When the Los Angeles Lakers stumbled out of the gate to begin the season, most people didn’t think too much of it. Typical growing pains for a team still learning how to play together, no different from what the Miami Heat had gone through two years ago.
Then, something strange happened; the Lakers just kept losing. Game after game, night after night, they would be unable to pull out a win. And whenever they did start winning and creeping back into the top eight in the West, they’d promptly lose a few more and be right back where they started.
This has forced us to ponder a question that was previously thought to be unthinkable: Could the Lakers actually miss the playoffs? The short answer to that question is yes. After all, we’re nearly halfway through the season, and the Lakers are 17-23. This means they would have to go 28-14 the rest of the way just to win 45 games, which usually isn’t even enough to qualify in the Western Conference, which has recently been far tougher than the East.
Still, it’s not like the Lakers are hopeless; there’s a lot of basketball left to be played, and a myriad of scenarios that could play out any which way for the Lakers. So, let’s look at the facts and see if the evidence is for or against them.
Why The Lakers Will Make The Playoffs
The West Is Weak: We’ve talked about the need to win between 45-50 games to make the playoffs in the West, but that might not be true this year. The conference is not as potent as it has been in years past, as teams who are hovering around .500, like the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, are currently battling for the eighth seed. This means the Lakers might not have to reel off too many wins to qualify. If they can get their record just slightly better than .500, they could be able to just barely sneak in.
They’re Playing Better Than They’re Record: According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Lakers expected record is 22-18, five games better than their actual record. This would suggest that they have been one of the unluckiest teams in the league and are considerably better than their record would suggest. They’ve lost a lot close games–some to very good teams–and many of their wins have been blowouts. We could see a scenario where the luck evens out and the Lakers go an a lengthy winning streak en route to a playoff berth.
Team Chemistry Can Only Get Better: Remember, this team has had a ton of injuries, which not only means that the team hasn’t been at full strength for much of the year, it also means that their starters are still learning to play with each other. Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have not spent a whole lot of time on the court together this season. If they can avoid injuries, the team should become increasingly cohesive and look a bit more like this super team we envisioned back in August.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at…
Why They Won’t Make The Playoffs
They Can’t Play Defense: This has been their biggest flaw all year. The Lakers are 26th in points allowed per game and whenever the offense starts clicking, they tend to give it up on the other end right away. Bryant and Howard are not the elite defenders they’ve been in past years and it really shows. Nash is well-known for his poor defense, so while he’s great at pushing the tempo and setting up easy buckets for his teammates, he’s not going to do much when it comes to curing the Lakers’ biggest flaw.
They Aren’t Beating Good Teams: Quick, how many Lakers wins against elite opponents this season can you name? You said the Christmas Day game against the New York Knicks, right? Yeah, that was a good one. They really looked like they were finally ready to go on a big winning streak that day, but it wasn’t the case. Here’s the thing, though: that’s one of just a handful of quality wins they’ve had this year. The only other truly impressive victory they have was against the Denver Nuggets and that was when the Nuggets were still in their early season rut. This team has gotten wins by beating up on the likes of the New Orleans Hornets, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Bobcats and Cleveland Cavaliers. When the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder come to town? They keep it close, but usually end up faltering.
None Of Their Starters Are In Their Primes: The Lakers starting five looks amazing on paper, but it consists of five players who have all played the best basketball they are ever going to play. Let’s take a look:
Steve Nash: Still good, but definitely not on par with his MVP years. He continues to shoot the lights out, but he gets tired easier and can no longer carry a team for an entire game.
Kobe Bryant: Having an amazing year, but clearly not the explosive player he once was. Also, there’s a fair chance he won’t be able to keep shooting like he has for a full season. If he starts bricking shots, the Lakers will fall even further.
Metta World Peace: Having his best season since 2008-09, when he was with the Houston Rockets, but still not close to his former self. It’s nice to know World Peace still has something left in the tank, but his days as a defensive menace who could also torch you on the offensive end are well behind him.
Pau Gasol: Having the worst season of his career, and while part of that is injury-related, he’s also in his 12th season and is likely on the downswing of his career. Chances are, in coming seasons, we’ll be saying Gasol has become increasingly less dominant offensively. He’s still good, but he’s not the surefire All-Star he was just a few seasons ago.
Dwight Howard: He’s still young and it’s possible he could get his old form back as he continues to recover from his back injury, but that’s hardly a guarantee and for the time being, he’s struggling more than he ever has before. Howard still gets rebounds and can still score points at a relatively high clip, but he doesn’t do it with the same dominant flair that he did during his peak years in Orlando. He needs to work for it now, where in the past, he could just tell everyone to move out of his way and put down a thunderous dunk. It’s not preposterous to think he could become a first-class center again, but for now he just isn’t the player he used to be and probably not the guy the Lakers thought they were getting.
There’s no clear indicator of where the Lakers will go from here. If I had to guess, I’d say they sneak in based on the West being weaker than usual, and the fact that their record should be higher than it is. They’re a little bit tougher than a team like the Blazers or the Utah Jazz and I expect the final standings to reflect that. Still, once they get there, I’d expect them to be gone pretty quickly. They’ve already shown that they can’t beat quality teams and the notion of them winning a series against the Thunder or Clippers seems laughable at this point.
The Lakers will be probably squeak into the playoffs, but it won’t be enough to stop this season from being a horrible a disappointment for a team who was supposed to do so much more.
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