Last night, the Los Angeles Lakers suffered an embarrassing double-digit loss to the Pelicans without Anthony Davis. This loss caused them to fall 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the merciless West. I already pointed the Lakers out as a team to watch after the All-Star break to see if they could make a playoff push. So far, I have been optimistic about this team’s chances but things seem to be falling apart. The failed AD trade has done a number on the team’s chemistry and they haven’t been able to stay healthy. It seems as if either LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Kuzma, or Lonzo Ball always injure themselves. Waiting for them to suddenly all be healthy is unrealistic. These issues are only scratching the surface of the Lakers problems. What went wrong with this preseason contender?
First of all, people who considered them a threat to the Warriors should realize that was somewhat delusional. Unfortunately, the more reasonable predictions for the Lakers are also looking far fetched. Zach Lowe considered them a rock-solid playoff team in his preseason assessment, yet the Lakers will need a small miracle to pull that off now. Although 3.5 games may not seem like a big gap, it is no easy task to overcome. There are currently two teams ahead of them in the standings, the Clippers, and the Kings. The Clippers have won 3 of their last 5 games, even after trading Tobias Harris. Their remaining strength of schedule is ranked at 19, much better than the Lakers 10th ranked SOS.
The other team that is ahead of the Lakers in the Western Conference playoff race is the Sacramento Kings. Right now, the Kings are two games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers and have the 27th ranked strength of schedule. This young and hungry team will bitterly compete with the Lakers for the final playoff spot. They acquired Harrison Barnes at the trade deadline who, although he is currently struggling, has been a proven scoring option. The Lakers should be concerned with the Kings. Although many projected them to be a bottom tier team in the West, they have a very good shot of making it. Due to their current lead in the standings and their soft schedule, the Kings have a great shot at the playoffs.
This should be very worrisome to fans of the Los Angeles Lakers. Assuming the Kings don’t have a complete breakdown and win at least 13 of their 23 remaining games, which should be easy given their remaining schedule, the Lakers will have to go 15-8 in their remaining 23. That would require them to win 65% of their remaining games. With only 9 games left against sub-500 teams, that is a longshot. While LeBron is obviously an incredible player and a generational talent, he hasn’t been a great leader for this team. Since his return from injury, the team has lost to the Pacers by 42 points, Sixers by 23 points, as well as losses to the Hawks and Pelicans. In that same stretch, they managed an OT win over the Clippers, a Rondo buzzer-beater to beat the Celtics, and a 5-point win over the Rockets.
That stretch leaves a lot to be desired from this team. While Lonzo hasn’t been available during this stretch, they can’t rely on him. Ball has consistently struggled with injury and there is currently no definitive timetable for him to return. He is no doubt an important part of this team but he is unable to stay healthy. Counting on the Lakers being healthy to make a playoff push is impractical at this point. Their usual starting line up of Ball, Ingram, LeBron, Kuzma, and JaVale McGee have missed a combined 47 games. The fact that this team is so injury-prone is worrying. It prevents their best players from being on the court every night. This obviously causes them to be a worse team than they are on paper, and lose some games they shouldn’t. Health isn’t the only problem with this team.
Another major problem the Los Angeles Lakers face is there shooting, both from three and the free throw line. They currently rank 27th in three-point percentage and 29th in free throw percentage. To put that into perspective, the Lakers have left 437 points on the free throw line, which is over 7.5 points per game. Not being able to shoot hurts the team’s ability to score which is why they are ranked 21st in offensive rating. The only thing saving their offense is their fastbreak scoring. They play at the 4th fastest pace in the NBA and rank 3rd in fastbreak points. While this can be great during the regular season, this can tire a team out in the long run. Furthermore, teams can intentionally slow the pace down during the playoffs and I doubt the Lakers will be able to adjust.
The biggest problem the Lakers face in their offense is the before mentioned lack of shooting. The only players that have attempted over 35 threes and are shooting above league-average are Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and LeBron James. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart come close but are still below average. Their strategy to bring in more ball-handlers to beat the Warriors has backfired. The team has regressed to the LeBron James show, but this time he doesn’t have shooters around him. This makes it much harder to get easy shots in the paint or pick up assists by passing to open teammates on the perimeter.
Besides making it harder for LeBron to continue playing like he always has, a team heavy with ball-handlers has some fundamental flaws. Since there is only one ball in basketball and 5 players on the court, only one can handle the ball at a time. This means 4 other players will have to play without the ball in their hands. On a team full of ball handlers, most of them will be standing around watching the other dribble and not know what to do. Since not many of them cannot play off the ball, this leads to a stagnant offense. Teams need to have a healthy balance of players who thrive with the ball and without the ball. The Los Angeles Lakers simply failed to do this. While I respect Magic Johnson for trying to do something different, it clearly did not work.
At the deadline, the team finally realized they can’t just have ball handlers and need to add shooters. To aid their shooting woes the team traded for Reggie Bullock. This was a smart addition, but Bullock is not a panacea. He is shooting 45% from three in his first three games with the team on 5 attempts a game. These are great numbers, but they haven’t had a profound effect on the Lakers’ offense. He has had a slight positive impact on the team, but he is simply not good enough to have a revolutionary impact. There are no signs that the Lakers offense is about to spring back to life anytime soon despite this one move.
There is really no easy way for this team to get a lot better right now. They are no longer waiting for their superstar to come back from injury and no one player has been responsible for all the Lakers successes or all of their failures. Due to the tendency to search for a quick fix, the Lakers may part ways with Luke Walton soon. Instead of supporting any kind of development process, I expect the team to try a quick fix. Rumors that LeBron is trying to force Walton off the Lakers have already been reported. Also, in more recent news, the team bus left without Walton last night. There simply doesn’t seem to be a lot of love between the coach and his team.
If the Lakers decide to fire Walton midseason, they will struggle to find somebody better. The two biggest names available right now are Jason Kidd and Marc Jackson. Kidd’s Bucks and Jackson’s Warriors both went from mediocre playoff teams to contenders as soon as their respective coaches left. That’s not the kind of coach any team wants. Furthermore, neither is a good offensive coach, which is the Lakers’ greatest struggle.
The only bright spot in this otherwise dreary situation for the Lakers has been Brandon Ingram. Over his last 21 games, Ingram is averaging 21 ppg on 54/32/74 splits. His long-awaited development into a legitimate scoring option has finally happened. In this stretch, he has had a 27, 29, and 36 point game, all on efficient splits. Even with James back in the lineup, Ingram has continued to thrive and be a great scorer despite lacking a three-point shot. Lakers’ fans can only hope this development carries onto next season.
Although it’s entertaining to watch Ingram blossom, this season has been an overall disappointment for the Lakers. The Los Angeles Lakers are at great risk to miss the playoffs, despite all the preseason hype that surrounded them. Due to their difficult upcoming schedule, offensive struggles, and lack of consistency due to constant injuries this team is a first round exit at best. Luckily, they still have their young core, LeBron James, and a ton of cap space this Summer. Hopefully, they are able to make the right adjustments and achieve the success Lakers fans have become spoiled with as soon as next season.