The Los Angeles Lakers are 3-6 in their last 9 games. Their offensive rating is 99.7 over this stretch, last in the league. What happened 9 games ago, you ask? LeBron James injured his ankle, leaving the Lakers without their two stars. They’re currently the 5 seed in the western conference, only half of a game ahead of the Trailblazers. This all begs the question: are the Lakers’ title hopes slipping away?
Can They Win Without Their Stars?
The Lakers’ main struggle without LeBron and Anthony Davis has been on the offensive end. Their best three-point shooter is Alex Caruso, followed by Kentavius Caldwell-Pope (Jared Dudley shoots a better percentage than Caldwell-Pope, but is also out for the season). They have nobody that can be consistently trusted from the 3 point range, and as a result, they are shooting 33.7% since LeBron’s injury, 24th in the league.
This is a roster that relies heavily on Davis and LeBron for the offense. They have no other players who can consistently create their own shot. That’s the biggest reason that this team is struggling offensively. They lack elite threats from deep and shot creators. The offense has been hard to come by, which isn’t a surprise.
Luckily, their defense has remained steady without their stars. Their defensive rating since LeBron’s injury is 103.6, which is actually 2 points better than their mark for the season. Their three wins during this stretch all came from games in which they held their opponent below 100 points. This demonstrates the fact that they can only win games by merit of their defense at this point.
The bottom line is, this team will struggle to find wins without LeBron and AD. If their offense could even perform at a middle-of-the-league level, they could likely win half their games simply off defense. Unfortunately, their offense has been more of the worst in the league variety. They can’t succeed without LeBron and AD, so to determine whether their title hopes are slipping away, it’s all about when AD and LeBron come back.
Playoff Seeding will be Key
It’s officially playoff seeding season. Time to talk about, speculate, and all-around obsess with playoff seeding and potential matchups. For the Lakers, their seeding will be dependent on the returns of their star players. Of course, that seeding will directly play into how difficult their path to a title is.
According to Tankathon’s Strength of Schedule Ratings, the Lakers have the 6th toughest schedule remaining. Even if they had LeBron and AD available, this would be a tough road. Without them, every game will feel like a herculean task for this team. It’s going to be very tough for this team to secure a high seed.
According to the L.A. Times, there is still no timetable for LeBron and AD’s return. It feels like AD’s might be more imminent, simply because he’s already been out for so long. But that’s still just speculation. This gives an even wider range of possibilities for this team heading into the playoffs.
Right now, the 3-6 seeds in the west are all within 2 games. It’s most likely the Lakers end up somewhere in that range. I’m going to take a short look at each scenario and what that means for the Lakers’ title hopes.
For the Lakers to end up as the three seed, LeBron and AD will need to come back sooner rather than later. It would take a real-life miracle for them to finish as the 3 seed without those two. There’s no real chance for the Lakers to catch up to the Jazz, but there is a small chance they could catch the Suns for the two seed. For that reason, I hesitate to call this the ideal timeline, but for all intents and purposes, this is the ideal timeline.
With LeBron and AD both back before the end of the regular season, the team can get reacclimated together, and make sure chemistry is there on both ends of the court. It also gives both players ample time to work themselves back into game shape. Entering the playoffs as a three seed they would most likely play the Trailblazers in the first round. Not an easy out by any means, but they would be the clear-cut favorites.
It’s easy to see how the Lakers could be entering the playoffs as the title favorites once again in this scenario. LeBron and AD return, the team looks as good as ever. Nobody can ignore how good they are when fully healthy. Now that we’ve looked at the “best timeline” for the Lakers’ title hopes, time to look at some darker scenarios.
The Four or Five Seed
This timeline can probably happen in two ways:
- One of LeBron or AD returns early, and one returns closer to the end of the season. The one who returns helps keep the team afloat, and they end as a 4-5 seed.
- Both return with about 10 games remaining. With this return, they string some wins together and secure a 4-5 seed.
Being in the 4-5 matchup to kick off the playoffs wouldn’t be the worst. Their matchup would likely be the Nuggets or Clippers (who’ve both made upgrades over the past weeks); OK on second thought maybe it is bad. This is the problem for the Lakers right now. Even if they end up as a 4 seed, they will have 3 extremely tough series ahead of them to even make the finals.
Yes, they would likely be the favorite in the first round. Despite that, we need to respect how hard their title run could end up being. They will have to play 3 quality teams just to make the finals. Buuuuut, they still have LeBron, so it kind of feels like no matter how hard this road gets, they can pull through.
Being the 4 or 5 seed isn’t ideal for the Lakers’ title hopes, but it can get worse.
The Six Seed
This is where things get a little funky. There’s a good chance that being the 6 seed could be better than the 5 seed. Let me explain.
If the Lakers end up as the 5 seed, they won’t have home-court advantage in any playoff series. The same goes for the 6 seed. In both cases, their most likely opponent is one of the Nuggets or Clippers. Unless you’re super high on one of those teams, you would likely agree that both are on a similar level talent-wise. If they win the first round as the 5 seed, they would go on to play the 1 seed (barring a crazy upset in the 1-8 matchup). As the 6 seed, their likely opponent would be the 2 seed.
So yes, in a weird way maybe Lakers fans would be happier about being the 6 seed than the 5 seed. There’s not much more to talk about this scenario as it’s pretty similar to the 4 or 5 seed scenarios. The only interesting point is the Lakers could potentially end up as the 6 seed with LeBron and AD both not returning until extremely late in the season. Currently, the Mavericks are the 7th seed but remain 3 games behind the Lakers. This makes their road to surpass the Lakers much harder than the 6 seed Trailblazers.
The Darkest Timeline
In this timeline, the Lakers end up as the 7th seed or lower. They are entered into the dreaded play-in tournament. If they win out of the play-in a tough matchup against either the 1 or 2 seed awaits. If not… well it’s pretty self-explanatory, they’re done. It only takes 2 wins for the lower seed to win the play-in tournament, so an upset is much more possible. We’ve all been watching March Madness the past few weeks, so it’s easy to see how a low seed can shock the world.
This scenario is quite unlikely, but not out of the picture. Being in the play-in tournament doesn’t make it impossible for the Lakers to win a title though. They could go on to win the title in any of these timelines. The important part is, the lower they drop, the harder the road gets.
What’s especially interesting about these hypotheticals is how much variance exists in the NBA this year. This is just looking at one team. This thought experiment could easily be done for every team. Even after doing it for every team, we would still have no real clue how the playoffs will go. It’s stacking up to be a very exciting playoffs, with tons of legitimate title threats.
So, are the Lakers’ title hopes slipping away? Short answer: Yes. Long Answer: Yes, but slowly. If this team is healthy going into the playoffs, they have a great chance to win the playoffs from any position. And if any team has the experience to take on a tough road to the title, it’s this one.