With 21 games to go in the regular season, LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers have a 30-31 record, placing them in tenth position in the Westen conference and four games out of playoff position.
The team now faces an uphill battle to overtake two of the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Clippers or San Antonio Spurs to avoid ending James’ fourteen-season playoff streak, not to mention his eight consecutive years of making the NBA Finals.
Data journalism site FiveThirtyEight’s NBA prediction algorithm only gives the team a 22% chance of making the playoffs.
After completing a high-profile move to Los Angeles in the off-season, it was widely assumed the team would retool for a playoff run around James, possibly trading in some of its young, promising players for established stars.
LeBron James and the Lakers are falling fast in the West. How could missing the postseason affect his standing in the NBA? https://t.co/5ywdkrebJ4
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 28, 2019
LeBron’s Los Angeles move was widely tipped to kickstart a Lakers championship run
The team was seen as an ideal location for James to further his off-court interests while utilising the roster flexibility and cap space at the glamour franchise to reshape it into a contender. The team swung and missed in free agency, however, most notably botching an attempt to trade for disgruntled New Orleans superstar Anthony Davis.
Over the last 10 games, the Lakers have continued to trend downwards, ranking only 24th in the league for net rating.
No basketballer since Michael Jordan has produced one-man wrecking crew performances as consistently as James, but increasingly there are signs that it is not sustainable for the 34-year-old to carry another badly constructed team into the playoffs.
In previous years, he has coasted through the regular season before exploding in the playoffs. This year, he will need to expend considerable energy even to get his team into the lower rungs of the postseason.
Will the Lakers make the playoffs? The NBA roundtable tackles that and other burning questions for the post-break stretch run. https://t.co/Fl0YCCNtDT
— USA TODAY NBA (@usatodaynba) February 21, 2019
LeBron James’ ‘playoff mode’ performance against the Pelicans renewed hope
A recent 33-point, 10-assist outpouring to drag his team over the line against the struggling New Orleans Pelicans showed he can still be a transcendent player but it also underscored the Lakers’ dangerous reliance on their franchise player.
Advanced statistics suggest James has slipped slightly since his remarkable and extended peak; on the Value over Replacement Player (VORP) metric, he ranks 10th in the league. Among players who have logged at least 1000 minutes, he is eighth in Player Efficiency Rating (PER).
The bigger problem is his supporting cast, which seems an awkward mix of young players yet to achieve their full potential (Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma) and past-their-prime veterans (Rajon Rondo, Tyson Chandler, JaVale McGee).
Betting against LeBron James has long been one of the dumbest moves in sport, but with time fast running out for the team to make up ground and a reportedly unsettled and unhappy locker room, the once unthinkable prospect of an NBA playoffs series without James is suddenly looking like the most likely outcome.
Header image credit: Nellis Air Force Base