Dear Lakers Fans: Stop Kidding Yourselves

I’ve long joked that Los Angeles Lakers fans are like those annoying frat kids in your lecture with a “Reagan-Bush ’84” sticker on his laptop: they want to support and feel good about the idyllic and romanticized view of that thing, rather than experiencing the vulnerability and ups and downs of being an actual supporter of that thing.

As soft and complacent as Lakers fans are, the signing of LeBron James was an opportunity for Lakers fans to change my mind about them: to commit themselves to their team trying to win right here and right now instead of just trying to ride the coat-tails of bygone days. We are just about wrapping up the first year of the LeBron James experience in LA, and I’m here to deliver a message to Lakers fandom:

You got played. Hard. You got played more than Tom Thibodeau plays his two-way wings.

LeBron did not come to your city to deliver you a championship. He didn’t come to Los Angeles to win basketball. That’s not to say he doesn’t want to win, but winning is not what he came there to do. How do I know? I’m going to let you in on a little secret: if he wanted to win, he wouldn’t have gone to the Lakers.

The front office is a joke. They’ve spent on top draft picks year after year with only mild returns, and giving up the only actually valuable player they drafted to get off a bad contract which never should have happened in the first place. They let Brook Lopez, an ideal center for a LeBron team, in order to sign the bunch of washed-up goons they got this year. The only “accomplishment” this brass has is getting LeBron, who threw himself at them. The coach is unproven to say the least. His best accomplishment was a good couple months coaching the best regular season team ever. Wow, sure that one was tough. LeBron could have played with top talent whisperer Brett Brown, Brad Stevens, or an offensive mastermind like D’Antoni, but no, he wanted Luke Walton.

There were winning, proven teams with better situations in every respect that wanted him. I’m a Sixers, fan but you can’t accuse me of being selfish here: I didn’t want LeBron within 500 miles of Philadelphia. But the player who could literally pick and choose a franchise to make his own neglected teams like Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and basically any other contender who would have been happy to do what they needed to do in order to make it work to sign him.

Instead, he chose LA for exactly the reason that Lakers fans love the Lakers: they’re perfectly happy to get caught up in being a celebrity instead of winning basketball games. Julian Edelman said it best: “LA is Hollywood, but Boston is a sports town.” It really is that simple. He went to LA because he wanted to just be famous. Winning would be great, but if he was producing Space Jam 2 and the Shop, he’ll be set.

Body language is pretty telling, right now.

And of course, the asterisk over this whole Lakers season is the 18 game absence without LeBron James due to an unprecedented injury. Prior to that, the Lakers were finally looking like a serious West playoff threat, but while he was out, that team cratered. He obviously wasn’t responsible for them losing all those games, but he also willingly put himself in a situation where their playoff life hung in the balance of Brandon Ingram’s night to night performance.

And while this team would be a likely playoff team in the East, he chose to go to the West. He knew what this was. He could have gone to the best teams in the East, where injuries wouldn’t change anything once they got into the playoffs healthy. But instead, he chose a bottom-feeder in the stacked West.

This is all of course with the tangent that obviously LeBron likes winning, and wants to do it. It’s just not what he came to LA to do. He would happily win where he would get all the praise and credit in the world, but now that they’re losing, he’s stat-padding while punting on defense all so he could avoid blame in the loss. Even if he puts up 25-10-10, leaving open shooters on a Memphis team in freefall might just lose you a game. Bricking two free throws against Phoenix might just lose you a game.

This isn’t news, either, LeBron has always taken credit and avoided blame. But at no point is he recognizing that maybe this teams lack of cohesion, roster construction, or all of the “distractions” he lements, were his own doing.

The sad reality is, if LeBron James wanted to be in a better situation than he is right now, he could have just stayed in Cleveland (as much of a joke that team has been). He would be in the East, he had the fanbase at his knees so he could half-ass the whole season and return in the playoffs like he did every year, and probably still end up in the Finals. The funny part is, I’m wondering who was misled more: The Lakers for thinking LeBron gave a shit about winning for them, or the Cavs for thinking he wanted to retire there while suspiciously never signing a long-term deal with them.

