Coming out of the All-Star break, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in what has become a familiar place – on the outside looking in at the NBA Playoffs. With 25 games remaining, the Lakers are three games back from the L.A. Clippers, who currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot in a Western Conference that’s packed tighter than a clown car.
No matter what happens, multiple quality teams in the conference will be sitting at home this postseason, and what happens over the final stretch will determine whether the Lakers will be one of them.
There are no guarantees that they will make it, especially given the recent quality of their play. How did we get to this place after the season started with such promise?
LeBron James arrived, ready to lift the team out of the darkness of a lengthy rebuild, validating (for the time being) president of basketball operations Magic Johnson’s and general manager Rob Pelinka’s vision for the future.
With salary cap room still available for 2019 free agency, the Lakers appeared to be a lock to bring in one or –gasp— maybe even two of Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, and the rest of a talented crop.
Now, that future looks to be very much in question.
There are plenty of places to put the blame for the current state of things. The injury bug has robbed Los Angeles of every key player for extended stretches, including the worst injury of James’ career. Accordingly, the team’s record has plummeted with their key pieces in action for just 11 of the 57 games played so far.
While injuries can be unpredictable, the front office has also had more than their share of miscues. They decided to forego shooting (usually a staple of James-led teams) in favor of playmakers, and righting that wrong at the trade deadline forced them to part with assets like Ivica Zubac, Svi Mykhailiuk and a future second-round draft pick.
The trade of Zubac, in particular, stings since he went to crosstown rival Clippers in a deal that appears to be lopsided in the other L.A. team’s favor.
Julius Randle was a restricted free agent last summer but was released to sign an extremely team-friendly deal with the New Orleans Pelicans. The Lakers wanted to preserve cap space at all cost, but Randle, on his current deal, would have been an easily tradable piece in a pinch.
In a league where asset management is incredibly important, allowing a young and talented player to simply walk away without getting anything in return is all kinds of bad.
Additionally, the Lakers misread the very public Anthony Davis trade negotiations at the deadline, causing a rift. It’s difficult to find cohesion in a group that now knows with certainty where they stand in the Lakers’ long-term future.
For every player except for James this could very well be their final season with the Lakers, which isn’t a dynamic that typically results in maximum effort.
While all of these errors are reason for real concern they are, in the grand scheme of things, somewhat minor. If Johnson and Pelinka are again successful in landing another big fish in free agency this summer, then all will be forgiven.
Meanwhile, head coach Luke Walton has been on the hot seat for essentially the entire season, and despite the Lakers’ assertions that he has their support, many feel (including Las Vegas) that someone else will be at the helm next season.
Rumors of who could replace Walton have been popping up since James signed on. And yet, despite all of the turmoil, the Lakers still have a chance to turn their season around. A playoff berth isn’t out of the question, and from there, anything is possible.
James still has another gear that we have yet to see, and betting against him in the past has proven to be a mistake. If he goes nuclear and the team can resuscitate their once-sturdy defense (which has dropped to 27th in the NBA over the last 15 games), the chance is there to make some real noise.
With 25 games remaining and their backs against the wall, we are about to find out what this group is truly made of, mentally and physically. It’s a long season made even longer by the constant uncertainty around the team but a shot at the playoffs is worth pushing for, despite an uncertain future.
The questions that hang over the Lakers are serious ones. Will the wounds of the trade deadline continue to fester, or can they find a way to move past the uncertainty of the future and focus on the present? Can James lift his game to another level, or will injury and Father Time take the wind out of his sails? Can Walton coax the best out of his team with the pressure mounting?
As the season slips away, the answers will determine the Lakers’ fate this season and possibly beyond as well.
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