7-seed has reached the conference finals.
  • The ’89 Warriors swept Malone and Stockton, then fell to the Suns. Two years later, Run-TMC beat the Spurs before losing to the Lakers. Those Dubs squads won 43 and 44 games, respectively.
  • The ’97 New York Knicks (.524 winning percentage) exacted revenge on Pat Riley in the first round in 1997, then succumbed to Reggie Miller. The next year, in a strike-shortened campaign, the 8-seeded Knicks ousted the Miami Heat again (at the buzzer) on the way to the lone Finals run for a bottom-two seed in NBA history.

Of course, none of these teams were defending champions with LeBron James, and none were dealing with pandemic-altered circumstances. So, yes: the Lakers are the most formidable 7-seed ever, by a sizable margin.

Vegas agrees: the Lakers are no underdog. In fact, Los Angeles opened as -300 favorites over Phoenix — the first time a no.7 seed has been favored in a series vs. a no. 2 seed in 30 years. At time of writing, the Lakers remain a favorite (+375) to win the ‘chip, and the favorite (+180) to represent the West in the Finals. Without consulting Terry Benedict, I would expect LeBron & Co. to be favored in any pre-Finals series, at least.

Seeding aside, since the 1976 merger, only three champs have posted a net rating below the Lakers’ (skewed) +2.9 figure, per 538.

  • In 1978, amid a notoriously shallow talent pool, the 44-win Washington Bullets (with three Hall of Famers) grabbed the title, then stormed to the 1-seed and Finals in ’79.
  • In 1995, Hakeem Olajuwon led a 47-35 Houston team to a ring from the no. 6 seed, one year after winning the ’94 title. Like L.A., the ’95 Rockets made a notable midseason addition (Clyde Drexler) and were led by an all-time great. Those Rockets were fortunate to avoid Michael Jordan, though their sweep of the Shaq-Penny Orlando Magic is undeniably impressive. That team, with a 2.35 net rating, rode the heart of a championa quality the Lakers will surely rely on.

As long as LeBron James and Anthony Davis are on the court, the Lakers know they can beat anybody, regardless of venue, spread, or seed. Including the play-in, Los Angeles is 20-8 this season when both stars have played, and they absolutely wreck teams when both are on the court.

“I don’t look at our seeding, and it doesn’t matter,” LeBron stated.

Starting on Sunday, he’ll have a chance to prove it as he embarks on yet another uphill quest to the top of the basketball world. Just another chance for the King to make history.