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Breaking Down the Lakers’ Playoff Push

After the Lakers’ utterly baffling and confusing loss to the AD-less New Orleans Pelicans last Saturday night, I had a thread on Twitter describing the Lakers’ remaining schedule, as it relates to how many wins they likely will need to beat out the other teams in the hunt. Now, after the Lakers’ comical loss to a new-look and hardcore tanking Memphis team, I will reevaluate everything that I had discussed and pointed out in that thread in greater detail. Before I do that, however, here is the original (and now outdated) thread detailing the situation LeBron and the Lakers find themselves in:

Feel free to follow the boy while you’re at it, I have great Corey Brewer takes.

To begin, the Lakers currently have a record 29-31. While there is no hard game limit needed for them to get into the playoffs, many projections see them falling short of either the Kings or Clippers in win total, meaning they would sit at 9th at most. According to one projection, 538, the Clippers (currently 34-28) are now expected to win 44 games. At the time of the original post, it was 43, which I conservatively adjusted to 42. Since they are now 1 win further along, I will now use a projected 43 win total as the threshold needed to be passed for the lower LA to squeak in.

Let’s assume that losing Tobias Harris and attempting to work new pieces in eventually takes a toll on LAC, and that they only win 9 out of their remaining 20 games and finish at 43 wins on the year. This would mean that the Lakers would need to match this number and win the series to break the tie, which is up in the air with two games left between the two (series is 1-1 at the moment). The Clippers are likely to have a better conference and divisional record, so unless the Lakers get to 44 wins, they’d have to beat the Clippers in both of their next two games against them to break the tie in their favor. Otherwise, the Clippers would win.

“He had a triple-double, what more do you want from him?!” I’m not sure, but maybe risking defensive 3-seconds to disrespect an open shooter isn’t top notch defense.

So, assuming a modest sub-.500 record down the stretch for the Clippers, the Lakers would need to win a tie-breaker resistant 15 games out of their remaining 22, 14 at minimum unless something seriously goes wrong for LAC or Sacramento. As stated in my tweet thread, the Lakers can, in theory, win in all of the following games: NOP, @PHO, @CHI, @DET, @NYK, WAS, CHA, and @NOP (Memphis was originally one of these games, so they aren’t off to a great start against their easier schedule). This is 8 of their remaining 22, and let’s assume they win 7 out of these 8.

If so, that means they would then need 7, ideally 8 wins against their tougher opponents, which include: MIL, LAC, DEN, BOS, @TOR, @MIL, BRO, SAC, @UTAH, @OKC, GSW, LAC, UTAH, and POR.

That is…tough. Many of those teams, including LAC, are Western Conference teams fighting for playoff seeds, and while many are at home, some of the toughest teams are away, and many of the easier games are away. The easiest of their hard games are at home, but teams like the Clippers and Kings who are fighting just as hard for the playoffs, or Brooklyn who can never be counted out (especially against defenses like the Lakers’) are not going to go down easily. It’s worth noting, also, that Home for the Lakers is also home for the Clippers. Either way, games like @ Bucks and @ Raptors are near unwinnable, and Boston, Denver, OKC, Portland, and Utah are all fighting for playoff seeds in their respective conferences.

So, against the toughest opponents in their schedule left to play, they need to get 7 wins out of those 14, and this is assuming they go 7-1 at least in their “easy” games. If LAC only wins 43 games this year, and the Lakers win all 8 easy games, and go .500 in the hard games, they would be at a tie-breaker resistant 44 wins. This, of course, would be an impressive feat. This also implies that the Clippers under-perform their projected record of 44 wins. Every game above 43 that the Clippers (or less probably, the Kings) win is just another one of those tough, tough games that the Lakers need to win, on top of winning 7 or 8 of those easy games, many of whom won’t go down easy, like Detroit, who is a solid home team and is also fighting to hold on to a playoff spot. Charlotte is in the same boat, although the Lakers see them at home.

