Losers of six out of their past seven games with just two weeks remaining in the regular season, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers don’t look anything like a title team right now.
At 36-28, they now have an identical record as the Portland Trail Blazers, who are currently in the No. 7 spot in the Western Conference. The Lakers are in sixth only because they hold the tiebreaker with Portland from beating the Blazers on Feb. 26.
This year, being No. 7 doesn’t guarantee you a first-round playoff series. The NBA will hold a play-in tournament in which the Nos. 7 and 8 teams face off and teams seeded Nos. 9 and 10 will also play. The winner of the 7-8 game advances to the first round and the loser of the 7-8 game plays the winner of the 9-10 game to determine the final playoff berth in each conference.
Asked about potentially capping a 72-game season that followed a 71-day offseason with needing to win an extra game just to qualify for the postseason, Lakers star LeBron James joined the growing chorus criticizing the play-in format.
“Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired,” James said.
The fact that the Lakers even had to comment on a potential play-in scenario says it all considering in February the team was off to a 21-6 start and seemed in excellent position to defend its title.
But a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis in Anthony Davis‘ right leg caused him to miss nine weeks and a high right ankle sprain caused James to miss six weeks, and suddenly L.A. finds itself with more questions than answers with only eight games left on the regular-season schedule.
James, who was held out the final six minutes, 42 seconds on Sunday after experiencing soreness in his right ankle, might not even play in it.
“I definitely want to get healthy. Not only for myself, but for our team,” James said, confirming he would make the decision based on how he feels Monday. “I need to make sure my ankle is where it was before the injury. I’ve got to be smart with it.”
James, in no uncertain terms, prioritized health and recovery over chasing wins for playoff seeding.
“It doesn’t matter at the end of the day if I’m not 100% or close to 100%,” he said. “It don’t matter where we land.”
Adding to the concern level for the Lakers is the fact that Davis, in his sixth game back from injury, looked just as off his game as James did in his second game back — if not more.
Davis scored 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting (including 0-of-3 from 3) against Toronto with nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals, and L.A. was outscored by 11 in the 33 minutes he played.
“You kind of get used to the 20-25 minutes [range], and now you push up 10 more minutes, 12 more minutes and now you got to get that wind playing that long for an entire game,” Davis said.
When asked if he is capable at the moment of being the same guy who dominated during his first season in L.A., he said: “I think I can be. Honestly.”
But he also offered an honest assessment of where the Lakers stand, dealing with yet another setback before the Raptors game when it was revealed that Dennis Schroder would be out because of the league’s health and safety protocols.
“The entire team is kinda in a slump right now, a drought. Not more so individually, but just collectively, on both ends of the ball,” Davis said. “This is the lowest we’ve been in a while … But the only way is up. We really can’t get any lower than this.”
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma was less diplomatic.
“I just don’t think we’re connected right now. I think we’re unhealthy and just not good enough,” Kuzma said. “We’re just not together as a whole — team, staff, everything.”
When asked what he would do to begin to repair whatever is causing the Lakers’ rut, Kuzma suggested giving more playing time to center Marc Gasol, whose role has been limited since L.A. signed big man Andre Drummond off the buyout market. Other than that, he was at a loss for words.
“I don’t know, man. It’s just very tough. It’s just an unfortunate situation,” he said. “It’s tough, man. It’s just tough. It’s very tough. I’m not sure what to do.”
Davis mentioned, maybe if only to remind himself, what many on the roster accomplished last season when they won it all. There’s a pride that comes with that, and it hasn’t died out just yet.
“It’s no fun when you’re losing, but at the end of the day, we’re the champs, man. Like, we are the champs. We’re the defending champs,” Davis said. “So we got to play that way and play with a little bit more swag.”