John Bazemore/Associated Press
After Lakers team president Earvin “Magic” Johnson made a public pitch to acquire New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis before last week’s NBA trade deadline—the one that reportedly made everyone available outside of LeBron James—the players who remain haven’t seemed interested in playing, especially defensively.
Yes, the Lakers pulled out an exciting win Thursday in Boston over the Celtics, but even that was a high-scoring shootout (129-128). Two days prior, they gave up 136 points in 48 minutes to the Indiana Pacers, who were playing without injured All-Star Victor Oladipo.
With the Lakers’ 117-113 loss in Atlanta to the 19-38 Hawks on Tuesday night and Sunday’s blowout loss to the Philadelphia Sixers, the Lakers are 28-29, sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference. According to Basketball Reference’s playoff probabilities, the Lakers have a 6 percent chance of making the playoffs.
If the Lakers do not come back from the All-Star break ready to play at a high level, especially on defense, they’re definitely going to miss the postseason.
Currently, they need to pass three teams if they want to avoid a first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers are just four games behind the sixth-place Utah Jazz with 25 games to play. That may seem like a wide margin, but the Lakers still play Utah twice before the end of the season. A sweep would give L.A. the head-to-head tiebreaker.
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To be fair, injuries have played a major role. The Lakers lost James for over a month after a groin injury Christmas Day. Lonzo Ball is still out with a sprained ankle. Rajon Rondo suffered back-to-back hand-related injuries, knocking him out for two months. It’s been that kind of season.
Perhaps Ball should be named Defensive Player of the Year given how awful the Lakers are without him, allowing 123.2 points per game since his Jan. 19 injury. That would easily be the worst in the league on the season behind the Hawks’ 118.4 per night.
But more importantly, it looks like the Lakers don’t seem to care after learning how expendable they all are to Johnson, who will undoubtedly pursue Davis again this summer and/or another star like Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson.
Coach Luke Walton has his flaws, but how responsible is he for losing the team? It’s more on Johnson for his all but public negotiations with the Pelicans. Maybe a week off over the All-Star break will give the team time to heal both mentally and physically.
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The Lakers do not play the San Antonio Spurs (33-26) again after losing the season series 3-1. They’ll need other teams to help them make up the four-game deficit.
The surprising Sacramento Kings (30-26) have a 2.5-game advantage over the Lakers, as do the Los Angeles Clippers (31-27). The Lakers will host the Kings once more at Staples Center. With two left against the Clippers, essentially both at home even if one is on the “road,” the Lakers need to take all three against their division rivals.
Given the Kings still play the Clippers, Spurs and Jazz once apiece, the Lakers have an open window to push through to the playoffs. That said, if they can’t beat teams like the Hawks, how will they fare when they draw the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks (twice no less), Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Celtics and Warriors?
Obviously, when the Lakers added James this offseason, it wasn’t to play the draft lottery. Ball will presumably return around the beginning of March (listed as out four to six weeks from the original injury date), but the team can’t wait for the second-year guard to fix its defense.
If the Lakers continue to play as they have, trying to outscore teams without making a serious effort to defend, they’ll end up in the draft lottery—maybe even in the top 10. Unfortunately for the Lakers, if they do end up as high as the ninth slot, their odds to snag the top overall pick (presumably Duke sensation Zion Williamson) would be just 4.5 percent.
What needs the greatest repair is their broken chemistry, and it’s unclear if a week off will do the trick. Johnson didn’t hold back when asked about their free-agency ambitions—the Lakers are still star hunting. His message may have come across as harsh, but he isn’t wrong that the players need to be professional, come together and finish out the season with purpose and unity.
If they do, the playoffs are still within reach.