The moral of the story is, the margin for error in the Lakers final stretch is as small and narrow as it could possibly be. They can’t take a night off against the Bulls, they sacrificed that luxury when they lost a must-win against Atlanta. They can’t just rely on offensive prowess to save them, either. They need to make serious changes on the defensive end. Teams like Brooklyn, Sacramento, or the Blake Griffin-led Pistons are not teams you can get into a shootout with, despite their somewhat weaker records. You mean to tell me you want to crank the pace in a game where Kyle Kuzma is on Blake Griffin the whole time? Good luck with that, Luke.

Either way, I can’t wait until they don’t make it and we hear “He was never fully healthy from his groin injury!” from Bron-fetishists non-stop. I, personally, am on the “I’ll believe LeBron misses the playoffs when I see it” camp, because he’s pulled heroics before, just none quite comparable to this.

Sink or Swim: Outlook After the All-Star Break

The All-Star break is kind of like that point in the semester where you sit there and say to yourself, “Okay, my grade sucks right now, but I still have X-amount-of-assignments and Y-number-of-weeks to get it up to a B.” For many teams, this is the last time they can really make adjustments to better position themselves in the post-season, and in some cases, make the post-season at all.

With that said, here are some extra credit homework assignments for teams with a little work to do in the final third or so of the season.

Philadelphia 76ers: Work out the Kinks

It’s not a difficult observation to see that the Sixers, for all of their raw talent, need to gel a little bit before attempting a post-season run. So what does this look like for Philly?

For starters, they need to figure out their lineups mid-way through games. Of course, all of the starters would be out in the beginning and sometimes ends of games, but figuring out how to balance scoring and defense in the middle of games would do wonders for Philly in terms of their ability to maintain a lead down the stretch (an area they struggle with, even against significantly worse teams). This was usually a by-product of their depth issues, but the trade deadline mitigated that in a big way, although it’s still a problem. But now that you have more functional pieces, it’s time for Brett Brown to put them together. He’s already gone offense/defense in crunch time with JJ Redick and guys like John Simmons or James Ennis, guys with a little more pep in their step.

One key aspect of Philly’s transformation throughout the season has been the slight increase in their usage of the pick and roll, despite using it significantly less than most teams even now. If Brown can find lineups to make pick and roll work, then he can throw a lot of different looks at the defense by integrating pick and roll into the fold of already lethal plays such as Embiid-Redick dribble handoffs, and Simmons drive and kick in transition.

While it is important for Philly to get a top 4 seed, it’s more important that they have all of this figured out come playoff time, and even so, they’re only a game or so back from the 3-seed and are currently tied in record with Boston at 4.

Los Angeles Lakers: Make the Playoffs

I mean, you all knew this was coming, right? This is moreso homework for Magic, Pelinka, and Luke Walton than it is for the roster itself, but still. If you sign the best player in the world in free agency, sacrifice nothing to make it happen, and miss the playoffs with him for the first time since his prime started? After all of the noise they made after that signing, in the most profitable market in the league? That sounds like a recipe to get any or all 3 of those guys out of a job.

LeBron’s groin injury couldn’t have been foreseen, but at the same time, the man is 34. He shouldn’t need to play 82 games for you to scrape the playoff bubble, and even then, probably get swept in the first by Golden State. His absence was certainly longer than originally expected, but if there was some semblance of competence in the personnel and coaching, they wouldn’t be so reliant upon Lonzo Ball of all people staying healthy. More importantly, the trade deadline was a PR disaster for the this team, as they completely alienated their entire team in full public view while getting played like a fiddle by a now-jobless Dell Demps. The point is, this team needs something to feel good about, and fast, or else this whole experiment could get really, really ugly.

