Let’s play the “Blame Game.”
If you thought it couldn’t get any worse for LeBron James and the Lakers, think again. Following a disappointing 113-105 loss to the Clippers, the Lakers are 38-44, trail the 8 seed by 5.5 games with 18 to play, and have less than a 0.1 percent chance of making the postseason according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. In simplest terms, barring a miracle, the Lakers are not making the playoffs and LeBron’s NBA Finals streak will come to an end.
Who’s to blame for LeBron and the Lakers season? There’s plenty of blame to go around and it all revolves around LeBron and how the coach / front office have handled and built the team. Let’s state the obvious reasons first. The front office did not build a winning roster. The young core of Kuzma, Hart, Ingram, and Ball have not meshed with the veterans on short term deals like McGee, Caldwell-Pope, Beasley, and Rondo. Luke Walton looks lost at times. Coaching LeBron is difficult, but there’s no offensive identity or defensive intensity and that falls directly on Luke’s shoulders. Also, LeBron has struggled to mentor the young players. There seems to be a lot of finger pointing and taking plays off instead of team unity and camaraderie. It’s hard to unit a team when every player not named LeBron James was rumored to be in a trade for Anthony Davis, which is another reason why the season has gone haywire.
However, there are two under-the-radar components that have played huge roles in the Lakers’ struggles.
1. LeBron’s Groin
For the first time in his career, LeBron James suffered a significant injury. The injured groin put LeBron on the shelf for about six weeks. During that stretch, the Lakers went 6-11. Before LeBron got hurt, the Lakers were starting to hit their stride as the team sat at the 4 / 5 seed in the Western Conference. After the injury, they were out of the top 8. Since he’s been back, the numbers are good. LeBron is still averaging over 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. LeBron is known for taking plays off. He picks his spots on defense to get much-needed rest. This happened in Cleveland, but the difference is the Cavs were winning. The Lakers are losing and the spotlight, whether fair or not, is on LeBron’s defensive effort.
LeBron can play defense. We’ve all seen it. He can be a lockdown defender when he chooses to do so, which is why it’s weird to see this many defensive breakdowns. This is one of the cases where I believe LeBron is not telling us something. That “something” is his groin. He’s clearly healthy enough to play, but is he 100%? I’m leaning towards no. For a superstar that has never missed a significant amount of time, this is foreign territory for LeBron. Is LeBron holding himself back to avoid further injury? From the evidence above and from what I’ve seen, LeBron is not at full strength and it’s cost the Lakers the season.
2. The Western Conference
In a recent appearance on Undisputed, former NBA player Stephen Jackson said, “This is not the ‘Eastern Conference LeBron. I hope he comes to the media one day and says ‘I really see that the Western Conference is a different monster’. If he was still in the Eastern Conference he’d still be at the top. It’s a different story in the West.”
For the better part of a decade, there
For the last 8 years, the Eastern Conference went through whatever team had LeBron James. 4 straight Finals appearances with the Heat and then 4 straight Finals appearances with the Cavs made the East LeBron’s conference to lose. Now, LeBron is finding out the hard way just how tough it is to make the playoffs in the West. The Lakers are 30-34, which is 5.5 games out of the last playoff spot. If the Lakers were in the East, they would be the 8 seed right now. The West is a different animal, and LeBron has underestimated the difficulty of leading a team to their first playoff birth since 2013.
What’s a bigger source of blame, the groin injury or the Western Conference? Join in the conversation on our Twitter page, @unafraidshow.