It’s hard to pick just one low-point for the Los Angeles Lakers season so far.
In an on-court moment that seemed to sum up the issues that Lakers superstar LeBron James has felt with the organization and teammates this season, his body language was demonstrably frustrated with choices teammates were making on the court during a game on March 1.
James, as he’s done time and again, has played exceptionally this season even as he is in his 19th season and is 37-years-old. James’ play has not shown any signs of declining with age, and he’s averaging 30 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists per game this season.
His play has been brilliant, but James has also received a large amount of criticism for factors that don’t have anything to do with his on-court production. James and Anthony Davis reportedly lobbied the Lakers to trade a collection of useful players to Washington for Russell Westbrook in the offseason in an effort to put a third star next to James and Davis. However, Westbrook’s ball-dominant style, lack of perimeter shooting, and bad defense have made him a poor fit in the lineup, and the coaching staff hasn’t been able to figure out any sort of creative way to use the three players in a way that leads to efficient basketball.
James reportedly wanted the Lakers to trade Westbrook for John Wall at the trade deadline, even if it took including an asset like a first-round pick to do it. The Lakers declined to make that or any moves at the deadline, which reportedly upset James.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst floated the idea that the Lakers might have to consider trading James. Bill Simmons of The Ringer reported from anonymous sources that the Lakers had a tense meeting with James and his representation, Klutch Sports, in which the Lakers “stood up” to his meddling in front office maneuvering. James himself also added to speculation about where he’ll play in the future by saying that he intends to play for whatever team drafts his son down the road.
All of those off-court issues have added to the team’s clear on-court challenges. The Lakers are currently ninth in the West, with hopes fading fast they can climb much higher than that. They’re four games behind the eighth-place Clippers with 10 games remaining.
They could fall lower though – entirely out of the play-in tournament. The Spurs, currently in 11th place, trail the Lakers by just threegames.
So the best-case scenario for the Lakers is carving a path into the playoffs through the play-in tournament for a second-straight season. Their path would be harder this year, though. Last season as the No. 7 seed, they just had to win once to get into the playoffs. This season, if they stay in ninth place, they’d have to win two games to get in. Here are three things that need to happen in order for them to avoid an early, disappointing exit.
Davis has to get healthy: This one is a given, and is not anything the Lakers can control. But they have to have Davis on the court. In addition to giving the Lakes another elite and efficient scoring threat next to James, Davis is also the team’s best defensive player.
Don’t expect Davis back on the court until late March or early April, which would only give Los Angeles a few weeks at full health to cement their status in the play-in tournament.
Without him, the team will continue to rely on Dwight Howard, who has been serviceable in a bigger role but is limited offensively.
Get more creative with lineups: The issues with the Lakers are not all Frank Vogel’s fault. Westbrook was a bad fit, and James, Davis, and Kendrick Nunn have all missed significant time with injuries.
But he hasn’t shown much creativity with lineups or with his offense. James and Westbrook both do have the ability to push the ball up the court quickly, so playing some smaller lineups, eschewing any effort at defense since the team isn’t good at it anyway, and seeing if playing at a more frenetic pace could at least lead to some easier baskets could help change things up a bit.
The team did have some limited success with a smaller lineup earlier this season, so going back to that more often could help. Getting more consistency out of Talon Horton-Tucker could also help some of their smaller lineup options be more effective offensively.
Embrace their fate: The Lakers didn’t like the play-in tournament last season, understandably so. As the No. 7 seed, in the previous format, they would’ve clinched a playoff spot without having to jeopardize losing it in the play-in scenario.
This season, though, they haven’t deserved to be a playoff team. Having a strong two-game performance in the play-in tournament could put them in position to start the playoffs with a clean slate and put a dismal regular season behind them.