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Los Angeles Lakers

Will the Los Angeles Lakers miss the playoffs?

lebron-james-hart-kcp-lance-020119-ftr-nba-getty
LeBron James led the Lakers to a huge win in his return (NBA Getty Images)

This certainly wasn't a question we were asking a month ago. The short answer to whether or not the Los Angeles Lakers can make the playoffs is still clearly, yes. They have the talent and experience in places that matter to right the ship and get back in a playoff spot.

If you change it to "Will the Lakers make the playoffs?" Well, then you get a significantly murkier answer.

This uncertainty happened very quickly. As recently as last month, the Lakers were rolling. They entered their Christmas Day matchup with the Golden State Warriors with a record of 19-14 and sitting comfortably in the fourth seed. By the end of the night, they had gained a signature 26-point win in Oakland, but lost LeBron James in the process.

The groin strain LeBron suffered midway through the third quarter against the Warriors kept him out of 17 games. Over that time, the Lakers went just 6-11 and fell all the way to ninth in the West, and sat a full 2.0 games behind their in-arena rival LA Clippers for the final playoff spot ahead of his return.

It's probably no coincidence that James returned against the Clippers, leading his team to a win with 24 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists to bring the Lakers to 27-25, one game shy of the eighth seed.

It's not all doom and gloom in Los Angeles. They still have 30 games to make up a pretty manageable margin and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, but the path won't be easy.

The first step was clear: getting LeBron off the bench and back healthy on the court.

In the month after LeBron's injury, the Lakers' defence actually held up remarkably well, posting the league's sixth-best defensive rating in January.

The defence hasn't been the issue at all. Over that same time, their offence has gone into the tank. Through Christmas, the Lakers had the 16th-best offensive rating in the league and a top-five eFG%. In the month-plus since that game, the Lakers have had the league's sixth-worst offensive rating and eighth-worst eFG%.

LeBron's return will help those numbers improve just by the simple fact he'll make more shots than his replacements, but his offensive impact goes far beyond that one column in his stat line.

LeBron is an incredible passer, and the gravity and attention he draws are what really opens up the floor for his teammates. The extra step off-ball defenders have to take towards him in order to help on a drive is an extra step they have to take back towards their man to recover and contest a shot. All the difficult looks Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have been taking over the past month will suddenly become that much easier with LeBron on the floor.

Another reason for optimism regarding their shooting is that Brandon Ingram won't be forced to moonlight as an emergency injury replacement point guard. With LeBron's return and Rajon Rondo finally back after missing 31 of the previous 35 games, Ingram can return to his more comfortable wing position to find a groove and hopefully improve on his current 29.9 percent shooting from three this season.

If you're looking for reasons this will turn around for the Lakers, those are a few good ones. Lonzo Ball will remain out for the next three to five weeks with a sprained ankle, but this team is finally starting to get healthy at the right time. LeBron's return should be the shot in the arm they need, although his re-entry into the rotation won't immediately fix all their ills.

As mentioned, shooting is a key issue with this team. The added difficulty of their attempts over the past month hasn't helped and yet those problems existed long before Christmas. For the season, the Lakers are the third-worst 3-point shooting (33.7 percent) and the second-worst free throw shooting team in the league (69.0 percent).

The Lakers have seven losses by five or fewer points this season. They shot under 70 percent from the line in every single one of them. Losing a few more games because of missed free throws could easily be the difference between playing or avoiding the Warriors in round one or - far more importantly - making or missing the playoffs entirely.

The biggest obstacle standing between the Lakers and a playoff berth, though, is something completely out of their control. Out of Los Angeles' 30 remaining games, 19 are against teams currently in the playoffs and, even worse, nine of those 19 come against teams in the East.

The difficult schedule is one thing but having so many hard games remaining against the East is brutal. At least when playing the good teams in the West the Lakers have a chance to knock down the teams ahead of them in the standings. Playing the good teams in the East only increases the difficulty level without the added reward.

What this season really seems to be building towards is a battle for the final playoff spot between the two teams inhabiting the Staples Center. The Clippers haven't shown signs of slowing down and the season series is tied at one. With the Lakers already losing the season series to the current six seed San Antonio Spurs (1-3) and tied with the seven seed Utah Jazz (1-1, two remaining), the final two games against the Clippers are huge.

The Lakers are in a hole partially dug by injuries and partially of their own making. This was the season the Lakers were going to return to prominence - and it still might be - but these final 30 games are vital for the direction of the franchise.

It's going to be a thrilling ride to watch.

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