Push for playoffs more than just talk for LeBron, Lakers

NBA.com Global on Feb 22, 2019 07:54 AM
Push for playoffs more than just talk for LeBron, Lakers
PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 10: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers on February 10, 2019 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

Imagine changing teams and building hope in the new city, then sitting out 17 games because of injury, then getting caught in the vortex of the Anthony Davis soap opera, then missing out on Davis … and then missing out on the playoffs.

If this happens, this would be the one of the most embarrassing events of LeBron James’ otherwise dreamy career.

That’s all. Nothing else at stake here.

Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers missing the playoffs would almost guarantee Luke Walton will not return as coach next season. The team’s braintrust, led by team president Magic Johnson, would feel plenty of pinch to upgrade the club this summer. But those are down-the-road worries and repercussions.

At the center of it all is the pride of the game’s greatest player and a potential rewind to the 2004-05 season -- the last time James missed the playoffs. Back then, James had a good excuse: he was only in his second season, expectations were low and his team (the Cleveland Cavaliers) wasn’t exactly dripping talent.

This is different. This is the first year of LeBron joining a historic franchise and the white-hot glow that comes with that. And this is the NBA so accustomed to, and somewhat reliant on, LeBron playing in springtime. Don’t forget, LeBron’s teams have made eight straight trips to The Finals.

He said twice Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) how he will be “different” in the remaining two months of the season, dropping hints that “playoff LeBron” will debut here in mid-February out of necessity.

“I haven’t been in this position in a while,” he said, meaning one game under .500 after the All-Star break. “This is where we are right now. I’m going to be a little bit different, a little earlier than I’d like to be. My level of intensity has to be a little bit different.”

The Push For The Playoffs has become the Lakers’ new and unexpected slogan that will text everyone involved. It won’t be simple or easy, even if LeBron plays full blast. The schedule is treacherous, with the Lakers sporting the West’s fourth-toughest remaining schedule.

The Lakers are 28-29, three games out of the No. 8 spot with 25 to play (13 of which are road games). They must play, among others, the two conference leaders (Golden State and Milwaukee Bucks), as well as the Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz (twice) and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Some of those teams are either fighting for home-court advantage or some playoff insurance.

“I look forward to being challenged by a lot of great teams,” James said.

Last season, it took 47 wins to clinch the No. 8 spot. Assuming that’s the mark again, the Lakers must finish 19-6. Understand, the Lakers haven’t won four straight games, their longest winning streak of the season, since mid-December. And even if they reach the playoffs, it’ll likely mean a first-round date with the two-time defending-champion Warriors.

“Stranger things have happened, but it would be weird to have the playoffs and not have him in the playoffs,” said Warriors guard Klay Thompson. “Like, weird.”

The LA Clippers, currently the No. 8 seed, have dwindling motivation and ability to make the playoffs. They traded their best player (Tobias Harris) earlier this month to create cap room for a summer free-agent run. If they make the playoffs, their No. 1 pick goes to the Celtics. If they fall into the lottery, they keep it.

More realistically, this is about the Lakers competing down the stretch against the energized and hungry Sacramento Kings. They haven’t made the playoffs in 13 seasons and don’t have a No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft. The Lakers are also fighting the proud San Antonio Spurs, who haven’t missed the playoffs since coach Gregg Popovich’s first season.

Following their Christmas Day (Dec. 26, PHL time) win in Oakland, the Lakers were No. 4 in the West. But the season was thrown for a loop with LeBron’s groin injury-induced absence and other Lakers injuries and suspensions. The Lakers still aren’t at full strength until Lonzo Ball recovers from his ankle sprain. That should come soon, although he has yet to practice.

LeBron has made a habit of carrying lesser teams to the playoffs and beyond, although he did that in the East without missing many games. This is another, different hill to climb.

“I’m looking forward to the second half of the season, looking forward to seeing what we can do to get back into this playoff race,” James said after the All-Star Game. “That’s my mindset. That’s the only thing that’s going to happen in my mental space for these next two months, pretty much how I can get this team playing the type of level of basketball we were playing before my injury.”

Before the season went sideways, the Lakers were indeed intriguing. LeBron defied age once again and put up Kia MVP-like numbers, including a reliable touch on 3-pointers. JaVale McGee was a pleasantly surprising source of offense, Rajon Rondo was efficiently steady and the young core of Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma had their moments.

At the All-Star break, LeBron and Rondo had just returned, Ball was hurt, McGee was the No. 2 center (behind the now-departed Ivica Zubac), Ingram was an enigma and Kuzma was rising as a solid No. 2 scorer. And of course, the Davis drama weighed on the locker room.

“All I know,” Kuzma said, “is when we were healthy, we won. We were fine. The goal is to get back to that. Let’s get a healthy team and then we’ll see. I’m confident in what we can do.”

This was always designated as an exploratory season for the Lakers with LeBron. Entering the season, they had young players without playoff experience. They had veterans on one-year contracts serving as bridge-gap players so the Lakers can keep their salary cap flexible for 2019. In a sense, there was never any false hopes by management of making the Warriors sweat.

But making the playoffs? That was expected.

“It was our goal at the beginning of the season and still our goal,” LeBron said.

If they do, the Lakers might make it interesting in the first round if they see, for example, the inexperienced Denver Nuggets (or any other non-Warriors team).

If they don’t, then it’s an embarrassment for the Lakers and setback for LeBron. It will fuel the perception that he needs tons of help to win anything of significance in the more competitive West (although plenty of player movement this summer could shift the landscape drastically).

With the trade deadline passed and Davis still in New Orleans, LeBron must make do with what he has. And to hear him, he has plenty.

“I’m all about being uncomfortable,” James said. “I like being uncomfortable, I enjoy being counted out. Look, we gotta win games. … Go out there and do your job. Control what you can control and what you can’t control don’t worry about.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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