LA’s No. 23 Has 23 Games to Figure Things Out With Lakers’ Playoff Hopes on the Line

The Lakers appeared to turn a corner Thursday night against Houston.

Los Angeles pulled off an epic comeback, rallying from a 19-point deficit in the third quarter to eventually beat the Rockets 111-106 and get back to .500 with the win. LeBron James, who said he had activated “playoff mode” for the final third of the season, put up 29 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.

Fast forward to Saturday and the Lakers took a step back to square one in a 128-115 loss to the Pelicans, who played without superstar Anthony Davis. James had 27 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists, but couldn’t will the team to a victory. After the game, he had some interesting comments.

“How many know what’s at stake if you’ve never been there?” James said to reporters after the loss. “It’s kind of a fine line when you talk about that, because when you’ve never been there or know what it takes to actually shoot for something like that, sometimes you’re afraid to get uncomfortable.”

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From an optics standpoint, James publicly questioning the team’s focus while he announced the production of “Space Jam 2” isn’t great. Add in his potential involvement in trade talks surrounding the Lakers and Davis and LA’s locker room has little reason to believe James is fully focused on the task at hand this season.

James knew fully well what he was signing up for when he accepted the four-year, $154 million contract to join the Lakers. The team had gone 126-284 in the five seasons before this year. James knew there would be a development curve for Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart.

This was a long-term play for contention.

The Lakers started 2-5 but then went 17-9 before things unraveled Christmas Day. James went down with a groin injury and missed 17 games. He also missed a game after coming back from the injury due to “load management.” During those 17 games, Los Angeles went 6-11 and finds itself on the outside of the playoff picture with 23 games left in the season.

If James didn’t get hurt, there’s a real possibility the Lakers don’t find themselves in the current predicament. They were 20-14 and in fourth place in the Western Conference, 2.5 games back of the top seed after beating Golden State Christmas Day. If they had maintained their win percentage after a rough start during James’ absence, the Lakers would theoretically be 34-25 and in the thick of the playoff picture.

There’s also the injury to Ball, who is not nearing a return. The Lakers have seen their defense, a top-tier unit for most of the season, slip with Ball sidelined.

Lakers Defensive Splits Defensive Rating (via NBA.com/stats) League Rank
With Lonzo Ball In (47 games) 106.3 7th
With Lonzo Ball Out (12 games) 116.6 27th

 

Not all of the team’s defensive issues are on Ball’s absence. Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson, hailed as veterans with strong defensive chops when they were added in free agency, sport a 110 and 109 defensive rating, respectively. Los Angeles is 4.3 points better defensively with Rondo off the court and 4.7 points better defensively with Stephenson off. Hart has also been struggling with an injury, compounding LA’s problems on that end of the floor. If the Lakers are going to make a playoff push, their defense will need to improve.

In addition to the injuries, the schedule doesn’t set up favorably for LA in the final 23 games. The Lakers will get 11 games on the road, including a five-game road trip starting March 12 in Chicago. LA has gone 12-18 in road games this season. There will only be seven games against teams unlikely to make the postseason. The Lakers get the Warriors, Thunder, Raptors and Celtics in this stretch.

They also face the Bucks and MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo twice.

Perhaps the only advantage the Lakers will have is in their competition for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. As of February 24, the Lakers are 3.5 games behind the Clippers and 2.0 games behind the Kings. The Clippers, who traded star Tobias Harris at the deadline, will play the Lakers twice. The Kings, led by the dynamic backcourt of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, play the Lakers once. LA holds a 2-1 edge over Sacramento and a 1-1 mark against the Clippers in the regular season series so far. Those head-to-head tiebreakers are going to be extremely important in determining who winds up with the final postseason spot.

And then there’s James himself. The superstar has made eight straight Finals appearances and 13 consecutive trips to the playoffs. He knew there wasn’t going to be immediate success in Los Angeles but not making the playoffs would be very damaging in his pursuit of a championship with the team in the future. The Lakers have long desired to add a second maximum contract star to pair with James and that pitch becomes difficult with no postseason berth.

According to Stadium NBA Insider Shams Charania, James is still working his way back from the groin injury mentally. However, the situation demands James’ greatness.

James has averaged 37.6 minutes per game in his last seven contests since returning to the court. He averaged 34.7 minutes per game prior to the injury. The Lakers will attempt to manage his minutes to avoid another setback but James will likely go into “2012 Kobe” mode in terms of playing time to attempt to will the team to the postseason. There are several similarities between that team and this one.

Team Record on Feb. 24 of Respective Season Games Back from Playoffs on Feb. 24 Final Record Playoff Appearance
2012-13 Lakers 27-29 2.0 (9th seed) 45-37 Yes
2018-19 Lakers 29-30 3.5 (10th seed) ? ?

 

Bryant averaged 39.6 minutes per game in 22 games played from Feb. 24 of that season, hitting 43 minutes per game in his final 11 contests. James likely won’t approach that mark but we could see him push the limit if the Lakers’ playoff hopes comes down to the last few games.

In December, Kevin Durant caught heat for his comments to Bleacher Report about the environment around James, calling it “toxic.” Durant wasn’t the only player to comment on James’ presence with the Lakers and the reason players might not potentially want to play with him in the future but his word choice hit a nerve. James and Durant ironed out their issues over the comment, according to multiple reports, but it’ll be up to The King to change the perception surrounding him.

Fair or not, the Lakers are in a tough situation partly due to James’ potential actions behind the scenes and his 17-game absence due to injury. As the leader in the locker room, it’s his responsibility to make sure the team is ready for the task ahead.

The last time the Lakers made the playoffs, it was a 34-year old Bryant taking the mantle in 2012-13. This season, a 34-year old James finds himself in a similar situation. No. 23 has 23 games to right the ship this season. It’s time for him to deliver.

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