Can the Los Angeles Lakers still reach the play-in tournament with LeBron James sidelined by a tendon injury in his right foot?

The Lakers announced Thursday that James will be reevaluated in about three weeks after he missed their past two games because of the injury. That timeline pins James’ return late in March at best, with the end of the regular season looming.

With 19 games left to play, the Lakers are 11th in the Western Conference, one game behind the New Orleans Pelicans for the final play-in spot.

James’ injury, which came during a promising comeback road win over the Dallas Mavericks, likely ends realistic hopes of avoiding the play-in by climbing all the way to the sixth seed.

Yet that doesn’t mean we won’t see the Lakers in the playoffs at all. Having reinforced their roster at the trade deadline, can the Lakers move up into the play-in — or at least stay in contention for it — while James heals?

Let’s consider the cases for optimism and pessimism about their chances.

Why the Lakers’ trade deadline was clutch

Wednesday’s win over the slumping Oklahoma City Thunder brought the Lakers to 6-10 this season when James is sidelined. Perhaps more notably, it was their second win in six games without either James or Anthony Davis, who sat out the second game of a back-to-back because of a stress injury in his right foot.

That result was a tribute to the Lakers’ improvement at the deadline. Although guard D’Angelo Russell also missed Wednesday’s game because of an ankle sprain, newcomers Mo Bamba, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt all started for the Lakers, with Rui Hachimura — added in an earlier trade this season — playing 27 minutes off the bench.

Even when the newcomers don’t excel, they push those who started earlier in the season into smaller roles. Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker IV both came off the bench Wednesday, combining for 32 points. Meanwhile, Patrick Beverley and Juan Toscano-Anderson, who started games James missed early in the season, are no longer on the roster.

As a result, I wouldn’t necessarily read much into the Lakers’ overall record without James. This is a far deeper, stronger team than the one that started 1-4 this season in games both James and Davis missed.

The schedule is back in L.A.’s favor

If beating the Thunder, who have lost their past five games to drop a game back of the Lakers in the standings, was an indication of the Lakers’ potential after the trades, then Tuesday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies despite 28 points and 19 boards from Davis was a reminder of their limited margin for error.

That’s why it’s important that, after finishing up a three-game road trip, the Lakers have seen the schedule flip back in their favor. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers have an easier schedule the rest of the way, per ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI), with the Lakers set to play 12 of their final 19 regular-season games at home.

The downside is the most challenging part: That remaining schedule comes during the period James is set to miss. Including a rematch with the Grizzlies next Tuesday in L.A., the Lakers’ next six games are all against teams with superior records. Three of them are doubly important because they come against other teams in the West play-in mix, including visiting the Pelicans on March 14.

The schedule will start to even out in mid-March, when the Lakers face just two teams that would currently reach the postseason in a stretch of seven games, with five of them at home. The Lakers will have to rack up wins during that span in order to keep pace in the West play-in race. It’s possible James could be back for the tail end of those games, which includes a home set against the Chicago Bulls.

The other good news for the Lakers is none of the five teams currently in the play-in mix have gone better than 4-6 in the past 10 games. Several of those competitors are dealing with their own injuries, including Karl-Anthony Towns still sidelined for the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans playing without frontcourt starters Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas.

If the Lakers can merely go .500 with James out of the lineup, that might be enough to put them in play-in position by the time he returns.

Why play-in seeding matters, too

There’s a tendency to discuss the play-in tournament as a binary matter — either in or out. Although finishing 11th would give the Lakers zero chance of reaching the playoffs, the path is much more difficult for the teams in ninth and 10th, who must win twice to advance through the play-in.

That’s where the math is less favorable for the Lakers. The odds of them catching one of the four teams ahead of them in the standings are good, but passing several teams this late in the season will be challenging. Projections using the BPI have either ninth or 10th as the most likely outcome for the Lakers.

If the Lakers are stuck outside the West’s top eight entering the playoffs, that means playing two games to reach the first round while their prospective opponent — almost assuredly the top-seeded Denver Nuggets in that scenario, because a team that enters the play-in ninth or 10th can end up only as the eighth seed — is resting and preparing for the playoffs.

As a result, the implications of James’ current injury could still be felt in April even if the Lakers do advance to the playoffs.

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