By Jalon Dixon, Columnist
With a record of 29-31, the Los Angeles Lakers are currently sitting out of the playoff picture with the “best player on the planet” on their team in Lebron James, and things are not getting any easier.
Coming off of a 13-point loss to an Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans squad, the Lakers are faced with a “do or die” scenario with 15 of their final 22 games being against teams currently in a playoff position.
Between the bevy of injuries to Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo and James, this team has been having roster fluctuations all season. Even with the trade deadline passing, the team seems more disinterested than ever.
The Lakers are facing three primary issues that will be the difference between making the playoffs and booking their vacation time early.
The first problem is the interest level amongst the team. The Lakers have several players on one-year contracts, which makes them hired mercenaries looking for their next contract. They also have young players in Ingram, Ball, Josh Hart and Kuzma who spent practically the last month in trade talks for Anthony Davis.
With something to prove and the expectations that this may be their last season with the Lakers, it’s hard for a team to play as a unit when everyone is unmotivated to play for the success of the team. Lebron can complain about a player’s “want to” and emphasize the idea of needing a “sense of urgency” as he said following the Pelicans loss, but it’s hard to worry about playoff position when your roster is made up of inexperienced young guys who just got put on the trading block for the first time.
The second problem is their play defensively. Ranked 23rd in the league in opponents points per game, the Lakers are showing that they can score points in a hurry as they are fourth in pace of play, but, they can’t stop a runny nose if they tried. Despite everyone criticizing Ball’s jump shot form and lack of aggression on the offensive end, he is actually an underrated defender that improves the Lakers’ team defense when he is on the floor.
As an injury prone player who is currently out with an indefinite timetable of return, Ball’s lack of availability hurts the team’s chances of reaching the playoffs because they are not built to outscore opponents and his impact defensively is one of the only factors capable of keeping Los Angeles afloat.
The third, and I think most intriguing concern, is the presence of the Sacramento Kings sitting right in front of the Lakers in the ninth spot. Of course, most would look at this point and completely write it off because the Kings don’t have a certain player named LeBron James. That’s understandable, but unlike Kings teams in the past, this young squad is looking to make a name for themselves and have literally called Golden State out in pursuit of that one seed vs. eight seed matchup. With six players averaging double digit points, De’Aaron Fox is leading this young team to a playoff push through his confidence, aggressive style of play and all-out effort on a night to night basis.
The Lakers not only have to beat the opponents ahead of them, but they also have to hope that the Kings slip up down the stretch as both teams look to overtake the Los Angeles Clippers sitting in that final playoff spot.
James has made it to the NBA Finals the last eight years playing in the Eastern Conference, but the West is a different animal. The way the Lakers finish this season could have a significant impact on his legacy. The race for the playoffs are officially on and so far the Lakers are still stuck on the outside looking in.