The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
The moment that LeBron James’s new team surrounded him with a circus roster composed of Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, and Michael Beasley, NBA fans quickly realized that the Lakers aren’t going to challenge the Warriors just yet. But as the dust of the offseason has settled, a new possibility is unfolding. Not only will LeBron likely not make it back to the NBA Finals for a ninth straight time, the Lakers could also miss the playoffs entirely.
To understand how the Lakers could break LeBron’s streak of 13 straight playoff appearances, let’s start with LeBron’s Cavaliers. The 2017–18 Cavs made the NBA Finals, yes, but they were much less impressive in the regular season, winning 50 games to claim the 4-seed in the weaker Eastern Conference. Had they played in the West, Cleveland wouldn’t have even made the postseason at all.
Last season, Cleveland went 35–17 against teams from the Eastern Conference, but 15–15 against teams from the West. If the Cavs had played the schedule of a Western Conference team — that’s 52 games against Western teams and 30 against Eastern — they would have won an estimated 46.2 games … or 0.8 games short of the eighth-seeded Timberwolves.
The Cavs’ regular-season deficiencies go beyond their record. Cleveland had a net rating of plus-1.0 last season; the worst net rating of any Western Conference playoff team was the Blazers’ plus-1.9. ESPN’s end-of-year Basketball Power Index pegged the Cavs 15th overall — and worse than any Western playoff team. By Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, which mostly takes into account margin of victory, the Cavs scored a 0.59, which was well below the 1.48 of the West’s lowest playoff team (the Pelicans). Those metrics have obvious flaws — the Raptors scored 7.29 in SRS, second best in the NBA, and still lost in four games to James and the Cavs — but they’re an indication that Cleveland may have struggled against the tougher competition in the Western Conference in the regular season.
LeBron isn’t bringing his Cavaliers teammates with him to Los Angeles, but the idea of moving Cleveland to the West highlights how much more difficult it is to make the postseason in that conference. By virtually every measure, the Cavs would have needed to play better than they did last season to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. Which raises the question: Are the 2018–19 Lakers better than the 2017–18 Cavs?
Let’s look at both teams without LeBron. The Cavs had a net rating of minus-1.3 without LeBron on the floor last season, which was slightly better than the Lakers’ minus-1.4. Los Angeles could improve on that number even without LeBron — any of Lonzo Ball (20 years old), Brandon Ingram (20), Kyle Kuzma (23), or Josh Hart (23) could make a jump — but at least as far as last season goes, the Lakers and the LeBron-less Cavs were at a similar level.
Outside of adding LeBron, the Lakers haven’t done much to improve their roster. The general blueprint for a LeBron team has been to surround James with shooters so that he has plenty of options to kick the ball out when he slashes to the rim. But the Lakers added Stephenson, who hasn’t been a regular NBA starter since 2013–14 and who owns the worst 3-point-shooting season in NBA history; Rondo, one of the most notorious nonshooters in recent memory; Beasley, who has attempted fewer than two 3s per game over his career; and McGee, who won two rings with Golden State by parking himself near the basket and serving as an on-call lob threat. L.A. got solid outside shooting performances from Hart (39.6 percent), Kuzma (36.6), and Caldwell-Pope (38.3) last season, and there’s always the hope that Ball can fix his shot, but it’s still unclear how LeBron fits with this roster.
The Lakers say that this has been their plan all along. In July, general manager Rob Pelinka called trying to match the Warriors shot for shot a “trap,” and highlighted the “defense and toughness” the team added alongside James this offseason.
The Lakers could always add a superstar in the middle of the season — a team in August is rarely the same in February; just ask Koby Altman — but advanced projections are bleak for the Lakers’ roster right now. ESPN analyst Kevin Pelton’s model projects the Lakers to finish with 41.2 wins, good for ninth place in the conference. That’s partly because his model projects LeBron to decline some in his age-34 season, and also because the Lakers “project to have just 55 percent of their minutes played by returning players.”
Pelton did hedge against his model’s prediction by saying the Lakers “would still probably be better than 50–50 bets to make the playoffs because somebody else falls out, so [real plus-minus] isn’t necessarily calling them a lottery team.” Still, it’s downright disorienting to read a sentence saying a LeBron-led team “probably” has a “better than 50–50” shot at the playoffs.
Even Vegas is hesitant about LeBron: The Lakers are pegged for 48.5 wins at the moment. That’s tied for the fourth-highest over/under in the West, but if the Lakers end up with 48 wins it would also mark the fewest for a LeBron-led team since 2007–08, and just one more win than it took to get the West’s 8-seed last season.
Despite all these reasons for pessimism, the Lakers do have an ace of a counterargument up their sleeves: It’s LeBron James. But that brings up another question: How much can this version of LeBron do?
If anything, we should expect LeBron to get a bit worse in 2018–19. Part of that is simple regression to the mean. LeBron led the league in minutes played last season and didn’t miss a single game for the first time in his career. That workload led James to a new strategy, which ESPN’s Brian Windhorst described as “resting while playing.” LeBron has missed an average of five games per season over the course of his career, so it’s more likely than not that he’ll tally up a few absences this season. In a conference that’s expected to be even deeper, handing the reins back to the core of last season’s 35-win team for even a few games could be the difference between the Lakers making the playoffs or not. The margins are razor-thin.
We should also expect a bit of regression in LeBron’s play when he does take the court. There’s an expectation that James can elevate his game to get past any obstacle, but he isn’t a Dragon Ball Z character who always has one more level of Super Saiyan to go to. In FiveThirtyEight’s “Carmelo” model, LeBron’s wins above replacement has decreased in each of his past two seasons. That model also projects that, while the 34-year-old will still be an MVP-level player, his gradual decline will likely continue next season.
The NBA’s best player missing the playoffs while on the league’s most storied franchise could have implications beyond James’s personal legacy. The idea of seeding the playoffs 1-through-16, rather than 1-through-8 in each conference, has picked up steam. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at last year’s All-Star Weekend that the playoff format was being looked at, but that the league was considering changing only the seeding, and would keep drawing eight teams from each conference. (For what it’s worth, James is against changing the postseason format.)
Since the 1999-2000 season, the Western Conference’s 8-seed has had a better record than the Eastern Conference’s 8-seed in all but two seasons. But the owners have never addressed that. It would take 20 of the 30 owners to vote in favor of any change to the playoff format, and the 15 Eastern teams have no incentive to cut off their own path to the playoffs. Still, watching the LeBron-led Lakers sit out the postseason as a handful of boring Eastern teams with worse records play into May would be a disaster for the NBA. It might be just the thing to spur a closer look at the league’s longstanding imbalance.
But that conversation comes into play only if the Lakers miss the playoffs. As long as LeBron is on the court for his usual allotment of games, it’s likely that the Lakers will make it, even in a conference as deep and as talented as LeBron has ever played in. But for the first time in a long time, we can’t be so sure.