Houston Rockets: Conserve James Harden

For the Houston Rockets with James Harden playing as he is right now, there is not a single team that they cannot beat on any given night. With that said, Houston has got to be more reserved with the minutes and offensive load Harden is bearing. What’s more important, a second MVP for Harden, or making it past the first round?

Doing this for as long as he has thus far, Harden’s level of play is not sustainable long term. If it was, he’d be the best offensive player of all time and would have more than one MVP by this point. One thing is for sure, however: Harden has a troubling history of disappearing at important moments in the playoffs. Mike D’Antoni himself has stated that he believes this to be a product of how cumbersome the regular season is for Harden, and this has been one for the record books. What truly did the Rockets in last year, when they were 2 quarters away from essentially winning a title, was Chris Paul getting hurt mid-series. You truly never know when Paul, in his 30s, may just need a game or two to recover. With that said, the Rockets are comfortably deep enough into the playoff race to have some wiggle room, and against many teams, Harden probably doesn’t need to go Super Saiyan for them to win games.

With that said, my advice to Houston is to do some load management with Harden. If he’s still got the juice come May, this team could easily make another Western Conference Finals run, if he is capable of elevating his level of play to even part of what we’ve seen out of him this year.

Life Post-Trade Deadline: So Far, So Good

In possibly the most explosive game since the trade deadline last Thursday, the new look Philadelphia 76ers absolutely imposed their will upon the Lakers (boy does that feel good to say). Despite Kyle Kuzma’s 39 points, the Sixers won 143-120.

The Lakers, who are often touted as a strong defensive team, gave up 34 points in the 4th Quarter, and 33 minimum for each quarter.

LeBron James looked like he’s still working his way back in after the longest absence in his career.

Life with Tobias Harris has gone great thus far, he posted 22 points including 3 3-balls and on 9-14 from the field.

Embiid was the man of the night, with 37 points, 14 rebounds, and a steal. He posted his career high in points last season against the Lakers. The Lakers situation is dire at best, as Javale McGee still plays well within his limited minutes, and Tyson Chandler is lacking offensively when he takes over for McGee. As such, it’s not surprising that Embiid was able to beast on this Lakers squad.

One underrated aspect of this game was how well the Sixers shared and moved the ball. Butler had a good game with 15 points, as well as doing some great on ball defense on players like Brandon Ingram, who it seemed to be easy for Butler to force into errors or poor shot selection. Ingram had 19 points but was a -8 on BP/M.

JJ Redick had 15 points on only 3 3-point makes, which was that absolutely insane and-1 shot from nearly behind the backboard in the corner.

Ben Simmons struggled tonight, which isn’t all that surprising: he seemed a little bit passive and unsure immediately after the Butler trade, but found his rhythm again just before the Harris trade. However, Simmons was operating on no shortage of aggression this time. He took his very first pull up 3-pointer, which was an unlucky rattle away from going in. He also took many more shots from outside of the paint, and was intent on hitting turn-around jumpers out of the post. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t surprise me if Simmons looks a little uncertain in the near future, as this team clearly still has to figure out effective ways to share the ball with as many high-usage threats in their starting 5.

Simmons was a +6 on BP/M, despite having no double digits on the stat-line. He did, however, play some fantastic defense, including one impressive block down-low against LeBron James.

While wins over a strong Denver team and a LeBron led clown-fest feels good, the Sixers’ true test post-deadline comes Tuesday at home against Boston. They lost the first game of the season against Boston, and lost a close OT game against Boston Christmas Day, both of which were away. The Sixers are great at home, but Boston has historically been a bane for Philly. Although it’s important to note, this is not the same Philadelphia squad as was seen in either the first nor second meeting between the two. Boston is also in a shaky place culturally, after their crazy comeback lost to the Sixers-er, I mean the Clippers’ own Landry Shamet. Man, that will never stop hurting to say.