If the last week has proven anything, it’s that the Los Angeles Lakers will be ready to make some noise come playoff time. So long as a 37-year-old LeBron James can average around 50 points a night. Easy enough, right?
OK, we’re being mostly facetious. We’ve seen plenty of instances where James’ brilliance isn’t enough to win games for the 29-37 Lakers. That’s especially true on the road, where LA has gone a dismal 9-21 in 2021-22.
The Lakers enter Sunday with a tenuous grasp on a play-in spot — a three-game lead with 16 left to play. However, unless LeBron actually can go out and score 50 per game, the Purple and Gold will have a serious uphill battle to solidify their spot before the season comes to a close.
LeBron James is carrying the Lakers as best he can
Even in his 19th season, James is proving why he’s one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
Although he’s played in just 48 games, the King is averaging 29.7 points per game. That places him in a three-way tie with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid for the league lead in scoring. Should he win, he would easily be the oldest player in NBA history to win the scoring title, surpassing the 35-year-old Michael Jordan in 1997-98.
But LeBron alone isn’t enough to win anymore.
James has 27 games this year with 30 or more points. Yet LA is just 14-13 in those contests. And that’s including his three 40+ games, all Laker victories, which means the team has a losing record when LBJ finishes somewhere in the 30s.
That also means the Lakers are just 9-12 when James finishes below 30 points and 6-12 in the 18 games he’s missed altogether.
With Anthony Davis still out for a few more weeks and Russell Westbrook playing far too inconsistently, the Lakers legitimately need James to score well above his season average on a regular basis just to not lose ground in the standings.
LeBron’s heroics might not be enough to save the Lakers from a brutal schedule
Even if LeBron continues to play at a level never before seen at 37, his efforts could still fall short through no fault of his own. That’s because for the final 16 games of the regular season, LA will be tested like never before.
The Lakers were handed a gift at the beginning of the season: Home games in 12 of their first 15 matchups. So naturally, there was going to be a point when the Purple and Gold would be forced to take their dysfunctional circus on the road for a long stretch. Well, the day of reckoning has arrived.
Of LA’s remaining 16 contests, 11 will be on the road. Here are all of the teams they’ll visit in that span, listed by current record:
- 53-14 Phoenix Suns (two games)
- 46-22 Golden State Warriors
- 42-25 Utah Jazz
- 41-26 Dallas Mavericks
- 40-28 Denver Nuggets
- 39-30 Minnesota Timberwolves
- 38-29 Cleveland Cavaliers
- 37-30 Toronto Raptors
- 29-37 Washington Wizards
- 27-40 New Orleans Pelicans
That’s six of the top seven teams in the West, who LA has gone 5-8 against already, along with two more East playoff contenders. And that’s not even mentioning the home games against Toronto, Denver, and the 40-25 Philadelphia 76ers that await the struggling Lakers.
The one saving grace might be the fact the Portland Trail Blazers, the outside team most likely to overtake LA in the play-in round, have 10 of their final 16 games on the road. However, of their nine road opponents, only the Mavericks and 34-33 Brooklyn Nets are above .500.
Even if they clinch a play-in spot, the Lakers won’t last long
With James playing as well as he is, missing the play-in round altogether is an unthinkable proposition. It would, without a doubt, be one of the biggest failures in modern NBA history.
But even if LA is able to scratch and claw its way to a top-10 seed, don’t expect LeBron to be competing for his fifth ring for long.
The Lakers trail the LA Clippers by 4.5 games for the eight-seed. Barring a huge turnaround for the Purple and Gold and an epic collapse from their Crypto.com Arena roommates, LeBron and company will be forced to play a single-elimination game just to compete for the eight-seed. Then if they win that matchup and knock out the Clippers or T-Wolves in another winner-take-all, that sets them up for a best-of-seven series against the first-place Suns.
Good luck with that one.
Even if Davis manages to return in time for the playoffs, the Lakers are not going to be able to take down any of the West’s top contenders. For that to happen, LeBron might need to push 60 points a night.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.