The Los Angeles Lakers' recent struggles have been well documented, losing seven of their last 10 games to fall on the fringe of the Play-In Tournament with just two weeks remaining in the season.
With LeBron James still battling ankle soreness, Anthony Davis still getting comfortable on the court after a two-month absence due to an Achilles injury and Dennis Schroder expected to miss 10-to-14 days due to the league's health and safety protocols, it's possible that the defending champions might not get a solidified playoff spot in the top six of the Western Conference.
With all of that in mind, our NBA.com Staff checks the panic meter on how worried they are about the state of the Lakers.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I wasn't worried about the Lakers at all until LeBron's comments about the Play-In Tournament. And even after that, I'm still not that concerned.
I will say, though, it was interesting to hear LeBron talk down on the Play-In Tournament when his team still had eight games remaining in the season to play themselves into a top-six seed and solidified playoff spot. It made me believe that his ankle is still bothering him enough to the point that he knows he may not be able to suit up for all of the remaining contests to play his team out of the Play-In range.
The loss of Schroder - for what could be the remainder of the regular season - is a huge blow, too, as he was the key player that stepped up throughout the entire absence of LeBron and Davis.
But even if the Lakers had to go through the Play-In Tournament to get to the postseason, they won't have any issues as long as LeBron is healthy. At the most realistic worst-case scenario, Los Angeles would only have to play one extra game to get into the playoffs. Then it would just be business as usual for James as he attempts to lead a team to his 11th NBA Finals appearance.
Again, this all relies on LeBron being close to full strength in two weeks, but as long as he is good to play, the Lakers will be just fine.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I'm torn.
On one hand, I know better at this point than to question LeBron. On the other, there are some real warning signs, with LeBron and AD both returning from injuries that could be a factor for the rest of the season, the Lakers still trying to work in Andre Drummond, the centre position in general being in flux and Schroder potentially being out until the start of the playoffs.
I'm confident that this team will make the playoffs - it would be a disaster if they didn't - but I'm no longer convinced that the Lakers are the hands-down favourite to emerge from the Western Conference like I did a few months ago.
So from that perspective, I do have some concerns.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): I'll say it: I'm concerned.
It feels like just as soon as one problem with this team is resolved, another arises, exemplified by Schroder entering the health and safety protocols essentially right after James and Davis return to the lineup. This is a championship team with championship DNA but the lack of continuity over the past seven to 10 weeks leads me to believe they might not be able to get it together in time.
I don't think the playoffs stage is where you want to be getting reacclimated with your teammates.
That being said, there's a reason why LeBron has never lost in the opening round of the postseason and, after watching the Lakers defeat the Nuggets without the four-time MVP, I believe that might be a favourable matchup. Not easy, but favourable.
As I talk myself into them, I'll put it this way: I'm concerned about LA's title defence but I think LeBron's spotless record in the opening round will remain just that. I don't think anyone wants to open with the defending champs.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): Even with all the warning signs we've seen over the last month, I'm still confident that the Lakers are the team to beat in the Western Conference. So I'm not concerned at all at this point.
Look, health will be the only thing that stands between the Lakers and the NBA Finals in my opinion. If they're healthy, they'll be representing the West.
Despite all the bodies coming in and out of the lineup this season, the Lakers are still the best defensive team in the league with a defensive rating of 106.5 as of this writing. That's important - defence was the foundation of their run last season and with all the moving parts, plus LeBron and AD missing significant time, it's still been the foundation of this team. Credit Frank Vogel and the staff for putting a system in place that has allowed the team to be as good as they are on defence, regardless of the parts.
The offence has been what's held them back. Pre All-Star break, the Lakers were scoring at a rate of 111.3 points per 100 possessions. Post-All-Star break, LA is scoring just 107.4 points per 100. The reason for the dropoff offensively? You guessed it, the extended absence of LeBron and AD.
Both of them will get back for the playoffs, and I'll assume that they'll be healthy enough to be themselves. That coupled with the lockdown defence this team can play - as they showed on Monday night against Denver - I have a hard time seeing anyone in the West beating them four out of seven times.
LeBron and AD will get the credit if the Lakers pull through and get back to the Finals again, but Vogel has done an incredible job keeping this team's foundation, which is defence, in a great place all season long.
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