With Monday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Los Angeles Lakers’ playoff hopes are all but over. The Lakers are 5.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Clippers with 18 to go, and have one of the toughest schedules left with only 5 games against non-playoff opponents. FiveThirtyEight only gives a team with LeBron James a 2% chance of reaching the postseason. Even if you thought at the beginning of the season that the Lakers would not be competitive with the upper tiers of the Western Conference, no one expected this.
But with the Lakers’ season nearly over, the question now is what happens next. Will LeBron James finally activate “playoff mode,” and the team rallies for one final desperate run to reach the eighth seed? Or will we see new, mysterious injuries sprout up as this team folds and prepares for next season?
Looking at Past Injuries
If we are going to discuss injuries, we should first deal with one argument for this Lakers season. Some Lakers fans will inevitably point to injuries as the primary cause for this collapse. LeBron James has missed 18 games, and Lonzo Ball has missed over a month with an ankle injury. If the team had been healthier, maybe they would not be in such a hole. If Brandon Ingram, the one Lakers who has surpassed expectations this season, was playing, maybe that loss to the Clippers could have been different.
Perhaps. Lakers and Ball fans will often recite the statistic reported by the Los Angeles Times that the Lakers’ defensive rating has risen from a top-10 defense to one of the worst league with Lonzo Ball’s absence. And the Lakers went just 6-12 during LeBron’s missed 18 games. If LeBron had been around for that stretch and the Lakers had won 3 or 4 more, they would still be right in the playoff hunt despite this recent abysmal stretch.
But it is foolish to think like that. LeBron James is 34 years old, with incredible wear and tear from years of playing and going deep into the playoffs. It is fanciful to think that he can play all 82 games without trouble. Ball is also somewhat similar, when we consider that he played just 52 games last year.
Injuries are an inherent facet of playing in the NBA and many players commonly require skin & wound care supplies to treat them. Teams are defined by how they react to them, whether it is by players stepping up or by the front office signing useful replacements. And the Lakers have failed in both regards, and instead have chosen to send valuable players away like the ludicrous Ivica Zubac trade.
Shutting Things Down
So what is next? Sporting News reports that Kyle Kuzma will not be available for Wednesday’s game against the Denver Nuggets, though it sounds like Lakers fans can expect him to return to the court sooner rather than later. And LeBron James indicated that he will not sit out any games for the rest of the season unless he is hurt.
But while LeBron has his pride, Lakers fans should wonder if this really is the best course of action. LeBron during this stretch has often been compared to 2013 Kobe, who carried a struggling Lakers team and went absolutely bonkers to drag his team to the playoffs. But then he tore his Achilles, the Lakers were unceremoniously swept, and Kobe was never the same again.
LeBron has never been a true scorer in the way that Kobe was, but do we want that story to end the same way again? Yes, that run by Kobe was magical. But it played a role in the Lakers’ struggles ever since, and Lakers fans certainly should not want LeBron to push himself to the limit for what is clearly a lost season. Even if a miracle should happen and the Lakers make the playoffs, does anyone think this team has the slightest prayer against the Warriors juggernaut?
Missing the playoffs after so much hope would be an embarrassment, but that can be an incentive for this front office to wake up and realize how much they have screwed up. They have failed to get this team the depth it has needed in order to chase free agents, but that very lack of depth has combined with injuries to make the Lakers a far less attractive destination.
LeBron has one more thing to chase – the fact that he will likely surpass Michael Jordan in the all-time scoring list after his next game. And he will certainly play after that. But Lakers fans should not be hoping that he pulls a 2013 Kobe. This team has been cursed with enough injury luck as it is – and while it does not excuse the Lakers’ failures, there is no reason to run further risks.