When LeBron James went down with an ankle injury that could cause him to miss the rest of the regular season as the Los Angeles Lakers save him for the playoffs, and with Anthony Davis still out and having not played since February 14, Lakers fans had every reason to panic despite standing at 28-13 at the time of LeBron’s injury.
Since then, including the loss to the Atlanta Hawks that was the end result of the game in which LeBron got hurt, the Lakers are 7-9, having played .500 ball over their last 10 games in which every loss has been followed by a win and vice versa.
When you start a 72-game season 28-14, playing .500 ball the rest of the way is enough to go 43-29, which in turn ought to be more than enough to be able to cruise into the playoffs.
And indeed, the Lakers’ worst-case scenario—the rest of their G-League quality roster falling off a cliff and playing something closer to .333 ball than .500, which would put them something more like 38-34 given their start—hasn’t come to pass.
But does this mean the Lakers can let off the panic pedal and their fans can move into a more confident “just wait for the playoffs, the ’95 Rockets were a 6 seed defending champion too and they won it all” mode down the stretch?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, because with James and Davis in the lineup, the Lakers are…well, they won the 2020 title and stood 21-6 before Davis aborted a comeback from an earlier-season injury on Valentine’s Day.
Oddly, with James in and Davis out, the Lakers went 4-1, although the wins were against Minnesota, Chicago, and Oklahoma City (twice) and the loss was to Detroit (4-14 coming into the game), so they probably should’ve gone 5-0.
The point of all this is that the Lakers are every bit the championship contender they’re supposed to be when the two guys who make them what they are can actually play.
But there’s a downside to the Lakers’ 7-9 run stretch since LeBron went down.
Namely, here’s the seven teams they beat and those teams’ records in the current (through games of April 17) standings.
And even with those trips to Excuse Town, the Lakers have just two wins in their last 16 games against teams with winning records.
Now let’s look at the nine losses. Same rules apply about records.
New Orleans (25-31)
LA Clippers (39-19)
New York (30-27)
Oh, and five of those nine losses were by 15 points or more. Only two of the seven wins were.
The Lakers are 2-8 in their last 10 games against teams currently at or above .500, including losing to last year’s opponent from the Finals. And again, the Jazz game was against a Utah team without Gobert or Mitchell.
What we’re seeing here is a Lakers team that is just plain awful against good teams, a sure sign of what the roster ultimately is without their two superstars. They can beat bad teams—like brutally terrible teams, teams that are 10 or more games under .500, against whom the ersatz Lakers are 4-0 in this stretch.
The rest of the schedule for the Lakers involves eight games against teams at or above .500. They play seven games against teams with losing records, and five of those are against teams that are way below .500 (the 26-29 Pacers and 25-31 Pelicans round out the list.)
They may well go 7-8 the rest of the way and finish 42-30, and that ought to be plenty good enough for fifth. If they can upset the Denver Nuggets and beat one other winning team (Portland, with their statistically unlikely record, might be vulnerable), they might even place fourth.
The Lakers lucked into a fairly creampuff schedule after LeBron went down. But the results of their 16 games have laid absolutely bare that this is not a good basketball team without its stars. It’s a lousy team that’s just good enough to beat really, really lousy teams, which over a full season makes the Lakers a lot more like the Pacers or Pelicans than the likes of the Suns or Jazz.
But if anyone gets hurt in the playoffs, the Lakers are an easy out. They need LeBron and the Brow to be fully healthy through the entire postseason if they’re to have any hope of repeating.