With a loss to the Clippers, the Lakers are now 5.5 games back of the eighth seed in the Western Conference, with 18 games left in the regular season. Assuming 45 games guaranteed them a spot in the playoffs, the Lakers would have to go 15-3 the rest of the way with the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors still on their upcoming schedule.
They haven’t been officially eliminated from playoff contention, but the writing is on the wall. So, what do they do now?
LeBron James, who hasn’t missed the postseason since Microsoft launched the Zune, told Spectrum SportsNet that he isn’t sure, but that he plans to continue to do his job:
“I have no idea, I don’t know. For me, personally, continue to be a professional and be as great as you can be every single night, no matter the circumstances because someone is always watching.”
James also said he has no plans to sit out, and Lakers head coach Luke Walton said all of the Lakers should share that same mindset in his postgame press conference:
“The reality is we have to come in tomorrow and we’ve gotta practice. We’re going to watch film on tonight’s game, and it’s our job to get better tomorrow. It’s our job to play again on Wednesday.
But how can the Lakers continue to focus on doing those things? Walton had some thoughts on that as well:
“One it’s our job, two we should all love this game, so we’re coming in to get better because that’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s what we get paid to do... We’re still not mathematically out of it. I know it’s a long shot, but we’re going to come in and work.”
Yes, it’s true that the Lakers haven’t officially been eliminated from the postseason yet, but is there any incentive to them winning another game this season? Is a 40-win season more important to the organization’s supposed “winning culture” than a top-10 draft pick would be to their offseason aspirations?
The short answer is no, but the fans can’t expect the players in the locker room to feel the same way. Instead, Kyle Kuzma believes that the team should look at this final stretch of games as opportunities to grow both individually and as a team:
“Get healthy, get better, that’s the biggest thing. Win or lose, it’s always lessons. For us, it’s all about just trying to get better every single day. We still got a lot of young players that haven’t really played a lot of NBA experience. For us, everything is valuable.”
Again, that’s wonderful, and, in Kuzma’s defense, he’s saying all of the right things, but it’s worth questioning what exactly is it the franchise as a whole is building towards.
Sure, the Lakers have a few exciting young prospects on their roster like Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, but how many of them will be with the team beyond this season? How many players will play — or coach — their last game for the Lakers on April 19?
Ultimately, the future is where the organization should be looking, but that’s hard when the future is filled with questions and uncertainties beyond LeBron James. Luckily, they’ll have a few extra months to figure that future out this year.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts, or listen to our latest episode in which we dole out blame for this season below. You can follow Christian on Twitter at @RadRivas.