To say the Los Angeles Lakers have underperformed relative to expectations this season is not a stretch by any means. Currently riding a three-game losing streak that includes a loss to the last place Phoenix Suns, the Lakers are 30-34 and sitting in the 11th place in the Western Conference.
With the eighth-seeded San Antonio Spurs 5.5 games ahead in the standings and only 18 games left, it appears that their playoff chances are all but gone. This is even more true when considering that of their remaining games, 12 of their opponents have a record of .500 or better.
If they fail to climb back into seating for the playoffs before the season is over, this will be the sixth consecutive season the team has failed to appear in the postseason, but the first time for LeBron James since 2005. With every team’s ultimate goal being winning a championship and hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, this is obviously not great for Los Angeles.
However, few believed that if they made their way into the playoffs that the Lakers would make it all the way in 2018-19. As the Golden State Warriors remain the favorite to cruise to the NBA Finals and a potential three-peat, there may be some advantages in cutting the season short. Here are the pros and cons for the Los Angeles Lakers not making the playoffs this season:
Pro: Get the team healthy and rested
Healthy has not been on the Lakers side this season. The only player who has suited up for all 64 games for the team this season is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The core of the squad has suffered multiple injuries throughout the course of the season, with LeBron James and Lonzo Ball having missed significant time. There is even some concern that James, who has definitely not recovered fully from a conditioning standpoint, may still not be 100-percent healthy after his midseason groin injury.
Sitting out the playoffs would allow the team plenty of extra time to rest, recover, and essentially hit the reset button on the roster. They would be able to make sure all minor injuries, such as Kyle Kuzma’s current ankle sprain and Brandon Ingram’s shoulder injury, as well as Ball’s bone bruise and ankle sprain, have time to run their course.
Rather than playing through injury and running the risk of causing greater damage, there is strong benefit to taking a patient approach to the young players’ injury recovery.
Getting James some extra rest in the offseason would also be a big help, considering the superstar is 34 years-old and will be heading into his 17th season later this year. With LeBron under contract for three more seasons after this one, his longevity and ability to play at a high level through the remainder of his tenure with Los Angeles is crucial.
Con: The young players will miss out on playoff experience
It has been said time and time again and will never be untrue: playoff basketball is different from the regular season. If you don’t believe it, ask Ben Simmons. After a strong showing through the 2017-18 season that crowned him Rookie of the Year, he was shut down in the postseason, effectively coached out of the game and stripped of any effectiveness.
In the playoffs, opponents have greater time to game plan and adjust schematically to combat player’s skillsets. The playing field is also evened in terms of rest. There are no back-to-backs; every team has the same amount of time to prepare themselves for each game. The pressure is also different. One game can decide the forfeiture of homecourt advantage or tip an entire series.
Getting the young stars of the Lakers exposure to this type of NBA basketball is not only important to their development and trajectory, it is necessary if Los Angeles has plans to win starting next season. Rosters with little to no playoff experience typically don’t do as well in the postseason. This is why despite their immense regular season success, teams like the Milwaukee Bucks or Denver Nuggets, aren’t as encumbered with the same outside confidence as teams like the Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets
However, if the young players are traded in the offseason, then that changes this position entirely.
Pro: Ensure a coaching change
Although many people don’t want to say that Luke Walton is a bad NBA head coach, it seems just about nobody is ready to argue he is a good one. He has been planted in the proverbial hot seat for much of the season, but nothing saves a coach’s job faster than a late-season run and some playoff success.
Whether it is a product of recency bias or just an unspoken rule, front offices have a hard time letting go of a coach that finishes the season strong, even if they still fell shy of the franchise’s goal (think of how crazy it seemed that Toronto fired Dwayne Casey even though he had just gotten demolished by the Cavaliers yet again).
As head coach of the Lakers, Luke Walton is currently 91-137 and has yet to make his mark on the team. Player development was supposed to be his calling card upon his arrival, but D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle have made the case that playing under Walton doesn’t mean you are at your ceiling. If Los Angeles misses the playoffs, this would increasingly likely lock in the end of his tenure with the team and give them extra time to determine his replacement.
Con: Wasting a year of LeBron
Heading into this season, it was somewhat expected that this would be a feel out year for the LeBron James era in Los Angeles. The Warriors were still the title favorites- especially after signing DeMarcus Cousins- and the Lakers still were looking to bring in another star.
However, with LeBron much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, every year passed is another year closer to him just not being the same player he was when he signed that four-year deal with the team.
This season gave the league the first sign of it. James, who has spent most of his career doing his best half-man, half-machine impression, suffered the first major injury of his career. This is the first season that many around the league are starting to question his status as the best player in the league, as well.
The clock is ticking on James’ immortality, and a year gone without some playoff success is absolutely a year wasted.
Pro: Help position the team for acquisition of another star player
Adding a second star to pair with LeBron James has been a major goal of the Laker’s front office, despite their inability to do so. They have struck out on trades for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and weren’t able to get a deal done for Anthony Davis this season. The 2018 free agency wasn’t kind to the Lakers either, as George remained with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cousins took quite the discount to sign with the reigning champs.
Missing the playoffs could work in the team’s favor in terms of bringing aboard more talent, though. As Chris Broussard of Fox Sports has pointed out, the typical narrative that is attaching to playing alongside LeBron James is that he is leading the show. Any success the team experiences is due to James’ unquestionable status as the team alpha.
However, with the Lakers’ struggles, if someone like Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard were to come in and help get the team back on track for title contention, they would be viewed as a savior and wouldn’t be cast aside while LeBron received the bulk of the credit.
Another aspect built in to not making their way to the postseason is that Los Angeles would have improved odds at landing a valuable pick in the upcoming draft. Even with the 2019 NBA draft looking to be fairly top heavy, if they were able to crack a top 10 pick, that would greatly increase any package they could toss at another team in efforts to land someone like Anthony Davis, who remained out of their reach less than a month ago.