The Los Angeles Lakers have less than a 0.1 percent chance of making the playoffs this year, according to ESPN’s BPI Playoff Odds. So yes, I realize they will not be making the playoffs this year no matter how much I want them to defy the odds. But do not try and persuade me that it is a good thing that the Lakers will be in the lottery.
On Christmas Day 2018 the Lakers were in a three-way tie for fourth place in the Western Conference, with a game against the first place Golden State Warriors. The Lakers would win the game to pull into sole possession of fourth place, and they were only 2.5 games out of first place.
The downside of that night was that LeBron James injured his groin and would miss the next 17 games for the Lakers. The Lakers would go 7-10 in those 17 games, which does not look terrible, but it included losses at home to the hapless New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, who entered the contests on eight and 12 game losing streaks, respectively.
Though those losses were inexcusable, getting LeBron back was supposed to solve all those issues and push the Lakers back into the playoff picture. The Lakers were the nine seed at the time LeBron came back, but they were only two games out of the eight seed. In his first game back, they beat the Los Angeles Clippers to close that gap to a single game.
After that game, however, the Lakers completely fell apart. Since LeBron’s first game back from injury, the Lakers are 3-9, with losses to bottom-feeding teams like the Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Pelicans (who were resting Anthony Davis), Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns. In addition to the losses against the worst teams in the league, LeBron had the worst loss of his career in Indiana against the Pacers, where Los Angeles lost 136-94.
The biggest problem for the Lakers during this streak has been their defense. They have not held a team under 100 points in a game since Jan. 7, when they held the Dallas Mavericks to 97. They have only held teams to under 96 points three times all season.
The lack of defense shows how sorely the Lakers miss Lonzo Ball. As a 6’6” point guard, he disrupts the other team’s offense by getting a multitude of blocks and steals. He can also set the pace for the Lakers, getting them out in transition and allowing the Lakers to always keep a pass-first point guard on the court with him and Rajon Rondo switching off playing time.
The Lakers need to get Lonzo back soon so that they can end the season as strongly as possible. If they cannot play well with the current group of players, none of the top-tier free agents will want to come to Los Angeles. As seen last offseason, when Paul George, whom everyone assumed would sign with the Lakers, never even met with the team, they do not have the same draw as they once did for superstars.
Kawhi Leonard requested a trade to Los Angeles last summer, but right now it seems as though the Clippers are a better landing spot than the Lakers, if he even decides to leave his role in Toronto where he is thriving.
The other superstar who has been linked to the Lakers is Anthony Davis, who would have to be traded from the Pelicans. Teams in the recent past have been unwilling to trade their superstars to the Lakers (the Pacers with Paul George, the Spurs with Kawhi) despite the players’ requests, so there is no reason to believe that trend would change. Additionally, if the Lakers’ young players do not play well, the Lakers do not have the talent necessary to make a trade for AD realistic.
The same logic goes for the rest of the top players who will either be free agents or requesting trades this offseason, so the Lakers need to play as well as possible. The difference between having the eighth pick in the draft and the 15th pick in the draft will not make as much of a difference as proving they are a good team that is one piece away from championship contention will mean.
With 18 games to go and one of the hardest schedules in the league, the Lakers can really impress if they can win 12 of the games, which would put them at a 42-40 record. That still may not get them a playoff spot in the crowded Western Conference, but it would be the moral victory they need heading into the offseason.