When LeBron James injured his groin on Christmas Day, the Los Angeles Lakers were in the middle of their biggest win of the season, a victory over the Golden State Warriors that left the team 20-14 and sitting in the fourth-seed in the NBA’s Western Conference.
Since then, the Lakers have been in free-fall, even since James returned to the lineup, with a torrential downpour of injuries and trade rumors seeming to mostly kill the Lakers’ collective spirit. And whatever the cause, the team’s 8-15 record since Christmas has dropped them out of the playoffs entirely, and at 28-29, the Lakers currently sit three games back of the Western Conference’s eighth seed.
After his “Team LeBron” won the 2019 NBA All-Star game, James told reporters that all he’s focused on for the rest of the season is getting the Lakers back to their prior level of play:
LeBron interrupts the end of @joevardon’s question to say “I feel great.”— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) February 18, 2019
“That’s the only thing that’s going to happen in my mental space for these next two months, pretty much on how I can get this team playing the type of basketball we were playing before my injury.” pic.twitter.com/fK72S3tBW0
LeBron postgame: "That's the only thing that's going to happen in my— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) February 18, 2019
mental space for these next two months, pretty much
on how I can get this team playing the type of level of
basketball we were playing before my injury."
The level of play James is referencing was pretty special. Through Dec. 26, the Lakers were the 10th-best defensive team in the entire NBA, allowing just 106.5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. They were also scoring 108.8 points per 100 possessions, the 17th-best offensive efficiency in the league.
Those marks left the Lakers short of having a top-10 offense and defense in the league — the standard barometer for real championship contention — but if you squinted, you could see the outlines of a real threat to make some noise in the Western Conference bracket at the very least.
It remains an open question if the Lakers are even capable of getting back to that level of play this season, however. The team has posted the fifth-worst offensive efficiency in the NBA since Christmas, and ranks just 18th in defensive efficiency since then. It’s not totally clear when Lonzo Ball will return, even if he’s reportedly progressing. Even when he does get back, no one truly knows what level of play he’ll be able to hit.
Ball’s health and their dropping metrics aren’t the Lakers’ only concerns to overcome, either. JaVale McGee has looked like a shell of himself since returning from his bout with pneumonia, Tyson Chandler is rapidly showing signs of aging, Josh Hart can’t find a groove while dealing with persistent tendinitis, and all that is true without even mentioning the obvious toll the endless trade rumors about Anthony Davis — a player James was very publicly pushing for — took on the locker room.
Maybe James can help smooth all of that over. Maybe as he gets healthier it will simply matter a lot less. Maybe both things will be true! The Lakers will need them to be, because they’re in a much more desperate scramble for the playoffs than they or James were probably anticipating when he signed on the dotted line in July. This franchise doesn’t celebrate promising wins over the Warriors, or playing really well before injuries hit. If James and the team can’t figure this out, things are going to get worse before they get better. It sounds like James is going to try and avoid that.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.