This was not the happiest season for the Los Angeles Lakers.
It started bad. It got worse. Sometimes it was so bleak that at some point they even lost to the New York Knicks. They return to 10th place this weekend in a much-needed All-Star break and three games back to # 8 Western Conference with a 28-29 record.
The result of their bitter mediocrity seemed recently to be impossible: LeBron James and the Lakers are in serious danger of missing the NBA playoffs.
That would be an astonishing turn for the events of a team where the dominant player in the game had eight consecutive games in the NBA final. At this point, however, it is not only possible. It is shockingly likely. Their playoff chances according to the statistical website FiveThirtyEight are currently at 27%. This means that the likelihood of the Lakers reaching the playoffs is lower than the likelihood that Lonzo Ball will be a 3-pointer.
However, there is another way of thinking about the Lakers that does not require hyperventilating every second of the NBA season. All you have to do is pretend to be an investor and you are a stockbroker. Ignore the volatility. Remember, there is one player who is still good at this basketball thing. And suddenly, a disappointing season looks completely different.
It's a rare opportunity to buy a team with LeBron James.
The boring reality of the Lakers, lost in all their losses, is that they are not really as bad as their record. They are alright. Fine is not exactly what you expected. But good is not the catastrophic mess that they sometimes seem to be. Fine is enough to sneak into the playoffs.
There would not be a single team she would absolutely see. The Golden State Warriors are the biggest team of their generation and they are chasing their fourth championship in five years, but they are still not good enough to intimidate James. The entire NBA understands that the Lakers are built to be a better team in the playoffs just because they will have the best player in every seven-game series.
But first they have to get to the playoffs. What almost all other LeBron James teams took for granted is more difficult than anyone could have imagined.
The Lakers swim in a moon suit against the current since they signed James. Los Angeles's President, Magic Johnson, and General Manager Rob Pelinka did not manage to surround their 34-year-old superstar with complementary players who maximize his amazing talents, and their enigmatic summer that left the team with little room for error. Then the season started.
They had a fight in their first home game. You saw that every major player was injured. They snorted unhappily as they tried to sell Anthony Davis nearly half of the list. As if all that was not enough, the Lakers had a nasty habit of losing games that they should not lose. They started with an 84% chance to play the playoffs. When they lost at home to the Knicks and Cavs, their playoff odds fell immediately by eight percentage points. They reached a low of 20% at the end of January.
So things are not great.
The reason they are in this position is that the Lakers are not particularly good at not playing James, and that he spent a surprising amount of time drinking wine on the bench this season. After pressureing his groin at Christmas, his team went 6: 11 over the next five weeks. It was so painful to see the Lakers during this long distance, the longest absence of his career, that it was hard To blame James for bringing some wine.
It is stupid to bury the Lakers until they are officially dead. Her blanket without James is a walk-in blanket. Her ceiling with James is a skyscraper. They play like a 50-win team when they're on the pitch, according to Cleaning the Glass, and their net score is actually higher than the margin of the Cavaliers team he brought to the NBA final last season.
It's worth remembering when the NBA enters the regular season. There are eight playoff teams in the West, according to the strict constitution of the League Constitution, and the FiveThirtyEight model has seven teams in safety. This leaves a place free.
The Clippers (60%), Lakers (27%), Timberwolves (11%) and Kings (10%) are now taking part in a month-long game of chairs for last place. But the Clippers traded with their top scorer last week to miss the playoffs and retain their lottery in the upcoming draft. The Lakers also have three games against the Clippers and the Kings to quickly jump back into the playoffs and maybe even run number 7 to avoid the first warriors.
Having already lost games they should not lose, they now have to win some games they probably should not win. That's when it's good to have James.
Before his first season in Los Angeles, he was terribly anxious to master the championship expectations that follow him everywhere. James sounded like someone who had come straight from Esalen to the training camp. But this peace of mind did not last long. He is a sophisticated employee whose depth of patience was tested as soon as he entered the court. "You probably do not want to be there when my patience goes out," he said in October after his seventh game.
The Lakers have since looked good, bad, awesome and really terrible. They beat the warriors and the thunder. They also lost to the Cavaliers and Knicks. (Did we mention that the Knicks won a game this season?) James gazes down an unplanned two-month sabbatical if things do not find their way soon. He's sprinting to the playoffs instead of sailing, and he still could not be there.
"You either do it or not," James said. "Then worry about it."
But the Lakers have accidentally created an incredible opportunity in the meantime. You've made it sound like a genius just by believing that a team with LeBron James can do the NBA playoffs.
Write to Ben Cohen at [email protected]