It’s been exactly one month since LeBron James played his last game for the Los Angeles Lakers and in his absence, they’ve looked more like a lottery team than a championship contender — or even playoff team.
It’s not totally clear when James should be expected to make his return, and every game he misses puts the Lakers further out of the playoff race. In the 14 games L.A. has played without their superstar forward, they’ve fallen from the fourth seed in the Western Conference to the ninth, and that’s not a coincidence.
The fact of the matter is the Lakers need James to punch their ticket to the postseason, but head coach Luke Walton told Bill Oram of The Athletic that they’re not waiting for him to come and save them:
“No one here is just counting on LeBron carrying all the weight and taking us there,” Walton told The Athletic on Wednesday. “We know the only way to get there is to work. And for everyone to step up and make plays.”
Instead, Walton wants his team to continue to put forth the same energy and effort they’ve shown all season:
“We need to play with a sense of urgency,” Walton said, “but that’s not different from what we’ve been doing. Our guys know that. So the schedule gets more challenging and I’m sure the media coverage will get bigger and every win will be bigger and every loss will be bigger. What’s important for our group is — I know it sounds whatever — it’s don’t get caught up in that.”
This is a nice thought, for sure, and it’s definitely the right thing for Walton to say, but it ultimately means nothing.
I can also tell myself that if I work hard enough, I can make the NBA, but I’d just being lying to myself. I’m 5-foot-9, roughly 180 pounds and I run the floor like I’m a 40-year-old Dirk Nowitzki.
Does that mean the Lakers should just lay on the bench like Chris Kaman until James returns? No. In fact, there’s a good chance they steal a win or two before he gets back. But this idea that they can make the playoffs without James if they play hard and work together is silly.
The Lakers need LeBron James to make the playoffs and luckily, because he’s really, really good at basketball, he’ll probably get them there once he returns. Until then, it’s up to the rest of the team to make sure he doesn’t have too much ground to cover when he does come back.