Los Angeles — In a matter of a few days in the hot southern California summer, the Lakers’ fortunes changed. They went from focusing on LaVar Ball to LeBron James — and just as quickly, from an NBA afterthought to a potential hot spot, if they can get other elite free agents to follow him to the coast.
It would have happened wherever James decided to go but hitching his wagon to Magic Johnson’s train with a storied Lakers franchise, it changed the game completely. After five seasons of subpar play — and four straight with fewer than 30 wins — the Lakers (22-19) are back in the NBA consciousness.
In his 16th season, James, 34, has led the Lakers’ resurgence, with another MVP-caliber performance, leading the Lakers in scoring (27.3), rebounds (8.3), assists (7.1) and minutes (34.6). That included a national-TV appearance on Christmas Day against the defending-champion Golden State Warriors, where James suffered a strained left groin and hasn’t played since.
Without their superstar, the Lakers have struggled, going 2-5 and dropping to the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference, ahead of Wednesday’s matchup against the Pistons. James’ status was updated this week and he’ll be re-evaluated on Friday, meaning he’ll miss at least another two games.
The Lakers are trying to hold on, in a rough-and-rugged West where the Nuggets, who finished 10-games above .500 last season, missed the playoffs. Even after James’ return, the Lakers could be challenged to make the postseason, with four teams — the Kings, Jazz, Timberwolves and Pelicans — all within three games.
“We need everyone on our team. You don’t want anyone to ever get hurt, but that’s how the NBA season plays out,” Lakers coach Luke Walton told reporters last week. “We’re down in bodies, and it’s going to be a challenge, but our guys should be excited for that. We got to find a way to keep playing at a high level and try to finish some of these games out.”
The default belief was that James would end the Lakers’ five-year playoff drought and get them back to the levels that they’re accustomed, in the Kobe Bryant era and prior. The roster surrounding James was a patchwork group with mostly one-year veteran contracts, along with young players Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma.
In meshing that inexperience with the likes of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JeVale McGee and Tyson Chandler, the Lakers were in the thick of the West standings until James’ injury.
The injuries could have secondary benefits, though, as they learn to play without James. They’re learning to play without James and figuring out where more of their weaknesses are. The recent stretch has been disconcerting, though, as they’ve lost to the Clippers and Thunder, whom they’re chasing in the standings and split with the Kings, who are 1½ games behind.
Their saving grace is that most of the teams with around the same record have been just as mediocre in the past 10 games as their 4-6 mark. The Lakers have a favorable schedule next week, with home games against the Cavaliers and Bulls before facing the Thunder, Rockets and Warriors in the next three games.
Pistons at Lakers
Tipoff: 10:30 Wednesday, Staples Center, Los Angeles
TV/radio: ESPN, FSD/97.1
Outlook: The Lakers (22-19) will be without LeBron James (groin strain), who has missed the last seven games. The Pistons (17-21) have struggled, going 4-14 since December, after their surprising start.