On the other hand, the Lakers surrendering a 15-2 run — and the lead — over the final three minutes of play may have put the team’s back against the wall in an entirely new way.
With the defeat, LeBron James and the Lakers find themselves staring at just a 14 percent playoff probability in FiveThirtyEight’s NBA projection model, the lowest mark they’ve had all season, and a damning scenario given that there are only 20 games left in the campaign. That 14 percent figure is an enormous drop-off from even a week ago, when the club held 25 percent odds to get in. (Three weeks ago, the Lakers’ number was 41 percent.)
But a number of realities are setting in now. The Lakers are 4 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the seventh seed and 3.5 games back of the San Antonio Spurs, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker (meaning their lead is more like 4 games, since the Lakers would miss out on the postseason if they were to finish with the same record as San Antonio). Perhaps the most disheartening thing, aside from having a lot of ground to make up, is the fact that the other teams vying for the last two spots have much easier remaining schedules.
By contrast, the indestructible Spurs need to go only 10-9 to finish with 44 wins. They have an easier-than-average slate the rest of the way, with 11 of their last 19 games in San Antonio. The Clippers have it even better, needing a 9-9 finish to get to 44 victories, with 12 of their last 18 contests at home. (The young, fun Sacramento Kings are positioned in about the same spot as the Lakers in the standings, needing a 13-7 finish to reach 44 wins. But their remaining schedule is the third-easiest in the NBA, giving them some hope in an uphill battle.)
James has faced late-season pressure to lift his team out of the doldrums each of the past few seasons. But this scenario with the Lakers stands apart, both because of how much time he missed with injury (one that now looks as if it will cost the team a playoff spot), and because of how the young supporting cast struggled to hold the rope during his absence, going 6-11. It’s one thing to coast into the postseason, the way James’s Miami and Cleveland clubs often did. But James himself hasn’t missed the playoffs in 14 years, not since the 2004-05 season.
If there’s a bright side, it’s that the Lakers finally look engaged. They held Antetokounmpo to just 16 points, one of his lowest-scoring outputs in a dominant season. Youngster Brandon Ingram has showcased his scoring ability lately and was unstoppable Friday, finishing with 31 points.
LeBron James has been so good for so long that it’s easy to forget just how astounding some of his accomplishments are. For example, he currently owns one of the greatest ongoing streaks in sports: His team has made the NBA Finals in eight straight seasons, starting in 2011. That’s mind-blowing in a league where a single finals appearance can be the highlight of a player’s entire career — and he’s done it for two different franchises.
Of course, everyone knew it would be hard for James to keep that streak going this season after moving from the Cleveland Cavaliers — and the relative ease of the Eastern Conference — to the Los Angeles Lakers and the scary West. The thing that has taken NBA observers by surprise is the reason why the finals streak might not happen: James’s Lakers are in real danger of not making the playoffs at all.
The last LeBron-led team to miss the postseason entirely was the 2004-05 Cavs, in James’s second NBA season. They went 42-40 — which has traditionally been good enough to make the playoffs in the East — but lost out on a tiebreaker with the New Jersey Nets (who beat Cleveland 3-1 in the season series). Talent-wise, that team was a far cry from even later versions of the Cavs that would be prematurely bounced out of the playoffs: Journeyman guard Jeff McInnis was second on the team in minutes behind LeBron, and low-scoring swingman Ira Newble was also a full-time starter. (The next scoring options behind James were Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden.) James himself had not yet fully ascended to GOAT levels of performance, either, posting what would eventually be the fifth-worst Box Plus/Minus and fourth-worst win shares per 48 minutes of his career to date.
On paper, this season’s Lakers should not be drawing comparisons to Jeff McInnis and Ira Newble. Although L.A.’s supporting cast didn’t have the same immediate appeal as players in other potential free-agent destinations for James, it was assumed that the young quartet of Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball would build on their promising 2018 performances — particularly by playing alongside James — and mix with the Lakers’ strange mishmash of veterans to make a functional team. But that hasn’t consistently happened during James’s debut campaign in purple and gold.
It’s been a tough season for the young Lakers
Performance metrics for four Los Angeles Lakers prospects, 2018 vs. 2019
Across a variety of metrics, LeBron’s young sidekicks have mostly declined in performance this season, despite benefiting from an extra year of development and getting to play next to one of the greatest offensive creators in NBA history. Only Kuzma can credibly say he has shown any amount of improvement, increasing his usage rate and true shooting percentage while reducing his turnover rate. The rest — particularly Ingram, whose advanced stats have slid into an abyss — have stalled out or worse, and none has even amounted to a league-average player, according to the consensus of metrics.
Making matters worse, it could be argued that those four cost Los Angeles a shot at trading for New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis at the deadline (assuming that former Pelicans GM Dell Demps ever actually intended to deal Davis). If even a few of the Lakers’ youngsters had played well this season, showing the requisite star potential to be included in a trade package for Davis, it’s possible that L.A. would have been penciling a LeBron-AD duo into its lineup for a playoff push this year. Instead, it’s left waiting for Hart and Ball to return from injury and hoping the kids can play better down the stretch.
The veterans haven’t exactly helped much, either. JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler are an efficient pairing of defensive bigs, and both are above average in win shares per 48 — the most charitable stat for each — while shooting guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the recently acquired Reggie Bullock are at least in the vicinity of average in the metric. (As is new power forward Mike Muscala.) But Rajon Rondo has shot the ball poorly this season, and Lance Stephenson hasn’t been an effective player in years. All told, James’s supporting cast hasn’t been appreciably better than the one he fled in Cleveland after last season.1
And it bears mentioning that James himself has not been as statistically dominant as in his last few seasons as a Cavalier. His usage rate, true shooting percentage, assist rate, rebound rate, steal rate, block rate and defensive BPM are all down from last year. He’s shooting worse on twos, threes and free throws. And most concerning, the 34-year-old missed 18 games between Christmas and early February with a groin injury, and he’s played only 49.5 percent of the Lakers’ available minutes this season — by far the lowest mark of his career.
James did tell reporters over All-Star weekend that he “feels great,” though, and that he’s ready to lead a playoff push for Los Angeles.
“[I’m] looking forward to seeing what we can do to get back in this playoff race,” James said. “That’s the only thing that’s going to happen in my mental space for these next two months, pretty much on how I can get this team playing the type of level of basketball we were playing before my injury.”
The Lakers will need to summon all of James’s focus and talent to storm back into the playoff picture. It’s more than possible, particularly if James is indeed healthy. But our projections are still low for a LeBron team even after accounting for James’s return to the lineup — and the fact that the Clippers were sellers at the trade deadline. (That’s why we give L.A. a 26 percent chance, while simpler forecasts such as the one at Basketball-Reference.com peg its odds at about 5 percent.) And even if the Lakers do make the playoffs, they would probably end up being heavy underdogs against the Golden State Warriors in the first round.
The Lakers’ long-term future should be brighter: The team will have plenty of cap space to use on free agents surrounding James and plenty of superstar options to choose from (in addition to the ongoing potential of a Davis trade). For now, though, James’s finals streak has a real chance of ending far earlier than anybody expected: April 10, the final day of the 2018-19 NBA regular season.