The Lakers — or at least their fans — received somewhat surprising news earlier this week when LeBron James’ agent Rich Paul revealed that James had originally been given a three-week prognosis for his Christmas Day groin injury. That timetable was then updated to include an upper limit of six weeks, and as a result, James still isn’t traveling with the Lakers.
Leaving aside the implications of how the news of James’ injury has been disclosed (the team has mostly been referring to its superstar as ‘day-to-day’), it’s far more interesting to consider how Los Angeles will fare moving forward with the new timeline. Thus far, the Lakers are 5-7 without James in the lineup, somewhat squandering what looked to be an easy stretch with seven home games, including three against the dregs of the Eastern Conference.
Let’s assume that James will exercise maximum caution with arguably the worst injury of his career, and sit out the full six weeks, which would put his return date at February 5, right in the middle of Los Angeles’ annual Grammy road trip. That means that James will be feeling his way back on the court in the midst of the team’s toughest spell of the season.
The Lakers would surely rather be in playoff position already by the All-Star break in what seems to be a ten-team race in the Western Conference. Last season, seven of the eight eventual playoff teams were in postseason position by the break. However, with the difficulty of the upcoming schedule, Los Angeles will have to raise its level of play to stay ahead of the pack in the next three weeks, which started last night against Oklahoma City.
Looking ahead to the next 11 games, the Lakers would appear to be favored in only two contests (at home against the Clippers and the Suns). Two more games would be relative toss-ups (at home against Minnesota and on the road in Atlanta). That leaves seven games — Houston, Golden State, Philadelphia (twice), Boston and Indiana — in which the Lakers would be pretty clear underdogs.
Suffice to say, a 3-10 or even 4-7 record to finish out this part of the season isn’t going to keep Los Angeles atop the morass at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture. The Lakers will need to outperform expectations, and that’s a good challenge for this team.
There’s an opportunity here to put some real fear into potential postseason opponents, namely the Rockets and the Warriors, and show that the last few weeks haven’t been the new norm, but rather the natural growing pains of a team learning to live without LeBron James — look around the league, there’s more than one example of that painful process. With seven more nationally-televised games, this is also a prime time for the young core to continue to prove itself and develop some rhythm before James comes back and everyone else’s usage goes down.
The young guys also need to play well and retain their theoretical trade value for Los Angeles to maintain its future plans, but that’s a different story.
For now, if the Lakers maintain their current pace and put together a winning record in their next 11 games, they’ll be at least 31-26 heading into the home stretch of the season. That win percentage would translate to 44 or 45 wins, which FiveThirtyEight projects to be the sixth seed.
Most people in Los Angeles were probably hoping for one round with home-court advantage when the year started, but the sixth seed would still be a reasonable outcome considering the circumstances. Said scenario would also enable James to not have to push himself too hard when he returns, so he can continue playing at the above-average, but not superhuman, speed he demonstrated in the first part of the season.
If the Lakers don’t come out of this stretch in the black, they will undoubtedly be behind the Utah Jazz when they surface for the All-Star break, and potentially in tenth place looking up at the New Orleans Pelicans or someone else. Regardless of what the front office said about this being year one of a longer process, missing the postseason would be an abject disaster. Having to chase down the playoffs in March means extra strain on LeBron James, extra pressure on young players already adjusting to new roles and extra scrutiny on Luke Walton. It is not an ideal situation for a team that is in the early stages of getting back into contention.
Mathematically, none of the 82 games matter any more than the others. But Los Angeles is in unexpected territory, and the Lakers need to take control of their narrative, and their postseason fate. The best way to do both is to win some games, especially ones against the best teams in the league in front of a national audience.
If the Lakers can start to resemble the team they were against the Warriors a few weeks ago, the rest of the league will take note. No one wants to face a LeBron-led team in the playoffs, particularly not one that comfortably made its way in. In order to ensure that happens, this is the time for the Lakers to make a run, particularly with the challenges the schedule presents. The opportunity is there for the taking, the Lakers will just have to seize it.