Defending their crown is proving to be a far more challenging test for the LA Lakers than was first expected. The Lakers were coasting smoothly when they sat atop the West after 18 games and were third going into the All-Star break. However, with injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, as well as the rise of the conference's other contenders, the Lakers have dropped from third to fifth in the space of two weeks and could yet fall further.
The Western conference is stacked enough as it is, without having to worry about facing a nightmare run to the NBA Finals should the LA Lakers fall into the play-in tournament. Yet that is where they could be headed on current form.
This article will delve into what the reigning champions' outlook is for the rest of the regular season and whether or not landing in the play-in tournament berths will hurt their hopes of back-to-back rings.
Can LeBron James or AD return in time to save the LA Lakers?
Coming into this season, the LA Lakers were hot favorites to defend their title despite the West's talent-laden field and their shortened offseason.
LeBron and AD signed new contracts while an array of fresh faces joined the roster. However, with Anthony Davis' injury and the subsequent sidelining of James, the Lakers' confidence has quickly transpired into nervousness.
The LA Lakers look timid at the moment, as would most teams without their two All-Stars. In the past ten matchups, the first of which LeBron James picked up an injury in, the Lakers have gone 4-6 and ranked bottom for offensive efficiency. They are not shooting the ball well enough or even taking enough attempts from the field to make up for their missing stars.
While their defense has held pace and remains stingier than the rest of the NBA, there is a glaringly obvious LeBron-shaped hole in the Lakers offense.
Without the 4-time champion, teams are no longer scared of the Lakers' threat. Even if Davis is able to return in the next two weeks, there is no knowing how his Achilles will hold up in a game or if he will be able to help the franchise avoid the play-in tournament.
LeBron, meanwhile, is not expected back until at least the end of April. However, at his age and without knowing the severity of the injury currently, there is no set timetable for his return.
Play-in Tournament and the aftermath of not finishing with home-court advantage
Where does that leave the LA Lakers then? Possibly with the play-in tournament in sight. Their recent losing run has coincided with the Denver Nuggets going 8-2 on the back of a 7-game winning streak and the Dallas Mavericks picking up pace, closing their gap on the Lakers to 3.5 games. In fact, the Mavs face one of the easiest fixture schedules of any team in the league and could easily continue their rise.
Times don't get any easier for the LA Lakers either. After they finish their East coast road trip, in which they have to face 4 of the conference's top-7 sides, the Lakers have two fixtures against both the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. By that point, they could be 6 games worse off with the Trail Blazers above them and the Mavs breathing down their necks.
While the LA Lakers falling into the play-in tournament is currently completely hypothetical, even finishing 6th in the West could hamper their championship hopes.
A first-round matchup with one of the Conference's top three seeds before potentially facing the other two in the semis and Finals would be a tall task for any team, let alone one with LeBron in it. Since 1954, only one side has won an NBA Championship having finished below 4th place, with only 7 others winning having finished below 2nd.
Furthermore, in all of LeBron's NBA Finals appearances, he only had to get past 4 teams with +5 net-rating or greater out of the 30 he faced. Currently, the Jazz, Suns, Clippers and Nuggets all hold such a rating.
In the 2020-21 campaign, the LA Lakers lost six encounters with the current top-4 seeds and won once. On 5 of those occasions the Lakers had LeBron James, while in two they had both James and AD.
Of course, this is a small sample size and the LA Lakers turned into a different beast when they entered the playoffs last year. However, their Western rivals look stronger this campaign. Three of the West's top-6 seeds currently have better records throughout this year than they did last season, while the Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers have only dropped two games lower.
Whether the LA Lakers drop into the play-in tournament remains to be seen. They, of course, have the talent and leadership to get out of a one-off tie to make the playoffs. However, being there is almost certainly going to make it King James' hardest road to the Finals he has ever faced.