The Lakers dropped a game to the Portland Trailblazers on May 7th that will now have them playing in the play-in tournament if all seeding stays the same. With that, they’ll likely face a combination of either the Warriors, Spurs, and/or the Grizzlies. And while six months ago, these would have been easy games, the bar continues to be set lower and lower for the Lakers.
Injuries have plagued this team for months now. Lebron is still dealing with an ankle injury that has already forced him to miss 21 games. Anthony Davis has also missed 31 games this year and even suffered a new injury the other night against the Trailblazers.
We are seeing a bit of the Los Angeles Clippers last year in the Lakers this year. While it is slightly different with injuries because it is not public on how much players’ rehabilitation is slowed down for rest when they get hurt, it makes sense for the Lakers to do this. They have the best basketball player on the planet with one of the best big men in the entire league partnered alongside him. They also improved their roster over the offseason by adding Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell. It makes sense for this front office to believe that they don’t need to rush their players back onto the court to maintain playoff success; they won in the Finals last year in the bubble.
But the rules changed when the play-in tournament was introduced. Teams are forced to rest their stars fewer games to maintain a guaranteed playoff spot.
In all honesty, the formula of resting players as much as possible has never worked. The Clippers last season were the team that everyone thought had a guaranteed conference finals spot. However, they were a second round exit after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets. They also ended up firing Doc Rivers due to his treatment and favoring of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.
The supporting cast of this team has also contributed to their struggles when James and Davis missed games. This team lacks a legitimate third star compared to teams like the 76ers, Nets, and Bucks in the Eastern Conference. Kyle Kuzma has struggled to stay consistent ever since Lebron came to the west coast. Those inconsistencies were shown even more when he became the number one option in March and April. In the games without Lebron or Davis, Kuzma only shot 41 percent from the field and 32 percent from beyond the arc. Montrezl Harrell is also not the player he once was when he played for the Clippers. Marc Gasol has also regressed, now only getting about 19 minutes of nightly action. The only player who has stayed consistent is Dennis Schroder but he’s had contract extension issues all season. Schroder’s shooting percentages without Lebron and AD were much better. He shot 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from three, while averaging an efficient 17 points per game. Which is higher than his season average at 15 points per game.
Finally, coaching has been subpar during the stretch of games without Lebron and Davis as well. Last season, the major success of Lebron and Davis shadowed the flaws of Frank Vogel. Now when the responsibility falls on him more to keep this team afloat, he has not lived up to expectations.
With the Lakers having five games left in the regular season, they’ll need to make some major adjustments if they would like to avoid the play-in tournament. But their next two games are against the Suns and the Knicks. After that, their schedule eases with games against the Rockets, Pacers, and Pelicans. It’ll be very interesting how the Lakers will end their season if they can squeeze into the sixth seed. Their playoff success will also open a lot of eyes for how teams should structure and manage their players in the future, especially when dealing with injuries to multiple key players.