The Los Angeles Lakers are on a preseason-high one-game winning streak, narrowly edging out the Sacramento Kings Thursday night after having lost two straight to the Denver Nuggets. Luke Walton thinks (rightfully so) that it’s a little early for playoff talk, even with LeBron James on the roster.
Walton was asked earlier this week about whether the team’s veteran presence might better prepare the Lakers for the playoffs and, well, let’s just say his response would’ve made Jim Mora proud.
“The playoffs?” Walton asked, bemusedly. “You want me talking about what? ... We are so far from the playoffs. We’re not even talking about the playoffs at all. We’re just talking about what we need to do now and the habits we need to build.”
This is basically what Walton has to say at this point of the season, hence the context in the lede about where the Lakers literally find themselves right now. Still, since it’s apparently such a pervasive conversation even this early in the process of watching the Lakers come together, let’s take a look at the task ahead.
In most years — and heading into this one — the Western Conference is its own obstacle. But a closer look at the competition reveals something less than what you’d typically imagine.
At the very top, the Golden State Warriors are, well, still the Golden State Warriors. That hasn’t changed.
Their competition in the conference finals last year has, however. The Houston Rockets have taken a step back in terms of personnel, having swapped out Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute for Carmelo Anthony and Tyler Ennis, whoops, James Ennis. Sorry, force of habit. Let’s just say I’m skeptical about how that’s going to work. Oh, and Chris Paul is a year older, and it isn’t like he’s been a symbol of health, having missed at least 20 games each of the last two seasons.
The Utah Jazz are basically the same team as last year, plus the development of Donovan Mitchell. So they’ll be good.
Depending on how you feel about Houston, then, that leaves five playoffs spots for teams like the Lakers, Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves and, to a much lesser extent, the Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. All those teams have legitimate questions, but only one of them has LeBron James.
Denver feels like the surest bet of the teams listed above, but even they didn’t make the playoffs last year, having lost essentially a play-in game to Minnesota on the last night of last season.
San Antonio enters this season with more turnover than any season in recent memory. Yes, betting against them has made quite a few people look very stupid, but this is not the typical Spurs — and that’s before you taking into account the six-to-eight weeks Lonnie Walker is going to miss.
(UPDATE: Dejounte Murray has suffered a torn ACL, adding the questions I listed above)
OKC will miss Russell Westbrook at the very beginning of the season at the very least and won’t have Andre Roberson for at least another couple months, if not more.
New Orleans will have a fun frontcourt of Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotić and Julius Randle, but replacing Rajon Rondo, who played a vital role for them last year, might be difficult.
Everything went right for Portland last year and just about every metric has them regressing to the mean. Maybe they prove those numbers wrong, but it’s fair to wonder what bringing back basically the exact same team that was swept out of the first round last year might look like.
Minnesota is on the verge of trading Jimmy Butler, who was absolutely crucial in getting them to the postseason for the first time in a decade last year. If the return reflects at all the leverage they currently hold in negotiations, that roster could look quite ugly on paper, and that’s without taking into account the hits dealt out to the team’s locker room chemistry.
We know about the questions regarding the Lakers. Their center situation doesn’t look great right now. They’re seriously relying heavily on the development of their young core. Lonzo Ball still isn’t healthy and bringing him back is going to take time. Lance Stephenson is still on the roster. But LeBron has shown a proclivity to cover up a lot of those kinds of questions.
Luke Walton may not want to talk about the playoffs, but it’s going to be a topic of conversation right when the regular season tips off. It’s going to be a fascinating playoff race throughout the year, and the Lakers have just as good a chance at it as anyone in that tier below Golden State, Houston and Utah, and if you were to ask for any kind of wildcard to separate your team from others, you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than LeBron.