Now tied at fifth with similar 36-28 records as the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers are in danger of falling into the play-in tournament. The Lakers haven't looked good in a long time and, if you base reality solely on #NBATwitter, they are definitely not winning back-to-back championships.
Just like summer, this type of panic is seasonal, usually happening once a year when a contender looks groggy at the tail-end of the season. Given all that's happened to the Lakers, is the hysteria warranted?
Why push the panic button?
The main cause for the Lakers' slump is the prolonged absence of their two best players. Before Anthony Davis went down with a calf injury and LeBron James suffered a gruesome ankle sprain, the Lakers were vacillating between number one or two in the West. A rough 20-game stretch later, and the Lakers are now clinging on an outright playoff seed.
The Lakers’ injury troubles are symptomatic of the rushed start to the season. They only got a little over a month of break after their Finals appearance, and after going through a condensed schedule, it’s safe to say that the Lakers have been banged up all season. The four teams that made the conference finals last year – the Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, and Boston Celtics – have all had to deal with injuries to their best players with the Nuggets suffering the most. However, it's only the Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets who managed to stay in the top four of their conference.
Los Angeles only has eight games left to not only make a run to rise in the standings, but also figure out their new lineup. Since AD and LeBron went down, the Lakers have made key additions in Ben McLemore and Andre Dummond. With Drummond specifically, the Lakers are going to need to iron out their rotation. They have three viable options at center and could possibly have an answer for when teams try to go small on them. These are usually kinks that teams design throughout the course of a season. The Lakers only have a couple of weeks.
Keep Calm and Trust LeBron James
It's easy to forget that this exact same panic happened last year in the Bubble. After clinching the top seed in the first game, the Lakers lost their remaining seven placement games. Panic stemmed from the Lakers resting their stars and testing out funky lineups. Their offense looked terrible, their defense mediocre. Charles Barkley guaranteed on national television that the Blazers were going to sweep the Lakers. There were pundits that genuinely thought that the Lakers were going to drop to the “most dangerous eighth seed in the history of the league.”
The Lakers went on to complete a gentleman's sweep of the Blazers. They were polite enough to hand the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets the same courtesy. The Miami Heat spoiled the Lakers’ hospitality so Los Angeles only won the championship in six games. Quite disappointing.
There's genuine reason for concern for the Lakers. LeBron James – after proving that Cleveland isn’t cursed, that it is possible to beat the best regular season team ever, that a tired legacy franchise that everyone gave up on could win a championship and that you could film a Space Jam reboot during a pandemic – now needs to prove that he has regenerative powers at age 36. LeBron's prime has lasted longer than most players' careers. It's bound to end some time.
While Los Angeles’ role players managed to maintain their top-rated defense, their offense has plummeted down to the lower half of the league. Repeating is hard enough, but trying to win a championship as a lower seed is tougher. There's only been one champion in NBA history seeded sixth or lower, the 1995 Houston Rockets. Before them, only one other team has won the title as a fourth seed or lower, the 1964 Boston Celtics. The Lakers aren’t likely to rise any higher than fifth even if they win their last remaining games, which means they'll have to face the best teams in the West right from the first round no matter where they finish.
But if there's anyone who can rise above these odds, it's LeBron James. He's faced all these challenges before, from developing chemistry with teammates midseason to entering the playoffs as a lower seed with a banged-up team. He dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals several times in similar situations.
This season seems to have stacked more challenges onto The King than any other. However, he still has arguably the best player he's ever played with in Anthony Davis by his side in a focused, defensive-minded team. With such a dominant top two, the rest of the Lakers just need to find their inner playoff Rondo and contribute here and there.
The only right time to count the Lakers out is when they’re one game away from elimination.