The Los Angeles Lakers are down to their last 15 games of the regular season, and while they have yet to be officially eliminated from the NBA playoffs, they’re currently 7.5 games back of the eighth seed in the Western Conference and five games below a .500 record. They literally have a better chance of winning the NBA Draft Lottery than making the playoffs as things stand right now.
To many, that may signal the unofficial end to the season, but LeBron James is among the crowd that believes that every game is an opportunity for the Lakers to grow as a team.
Following their 123-107 win over the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday, James told reporters that he wants his younger teammates to treat the remaining games on their schedule like the NBA playoffs so that they can develop for when the real thing rolls around:
“We’re still playing playoff teams. And for our young guys to play against playoff teams on the road, I think that’s very key for their development. We have an opportunity on this trip, we go into Toronto, we go into Detroit — who is a playoff team — we go into Milwaukee at the end of the trip.
“(They’re) all playoff teams, all improving teams. Those games will be like playoff games if we want them to be, and they’ll get an opportunity to learn. And I get the opportunity to be out on the floor with them, so we can take that out of it for sure.”
There is definitely some value in the Lakers’ young players getting as many reps as possible, but the young core of players that they need to develop the most for the future have already played their last games of the season. Brandon Ingram is expected to miss the remainder of the year due to Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT), or blood clots, in his arm and Lonzo Ball is very doubtful to return with a sprain and bone bruise in his left ankle.
Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart are expected to finish the season, but the Lakers — for the most part — know what they have in Kuzma, and Hart is playing on two bad knees. Any games they play at this stage of the season aren’t going to move the needle a ton for the Lakers in the long-term or short-term.
It’s also worth questioning if these games are more meaningful for the franchise than a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft would be. Sure, developing players for the future is nice, but only if there is a sense of certainty that those players will be with the team beyond this season. Those are the questions the front office needs to have answers for going into a potentially franchise-altering offseason.
If the Lakers have a direction they want to go and a culture they want to establish, that’s fantastic, but they have to start practicing it at some point. Maybe, as James said, these final 15 games are a shot at that.