In sports movies, the audience knows that a team won’t start winning until things look bleak. Tune Squad went into halftime down 66–18 to The Monstars. The Mighty Ducks could barely skate. Multiple people died in order to fill the Anaheim outfield with angels. But real life doesn’t work like that. The Los Angeles Lakers have reached enough low points during LeBron James’ first season with the team to form a flat, horizon-like line. That’s where they live now, and there’s no telling how long it will take to escape The Great Sadness Plains.
Some of the Lakers’ struggles can be blamed on health. LeBron missed more than five weeks because of a groin injury, and the young core of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram has had to spend time on the sidelines. LeBron may have been able to make things work in Cleveland with a hodgepodge of creaky veterans, but the Western Conference has been eating the remaining Lakers alive since February.
After the All-Star break, James told reporters that he had “activated” his playoff intensity. The Lakers were one game below .500 when he said this, and James was in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2005. “My level of intensity has to be [high], unfortunately for me, because I don’t like to do it at such an early time,” he said. The Lakers are 2–5 since LeBron’s premature activation, and this quintet of losses included an embarrassing performance against the league-worst Phoenix Suns. Behold, playoff intensity.
A cinematic turnaround is always possible when James is involved, but, with only 18 regular season games remaining, a playoff berth would represent a miracle. ESPN gives the Lakers a 0.1-percent chance of making the postseason, while the optimists at FiveThirtyEight project their odds at 2 percent. While this season may be as good as over for Los Angeles, it represents but a minor worry in the grand scheme of things. There is a path to improvement next year for the Lakers, so long as they manage to avoid making things much, much worse.
The offseason hasn’t started, but the Lakers already bungled their first attempt at bringing in another superstar to join LeBron. His very public courtship of New Orleans center Anthony Davis combusted around the trade deadline, but not before news leaked that Los Angeles was eager to rid itself of its young and promising players in exchange for Davis. Come summer, LeBron’s only teammates still under contract with the Lakers will be the young core he so desperately tried to jettison, and the team can either try to make that awkward arrangement work or placate LeBron with continued trade attempts. If they opt for the latter, then their success hinges upon the decision-making skills of a Lakers braintrust that recently thought it would be a good idea to surround LeBron with JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley.
This summer’s free-agent class is particularly strong, but the tea leaves haven’t been kind to the Lakers. Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving could instantly lift their fortunes, but both stars are rumored to be eyeing the New York Knicks. (Not to mention the fact that Irving explicitly left Cleveland because of LeBron’s presence there.) Kawhi Leonard is from the Los Angeles area, but the Lakers will have to contend with a surprisingly stable Clippers franchise for his services (assuming he doesn’t opt to stay in Toronto). Rock bottom isn’t missing the playoffs—rock bottom is getting beaten by the Knicks and the Clippers in free agency.
“The last few years, everyone’s so accustomed to the losses that I’m just not accustomed to. I’m not accustomed to it. I’d never get comfortable with losing.” LeBron said that after a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in February. They’ve lost four times since, and on Monday the team got booed off the floor against the Clippers. LeBron’s contract with the Lakers lasts until at least 2021, when he will have to decide on a player option for one more season. We’re guaranteed to see him engineer an unlikely comeback and return to his winning ways before then, however. Space Jam 2 starring LeBron James comes out that same year.