After the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James this offseason, almost everyone felt confident enough to pencil the Lakers into their playoff bracket for the first time in five years. Almost everyone.
On Friday, Kevin Pelton of ESPN released his statistical model’s annual projected win totals for the upcoming NBA season and in a shocking move, he had the Lakers narrowly missing the playoffs. Here’s Pelton’s reasoning for his model seeding the Lakers so low:
9. L.A. Lakers
Projected wins: 41.2
When the Lakers first signed LeBron, I put together a preliminary RPM projection that pegged them for 50 wins. So why the drop to 41 in the full version? No team was hit harder by the adjustment for players changing teams than the Lakers, who project to have just 55 percent of their minutes played by returning players. (Only the Phoenix Suns are lower in this regard.) And no individual was hit harder than James, whose projected RPM dropped from plus-5.0 to plus-2.7.
While LeBron’s offensive RPM did, in fact, take a huge hit when he joined the Miami Heat in 2010-11 (from plus-8.7 to plus-4.8), he’s still likely to beat that projection. If James drops only to a plus-4.0, the Lakers would move into eighth, and even if this projection is accurate for all teams, they would still probably be better than 50-50 bets to make the playoffs because somebody else falls out, so RPM isn’t necessarily calling them a lottery team. Nonetheless, these projections do now suggest the Lakers are far from challenging the best teams in the West.
Pelton’s not wrong to cite the team’s drastic roster overhaul as a reason the Lakers might struggle in their first year with LeBron James. Even James himself understands there will be an adjustment period for that same reason.
“What my expectations are for the team, we don’t have any right now,” James said at the grand opening of his I Promise school. “But we’re definitely going to be better than we were the previous year. … I think there’s going to be months where we’re really good, there’s going to be months where we’re not so good and that’s just going to come from familiarity.
“We’re all new to each other besides Ball, Ingram, Kuz, Hart and Zubac. Everyone else is new to the system, so we’ll see how that goes.”
However, even if they don’t figure things out right away, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers will miss the playoffs again this year.
The Lakers managed to put together a 35-win season with a group of first and second-year players. Not just a 35-win team, but a 35-win team with a top-15 defense in the NBA.
Take into account the injuries the team suffered and the questionable personnel decisions made by head coach Luke Walton early on, and you can argue the Lakers could have won 41 games last season.
It’s certainly possible the Lakers miss the playoffs in the wild, wild Western Conference, but I’d say it’s unlikely.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.