Coming out of the All-Star break, the Los Angeles Lakers sit in 10th place Western Conference at 28-29, three games behind the Sacramento Kings for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
It's a familar feeling for the Lakers who haven't made the playoffs since 2012-13.
For LeBron James, it's a feeling he hasn't felt in 15 years as this is the first time since his rookie season that he plays for a team under .500 this late into the season.
As the Lakers embark on their pressure cooker of a second half on Thursday at home against James Harden and the Houston Rockets, here are some of the key questions facing LeBron.
Will LeBron actually miss the playoffs?
After James signed with the Lakers, their odds to win the NBA title rose all the way to 7-2, tied with the Celtics for the 2nd-best in the NBA behind only the two-time defending champion Warriors who once again entered the season with better than even odds of winning the title.
MORE: Key storylines coming out of the All-Star break
Missing the playoffs seemed unfathomable.
And yet with just 25 games left in the regular season, they are on the outside looking in with some serious work to do.
According to FiveThirtyEight's projections, the Lakers enter the home stretch with a 26% chance of making the playoffs and a projected final record of 41-41.
Three games that will play a massive role in determining whether the Lakers can squeeze in are two against the Clippers (March 4, April 5) and at home against the Kings on March 24. The Clippers and Lakers split their first two meetings while the Lakers have won two of three against the Kings and can clinch the season series with a win on March 24.
MORE: How do remaining schedules impact key playoff races?
According to TeamRankings.com, the Lakers have the ninth-hardest remaining schedule, more difficult than either the Clippers or Kings.
Is LeBron's Unassailable Dominance Over?
Given the strong play of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, James would have faced stiff competition for one of the two forward spots on the All-NBA First Team even if he had played in every game this season.
Throw in 18 missed games and James is at-best a long shot to continue what's been one of the most impressive streaks in NBA history.
James has made the All-NBA First Team in each of the last 11 seasons, tied with Karl Malone for the longest streak of its kind in league history. Considering the depth at the forward spot during that time - Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Kawhi Leonard - his decade-plus run of dominance is truly remarkable.
Thinking beyond merely a spot on an honorary end-of-season team, could this signal the beginning of something larger? Perhaps the beginning of an era in which James is no longer the unquestioned alpha?
The only player to play more minutes than James through 15 seasons is Wilt Chamberlain who once averaged 48.5 minutes per game for an entire season (the most unbreakable record in all of sports) and was done playing after 14 seasons.
Father Time is undefeated and eventually he comes for everyone. James is already past the point that legends like Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson hung them up for good. At the very minimum, it's worth putting on the periphery of the collective basketball conscience.
Don't take LeBron James for granted.
Can the Lakers optimize with and without LeBron?
Yes, it's true that the Lakers will only go as far as LeBron James takes them.
But he didn't reach eight straight Finals on his own. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all had something to say about that.
Forget reaching the Finals for now, if the Lakers are to simply make the playoffs and compete once there, they'll need to:
- Maximize every minute with James on the floor
- Find something reliable to lean on when he rests
Let's start with optimizing the time spent with James on the floor.
The five-man group that's played the most with James consists of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and JaVale McGee, which have (thanks to injuries all around) spent a grand total of 234 minutes on the floor together and played essentially to a draw with a net rating of +0.2. They defend at a level that would rank first in the NBA, but score at a rate that would rank dead last in the NBA. Sub in Josh Hart for Ingram and the Lakers look unstoppable, albeit in 100 fewer minutes and in a small enough sample size that can easily fall prey to noise.
And yet still, those numbers support a common eye-test observation by many throughout the season which is that Ingram isn't necesarily the optimal wing to play alongside James.
Could it be as simple as staggering Ingram and James? Probably not. Ingram's ability to create on a roster that at times starves for any semblance of consistent shot creation is too important to completely relegate to non-LeBron minutes, especially as that figure hikes either in a pressure-packed end to the regular season finish line or in the postseason itself. For the Lakers to reach their full potential, something will have to click with the James-Ingram combination.
Perhaps the harder part of the equation for Luke Walton to solve is what to do when LeBron needs a break. As discussed above, he's perhaps not the ironman of old capable of logging 40+ minutes for a month-long stretch to finish out the regular season.
The Lakers need to find ways to win games in which the four-time MVP sits for 12-15 minutes.
Case in point? Their final three games before the All-Star break in which they posted a net rating of +3.8 with James on the floor and a net rating of -60.5 in 30 minutes with him off the floor.
It goes well beyond those three games.
The Lakers top five-man lineup in terms of minutes played without James on the floor consists of Ball, Ingram, Kuzma, Hart and McGee, a group that has been ransacked with a net rating of -21.9 in 83 minutes.
Again, that's not enough minutes to fully waive the white flag, but it should set at the very least set off a few alarms.
What will happen this summer?
When LeBron James inked that four-year deal last summer with the Lakers, many (if not most) assumed that another star would be on the way.
The Lakers would sign Paul George or trade for Kawhi Leonard and they'd have that second bankable star to hit the ground running in Year 1 of the LeBron Lakers.
Except it didn't happen.
MORE: Who are the biggest free agents this summer?
After the trade deadline came and went without a big splash, the focus now shifts once again to the summer and free agency where the Lakers will be major players once again selling visions of grandeur. Will they strike gold and land another big fish? Or will they walk away underwhelmed at the haul?
Regardless of how far along the Lakers advanced, their performance in free agency was always going to be a dominant storyline this offseasn.
The prospect of pivoting towards free agency as soon as mid-April?
That's a thought not many considered entering the season, but one suddenly very much in play entering the sprint to the finish.
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