The Los Angeles Lakers have been consistently inconsistent this season, unable to put together sustained winning streaks due to a Jekyl and Hyde complex that features both uplifting wins and head-scratching losses.
They currently find themselves on the outside looking in on the NBA playoffs, and recent losses to the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, and now Phoenix Suns have been a major blow to their chances of making the cut.
This isn’t what most envisioned for the Lakers heading into a season, with a new superstar to build around and an intriguing young core ready to take the next step.
So why does the team currently find themselves in dire straits? While there is plenty of finger-pointing to be done and blame to go around, it’s the missed opportunities that are haunting them.
After losing to the Pelicans, both LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma made comments about losses feeling the same regardless of where they fall in the season, which is exactly how they should feel. They have to approach every game as if it’s winnable; to do anything less would betray who they are as competitors.
The problem, of course, is that it isn’t true. Some losses do hurt worse just as some wins carry a greater importance. It all comes down to how likely a team is to get a win in any given game. Lose too many of the games you should win, and that’s a recipe for an early vacation in April with a hearty serving of regret on the side.
To be sure, upsets are wonderful for the winning side. Pulling out a win against the Golden State Warriors on Christmas and knocking off the Boston Celtics at the buzzer on trade deadline day provided emotional moments that will stick with us for years to come.
After all, the “underdog overcoming the odds” narrative is central to so many great stories, and watching that dynamic play out in professional sports is an unforgettable experience.
Kirk Gibson’s home run, the Miracle on Ice, Kobe Bryant’s 60-point sendoff, these are all moments that will be treasured forever. Heroes are born from the moments when the odds are beaten, when something, whether it be willpower, skill, or luck makes the impossible possible.
As romantic of a notion as it is, however, making the playoffs in the NBA is a task that doesn’t rely on feel-good moments. The NBA season is a marathon, and as such, finding a steady, consistent output is more important than statement wins if those high points are interspersed with head-scratching losses. Consistency and stability ultimately win the day, even if it’s the extraordinary that captures — or crushes — our hearts.
In other words, making the playoffs in the NBA requires that quality teams get results in the vast majority of the games that they are supposed to win. That means on a random Saturday matinee against a bad team like the Pelicans in February of a long season, or a random Monday night in Memphis, you have to find a way to get the job done.
And therein lies the problem for these Lakers.
They are 30-33, and 14 of their losses (45 percent) have come against teams that are not currently playoff-bound. That includes recent losses to the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns, who are five of the six worst teams in the league.
These are bad losses to teams who represented opportunities for the Lakers to beef up their win total and thus take some pressure off of them when they are facing the league’s best.
The NBA is competitive, and as such, even the bad teams have a puncher’s chance on any given night. The invincible Warriors have a loss to the Dallas Mavericks on their record, the Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Washington Wizards, and the Denver Nuggets somehow dropped a game to the Suns.
The rate at which the Lakers have stumbled against weaker opponents, however, is a clear problem. Had they won even half of the 14 games where they suffered defeat at the hands of non-playoff teams, their record would be 37-26, which would slot them comfortably in sixth place in the Western Conference.
The playoffs wouldn’t be a question and instead of discussing what went wrong we would be talking about matchups with various first-round opponents.
It has to be noted that these losses to non-playoff teams haven’t happened in a vacuum. Five of them, including the Cavs and Knicks debacles, came when LeBron James was shelved with a groin injury.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton has rarely had his entire team healthy, with injuries suffered to every key player on the roster. That’s a difficult hand to be dealt for any team.
Another factor is the attention that the James-led Lakers bring. For most NBA teams, games against the Lakers will be their most-watched contests of the season. Additionally, cries of tampering and a history of success have 29 teams in the league, a number of which see the Lakers as their chief rival, salivating at the thought of the most popular team in the league failing yet again.
As a result, Los Angeles gets their opponent’s best shot most nights. If the Lakers are off, even a little, teams are more than happy to exploit it.
Still, the Sacramento Kings, like the Lakers, are chasing the Clippers for eighth seed, and have lost just seven games this season to teams not currently in the playoffs. Those games could very well be the difference that pushes them into the postseason and leaves the Lakers on the outside once again.
It takes a lot of things to make the playoffs in the NBA but consistently taking advantage of winnable games is key, and that’s something the Lakers simply haven’t been good enough at. Now, they find themselves in a position where their backs are against the wall and they are going to have to rack up a least a few upsets in their favor to get the job done.
If this group has any hero moments left in them, now is the time for it.
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