How have the LA Lakers, widely tipped as the red-hot favourites for the NBA title at the start of the year, found themselves in a three-way battle to avoid slipping into the play-in tournament that has drawn the ire of LeBron James? Ahead of a potentially defining 48 hours, Huw Hopkins runs the rule over how we landed here
To avoid future play-in games, LeBron and the Lakers need a third star.
Live NBA: LA Lakers @ LA Clippers 06.05
Friday 7th May 3:00am
Los Angeles Lakers (37-28) – Remaining matches
|May 7||@ LA Clippers|
|May 8||@ Portland Trail Blazers|
|May 10||vs New York Knicks|
|May 12||vs Phoenix Suns|
|May 13||vs Houston Rockets|
|May 15||vs Indiana Pacers|
|May 16||vs New Orleans Pelicans|
On February 14, the Denver Nuggets beat the LA Lakers 122-105, but the bigger loss was All-Star Anthony Davis, who injured his leg in the contest.
The Lakers had a good record of 21-7 up to that point, and the team was managing to hold things together with LeBron James leading the charge. They went 7-6 in the next few weeks, but James then suffered an ankle injury on March 20, which ended in a loss, and he wouldn’t return for 20 games.
Without Davis and James, the Lakers fell apart, and as a result, the reigning champions have slipped down the standings and are battling the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks for playoff positioning. Whoever finishes fifth and sixth will advance to the playoffs, for those that finish seven it will be the NBA’s new play-in tournament.
And LeBron does not like the idea.
Winding up as seventh seed would be seen as an embarrassment for the league’s most elite franchise, as they would have to compete in a play-in tournament, the lottery of a one-game shoot-out – possibly against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors – does not have the luxury of the series nature of the play-offs.
There’s even a chance they could tumble lower. James’ ankle issues have not entirely disappeared, as he sat against the Denver Nuggets on Monday, and the Lakers only have seven games remaining. They also boast one of the toughest schedules remaining out of LA, the Dallas Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs – the other teams competing for a play-in position.
Entering the play-in tournament from the seventh seed means they would not be guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, but they would have to win a game to get there – and maybe two games if they slip much further.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
Even if the LA Lakers secure a spot in the playoffs, repeating as champions will be the toughest back-to-back run since the 1995 Houston Rockets that returned to the Finals from the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
They beat a San Antonio Spurs team in the Conference Finals featuring the regular season MVP David Robinson, and destroyed a physically superior and in-form Orlando Magic with rising big man Shaquille O’Neal.
If LeBron James and Anthony Davis can stay healthy enough to help their team make it, they are guaranteed to take on one of the Western Conference elites in the first round: the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz or the LA Clippers – teams that have built momentum and chemistry since the Lakers have spiralled.
Including the healthy stretches, LA have only won three games against these top four teams all season, but as the team targets a deep playoff run, James admitting that he will probably never be healthy again doesn’t bode well for a franchise that will pay him $85m in the two seasons following this one.
Now, LeBron James is still LeBron James. No team will have any issues paying that figure to the best player in the world, even if he is struggling to stay healthy. When he has been on the floor this season, the Lakers have been +7.9 points.
For every 100 possessions, he is worth 7.5 points, which is the fifth best in the NBA above a league average player.
It shows that the Lakers don’t need a replacement for James, they need an insurance policy. Anthony Davis hasn’t had much of an opportunity to carry the team since he arrived last season, and while he has led them in scoring at times, he clearly requires James’ presence to unlock his abilities.
This is not dissimilar to his time on the New Orleans Pelicans, when Davis struggled before having the opportunity to play with an intelligent ball handler in Rajon Rondo.
Since returning from injury, the big man has averaged 16 points and six rebounds – a long way off the 26 and nine he averaged to lead the Lakers in both those categories in 2019-20’s championship season – and the team has gone 2-6.
Live NBA: LA Lakers @ Portland 07.05
Saturday 8th May 3:00am
Many have criticised the likes of Brooklyn for loading up on superstars, but this is precisely the reason why a team should always take the opportunity to add top tier talent. To start the season, the Nets were just an injury to Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving away from flaming out of contention, but with James Harden, they have an insurance policy to keep plenty of scorers on the court.
The Nets are among the Lakers’ potential Finals competitors – along with the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers – and all three are getting healthy and becoming the superteams everyone feared.
The Lakers tried to re-tool during the past few months. They waived Quinn Cook to try Damien Jones out with a couple of 10-day contracts, and earlier this month they brought in Ben McLemore.
The big fish was Andre Drummond, but he has shown that good stats on a bad team – 17 points and 13 rebounds with the Cleveland Cavaliers – don’t necessarily translate when there are championship aspirations. He too will likely benefit from being part of a James-Davis-led system, but there is little evidence to confirm that yet with such a small sample size of all of them being on the.
Drummond has managed a relatively empty 12 and 10 since joining the Lakers, and he has had more games scoring single digits than he has 20 points – not a great sign considering half of his games wearing purple and gold have been without James or Davis.
Marc Gasol has been in and out of the line-up but he doesn’t offer much beyond some good rotational defense and solid passing these days.
Dennis Shroeder is in the midst of a break. Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have been solid, but it’s not their job to carry a team. Talen Horton-Tucker has become a good option but is inexperienced. And Kyle Kuzma has had the occasional good performance, but remains a trigger-happy scorer who can heat up inconsistently.
Making it count
Let’s not lose sight of some things. LeBron James has led a team to the NBA Finals in nine out of the past 10 seasons.
Most of those years, his team were a top two seed in his respective conference, but he dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals from fourth in the East in 2018 with a weakened roster and no Kyrie Irving.
Even if James doesn’t play another game this regular season, his return for a play-in game (or multiple play-in games) should ensure the LA Lakers make the top eight – he has that ability to turn it on and the experience to know how to win when it counts.
He may have chastised the potential to be knocked out of the playoffs due to extra games. But it likely masks the bigger issue at play: a championship might be too much of a stretch for a team that many had pencilled in to the Finals at the start of the year.
With two seasons left on James’ current contract, the Lakers can’t afford too many more losses. They need to make these next few seasons count, and should turn their attention to finding a third star who can provide insurance.
There is one elite player who could offer great coverage and might be available this off-season.
Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers can opt-out after this season, and, depending on how things go when the Los Angeles franchises tip off on Thursday night – and perhaps again early in the playoffs – Leonard might have had enough of his situation if it becomes fruitless and fails to match his own championship expectations.
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