LeBron James is in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, and things are reaching a boiling point with the Lakers
- After losing another game, the Los Angeles Lakers, at 29-31, have an uphill road to make the playoffs.
- LeBron James has not looked like his usual self since returning from injury, and it's possible that at 34 years old and after eight straight NBA Finals runs he doesn't have what it takes to carry the Lakers into the postseason.
- The Lakers' locker room could also become a concern as James has expressed frustration with his teammates at times and coach Luke Walton's seat has grown warmer.
- The Lakers will need to make major upgrades this summer, but it's not clear whether that can be done.
With the NBA regular season winding down, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers' season is in serious jeopardy.
The Lakers dropped to 29-31 on Monday night with a 110-105 loss to the lowly Memphis Grizzlies after a last-ditch comeback attempt fell short. The loss put the Lakers in a tie for 10th place in the West, three games behind the eighth-place San Antonio Spurs for the final playoff spot.
FiveThirtyEight gives the Lakers just an 18% chance at making the playoffs, and the eighth seed in the West is projected to finish with about 44 wins. The Lakers would need to go 15-7 over their final games to hit that mark. If they miss the playoffs, it would be the first time James has failed to make the postseason since the 2004-05 season, his second year in the league.
There would appear to be plenty of time to turn things around with 22 games remaining, but things have not looked right with the Lakers for some time.
First, there was LeBron James' extended injury absence, during which the Lakers went 6-11.
Since returning, James hasn't quite looked like himself. He has acknowledged needing some adjustment to get back on the court, and though he continues to put up gaudy stat lines, his performance hasn't been up to his standard.
On Monday, James shot 8-for-23 from the field while committing five turnovers. He lacked his usual sagacity on the court. Late in the fourth quarter, James simply didn't defend the Grizzlies' Bruno Caboclo on a wide-open 3-point attempt, which Caboclo knocked down and extended the Grizzlies' lead to seven with 2:30 remaining.
via Spectrum SportsNet/NBA
With the Lakers down four with 20 seconds remaining, James went the length of the court seeking a quick basket. As James barreled toward the basket, however, he couldn't avoid the Grizzlies' Joakim Noah, who took the crucial offensive charge. We're used to seeing James either jump over opponents or nimbly dance around them. This was neither of those things:
Perhaps James will gradually find his legs, but as of now he looks very much like a 34-year-old who has logged a historic workload over the past eight seasons.
James is a victim of the lofty expectations he has set. But when superhuman is the standard, anything short is noteworthy.
What should be noted — and is perhaps of concern for the Lakers — is that it's not as if James is carrying around dead weight. On Monday, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, perhaps James' two best teammates, combined for 54 points on 21-of-33 shooting. That James had a bad performance may be why the Lakers lost, but it's not encouraging that the Lakers couldn't pull out a win over the struggling Grizzlies, even when James got the support he needed.
Is the locker room on the brink of disaster?
With the Lakers in dire times, extra attention is paid to everything James says. On Monday, he offered another eyebrow-raising quote when asked whether the pressure of the playoff push was weighing on the rest of the roster.
"At this point, if you are still allowing distractions to affect how the way you play, then this is the wrong franchise to be a part of and you should just come and be like, 'Listen, I don't [think this is for me]. I cannot do this,'" James told reporters.
He added: "Like, seriously, if you're distracted by playoff pushes out of all the stuff that's been talked about this year — nah. Just come and do your job. We do our job at a high level, and that's not a distraction. That's what you want. That's what you want every game. You want to feel like you're fighting for something."
The Athletic's Bill Oram tweeted afterward that he, the reporter who asked the question, didn't interpret James' quote as a shot at the Lakers' young players but as a rebuke to what was asked.
Nonetheless, given all that's happened in the Lakers' locker room this year, it's hard to ignore James' comments.
Everybody knew this Lakers team was a ticking time bomb based on its construction. There is the young core in Ingram, Kuzma, and Lonzo Ball, players to grow around James, but much of the roster was signed to one-year deals. Regardless of their questionable fit with James, it's clear that the rest of the Lakers weren't part of the long-term plans.
Not only have injuries and suspensions affected team chemistry, but the Lakers' public and failed pursuit of Anthony Davis seemed to shake up the locker room in an uncomfortable way. With the trade deadline behind them, some thought the team could right the ship. But since a stirring buzzer-beating win over the Boston Celtics on the day of the deadline, the team is just 1-4.
After a bad loss to the New Orleans Pelicans last Saturday, James called into question his teammates' "sense of urgency," saying they sometimes looked afraid to fail while out on the court.
As the task of making the postseason grows more difficult, rumors of Luke Walton's job security will inevitably increase. After all, there have already been rumors about his long-term fit with the Lakers, as he was hired under a previous regime, not Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka. Additionally, there have been murmurs that James is not a huge advocate of Walton's.
A splintered locker room and failed playoff chase would only make Walton's seat warmer.
What happens if the Lakers miss the playoffs?
Unfortunately, for the Lakers, the schedule is not in their favor.
Of their remaining 23 games, 13 come against teams now over .500. Though the schedule is slightly home-heavy, some huge matchups remain including two games against the sixth-seeded Utah Jazz, two against the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, and one against the ninth-seeded Sacramento Kings. The Lakers could give themselves a playoff boost by winning all five of those games.
If the Lakers fall short of the playoffs, perhaps the only benefit will be that their first-round pick will be in the lottery and could become a more valuable trade chip.
It's been clear that the Lakers will have to get James some help to become a contender. They will most likely attempt to revisit trade talks with the Pelicans for Davis over the summer, but with the Celtics now allowed to bid, the Lakers may be long shots at landing the star big man.
The Lakers also signed all of those one-year deals to preserve cap space this summer. The 2019 free-agent class is stacked, including Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, DeMarcus Cousins, and Nikola Vucevic.
There's one big question: Which of those players will sign with the Lakers and put them over the top? Kevin Durant criticized the culture around LeBron James as "toxic."
Irving famously sought to get out from under James' shadow in Cleveland.
Leonard is said to prefer the Clippers, Thompson is a strong bet to re-sign with the Warriors (barring some significant change), and Butler did not have the Lakers on his list of desired trade destinations this past autumn. Are players like Walker, Harris, Cousins, or Vucevic big enough difference-makers to put the Lakers over the top? As James turns 35?
There can be unforeseen circumstances. Players could suddenly choose the Lakers as a free-agent destination, or a star player could become available suddenly.
But this summer appears to be crucial. If the Lakers make the playoffs in Year 1 of the LeBron James era, it could be seen as a nice jumping-off point. If they miss it, well, there will be a lot of work to be done.
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