December 25th. The Lakers go into Oracle and destroy the Warriors, 127-101. LeBron went down with a groin injury in the 3rd quarter, yet the Lakers didn’t collapse. Six other players scored in double figures, and for a night, all was right in Los Angeles.
The Lakers were back! Fourth in the West! At 20-14, they were hurtling toward a Top 4 seed in the West, and surely a date with the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Two months later, the Lakers were fighting for their playoff lives. Those playoff dreams were dashed Saturday night in the desert against the worst team in the NBA.
You can play the blame game all you want – Magic Johnson for the roster he built (yet nobody complained when they were 20-14, 4th in the West); the Anthony Davis drama (uh, any GM in that spot would have chased a Top 6 player); Luke Walton (well, LeBron has missed 18 games, Rajon Rondo has missed 32, Lonzo Ball 16, Brandon Ingram 9), and yes, LeBron deserves his share of blame (despite averaging 27-8-7, his PER is just a shade below of where he was last year, as are his shooting percentages) – but the reality is that we’ll never know what would have happened if LeBron didn’t get hurt.
Lots of folks will try to do a victory lap about LeBron getting to the playoffs in LA, but if he doesn’t go down for the longest stretch of his career, do they really fall to 10th in the West? Anybody who says they would is lying. On the off chance someone does, remind them LeBron has taken worse teams to the Finals – including last year’s Cavs.
Yes, it was in the East, but he had to get by Indiana in Game 7, he swept the 59-win Raptors, and then beat the Celtics in Game 7 on the road without Kevin Love.
All that being said, given how they’ve played of late against good teams, it’s entirely possible that on this 3-game home stand this week, the Lakers beat the Clippers, Nuggets, and Celtics (LA did beat each of those teams in their last meeting), and get everyone excited once again.
But the reality is, they’d have to probably go 15-4 the rest of the way to get into the playoffs, and have the Spurs/Clippers/Kings play below .500 ball. It feels insurmountable.
I can’t see the Lakers tanking, though it sounds funny to say out loud. There’s always the chance LeBron suffers a non-serious “injury” and he takes a few games off, the Lakers get blasted, and he shuts it down.
For any Lakers fans giddy about the possibility of a high draft pick based on new lottery rules, a quick word: A) LeBron doesn’t play with rookies, so it’d be a trade chip; B) They’d have to get all the way to 10th worst record to have a 13% chance of landing in the Top 4.
Everyone rooting against LeBron can laugh now, but they’ll be crying during two months of NBA playoffs without one of the league’s marquee draws for the last 10+ years. Fans, TV executives, and NBA executives all lose.