With barely five weeks left in the 2018-19 regular-season, the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves in a very serious predicament, having lost three consecutive matches and five of their last seven games since the All-Star break.
Right now, the Lakers (30-34) are 5 ½ games behind the eighth-seeded San Antonio Spurs (36-29) and there are just a handful of games left on their schedule. Things are really looking bleak for the Lakers to end their postseason drought this year.
However, it’s still mathematically possible for Luke Walton, LeBron James and company to right the ship and make one last push for the eighth spot. Then again, this feat would be hard to pull off even for such decorated franchise as the Lakers. After all, they have the second toughest schedule for the remainder of the season, with games against the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors still waiting down the road.
So, what really needs to happen for the Lakers to pull off a miracle run? Well, to be honest, it would probably take a real playoff mode LeBron, the return of an overlooked defensive gem and yes, a more spirited defense to get the job done.
Here’s the to-do list for the Lakers to reach the playoffs:
The Real Playoff LeBron
After the All-Star break, LeBron told the media not to be worried about the Lakers’ dwindling playoff chances because he now switched to playoff mode. On his part, LeBron dropped big numbers across all major statistical areas (28.3 points, 9.2 assists and 8.7 rebounds per game), but the Lakers still went 2-5 during that seven-game post All-Star stretch.
There’s definitely something wrong here, right?
LeBron has built a career as an all-around basketball player. Yes, he can score almost at will, but he prioritizes involving his teammates first before taking matters in his own hands, on the offensive end of the court. He won championships with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers by playing this way, so why it isn’t working with the Lakers?
Well, the Lakers’ current core is quite different from LeBron’s previous championship-level teams. Other than him, there isn’t a bona fide scoring superstar on this roster. Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram are terrific developing talents, yet they are not on the level of a prime Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving that LeBron had before. Either one of these Lakers young stars could explode at any given game, albeit not on a consistent basis.
For LeBron to suffice the Lakers’ point production, he may need to tap into his Mamba mode. At this point, he should realize that he has to drop multiple 40 or even 50-point totals to win games. It is heavy lifting and it would probably take a toll on him in the postseason, yet it would save him from missing the playoffs in his first year with the Lakers.
Lonzo Ball Return
With all the off-court antics and reality show he and his family have contrived, Lonzo Ball is still a valuable gem for the Lakers. The former UCLA star and No.2 overall draft pick hasn’t played a game since January 21st due to a Grade 3 ankle injury. Without him, the Lakers went on a free fall, going from the fourth-best team in the West to now outside in the Western Conference playoff conference. This dramatic turnaround just proves Ball’s value for the team.
Apart from his improved three-point shooting (32 percent) and playmaking skills (5.4 assists per game), Ball is an excellent perimeter defender, which is something the Lakers are sorely missing right now. Ball, who is standing at 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, is a natural disruptor on opposing guards. He creates turnovers and fast-break points better than any guards on the Lakers roster. He’s a solid rebounding guard too, as he averaged 5.3 rebounds a game.
Before Ball hurt his ankle, the Lakers had the seventh-stingiest defense in the NBA. After that, things have gone sour with the Lakers, achieving the third-worst defensive rating.
LeBron is very much aware how indispensable Lonzo is for the team.
“Our starting point guard, Zo, is one of the best point guard defenders in our league. His ability to pick up guards 94 feet, his ability to get deflections, and steals, and things of that nature just creates so much for us. Not having him with the team for quite a while has hurt our defense,” LeBron told reporters.
Diehard Lakers fans are already clamoring for the guard’s return. Sadly, it’s still not clear when Ball will return from his injury.
Revive Lakers Defense
Defense wins championships, and in the Lakers’ case, defense gets you into the postseason. That should be the team’s mantra heading into the final weeks of the regular-season. Los Angeles is currently among the bottom-dwellers in terms of points allowed per game. Specifically, they are 24th in the league at 113.9 points per game. That has to change if they ever want to make it in the top-eight.
In fairness to Lakers president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, they built the Lakers roster for this season with defense on their mind. They signed shot-blockers like JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler, and perimeter defenders like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson to address their Achilles heel from previous seasons. The Lakers did show a bit of a fang defensively during the first half of the season, but again, everything fell like a house of cards once their key players sustained injuries.
Apparently, LeBron’s leadership on this end of the floor is another glaring issue that needs fixing as soon as possible. NBA analysts and even his own teammates have all noticed that the 34-year-old LeBron isn’t quite enthused defensively. This is alarming, given that he is the leader of the team. Everything starts from him and he should lead by example. He must be more involved on that side of the floor by closing out jump shooters and locking down the best scorer on opposing teams like Kobe did back in the day.
The Lakers are in trouble and under tremendous pressure to deliver. However, with King James on your team, it is way too early to wave a white flag and abandon the ship. After all, when you play bad, stay in the game. This is exactly what this Lakers team has to do and hope for the best.