I know this may seem like an outrageous question considering LeBron James, the man who has made eight straight NBA Finals, is at the helm of this team, but as the regular season reaches closer to the 60-game mark, it's looking like "Space Jam 2" might start filming earlier than expected.
There was never really doubt in my mind about LA missing the playoffs until yesterday's 143-120 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. The defeat dropped the Lakers to 28-28 (10th in the West) and they're now officially on the outside-looking-in as they sit 2.5 games back of their neighboring Clippers for the last playoff spot. It's impossible to count LeBron out, especially when it comes to playoff basketball, but this isn't the Eastern Conference anymore; LeBron's playing in by-far the tougher conference, and while he's most definitely up to the challenge, the rest of the roster may not be built for sustained success. The Anthony Davis rumors were a whole fiasco in itself, and while players like Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram have claimed they haven't been affected by being on the trade block, it's seemingly dragged the team down into a state of uncertainty. Hopefully meetings with LeBron and Magic Johnson will be able to bring the team together and put a new flame under their asses to get them to really ball out for the remaining 25-or-so games of the season; it won't be the playoffs without LeBron, it just wouldn't feel right.
Since LeBron returned from the groin injury he suffered on Christmas, the Lakers are 2-3 with pretty big (albeit close) victories over the Clippers and Celtics (another team mired with instability and roster questions); they've also suffered 42 and 23 point losses to the Pacers and Sixers, respectively. On top of that, they're 3-7 in their last 10 games, and if they can't figure out a way to chain together some wins, there's going to be a lot of animosity that will need to be addressed in the offseason. In the scenario the Lakers miss the playoffs, LeBron will surely be pissed, and the pressure will be on more than ever for Magic and Rob Pelinka to make the right moves to surround the GOAT with a championship-contending roster.
Above is the Lakers' roster over the next 14 games (or next month). Unless they can smooth out the kinks and get consistency from everybody, it's not going to be easy to find a rhythm. There are a few games that can (or should?) be marked as early wins (Hawks, Suns, Pels, Bulls, Grizzlies), but they also have to go up against some of the top teams in the league
(Rockets, Raps, Bucks, Nuggets, Celtics) and even the team they're directly competing with for the seventh or eighth seed (LAC). LeBron knows what's at stake and has to be aware that missing the playoffs will be seen for some as a stain on his legacy, so I'm sure we'll be seeing plenty of statlines reminiscent of his career's (27/7/7), but he needs his young teammates to step it up. Everybody knows Bron is going to be the best player on the floor at all times, but he can only do so much on his own. Kyle Kuzma just dropped 39 on the Sixers and Brandon Ingram was just praised by Kyrie Irving for his defense, but there's a missing piece: Lonzo Ball.
The Lakers are 3-7 since Lonzo went down with an ankle injury, only further showing the value he brings on the court. Sure, LaVar is going off again but that's not what matters; these guys are professionals and if LaVar's comments are bothering them that much, that's their own issue. Without Ball, the Lakers have 32-year-old Rajon Rondo as their sole point guard in the rotation, and despite Lonzo's lack of scoring, his defense and IQ are missed. Being able to use Rondo or Ball at any given time gives the Lakers a smart guard to run their offense and control tempo, but what's been arguably hurting the team most is lack of defense. With Lonzo, LA is a top-10 defensive team; without, bottom-3. It's easy to write off Lonzo because his shooting percentages aren't great, but the Lakers need him if they want to succeed. Thankfully he should return right after the All-Star break, so hopefully that's when the team starts to really turn it on.
Do I think the Lakers are going to miss the playoffs? No, not really. They can't, right? I mean it's LeBron, he's not going to miss out on a shot at the Finals. After the All-Star break I truly believe we're going to get a half-season of balls-to-the-fucking-wall superhuman LeBron, and something in me feels the young guys are going to try and ensure they don't get traded in the offseason (they must really be pulling for Danny Ainge to get AD). We'll have to wait and see, but the latter half of the season is bound to be bonkers.
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