LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers may not have participated in the NBA’s Marvel-themed broadcast on May 3, but if any basketball superstar is worthy of a Marvel alias, it may well be James as Thanos; both, in their own ways, are inevitable. That’s what happens when you play in 10 NBA Finals, including eight consecutive from 2011 to 2018. In 2018, James said, “It doesn’t matter to me if I’m a sixth seed, three seed, two seed, eight seed. If I come into your building for a Game 1, it will be very challenging.”
But James has never really had to put the spirit of those words to the test. In only his third season, the Cleveland Cavaliers reached the playoffs as the East’s No. 4 seed, and a James-led team hasn’t qualified as a lower seed since.1 Over his career, James has played in 49 playoff series, and he’s had home-court advantage in 33 of them,2 including every first-round series in which he’s appeared.
This season will mark a major departure from that trend, as the Lakers enter the NBA’s new play-in tournament at 42-30, and, due to tiebreakers, are slotted in the tournament as the team with the seventh-best record in the West. But is James right that it doesn’t matter what seed the Lakers are — despite the fact that they have to win a play-in game to even qualify for the postseason? Or are James and the Lakers true underdogs?
In a certain sense, the Lakers’ playoffs will be a referendum on the value of the regular season itself. Historically, teams generally don’t win championships without finishing as one of the league’s best during the regular season. Only three NBA champions since the ABA merger in 1976 have finished with a regular season net rating below Los Angeles’ current mark of +2.9 — none of whom played in this millennium.
|2021||Los Angeles Lakers||+2.8||—||—|
|2001||Los Angeles Lakers||+3.6||+13.7||+10.1|
|1982||Los Angeles Lakers||+4.7||+5.9||+1.2|
|2010||Los Angeles Lakers||+5.1||+4.2||-0.9|
|1977||Portland Trail Blazers||+5.2||+4.3||-0.9|
|1980||Los Angeles Lakers||+5.6||+4.2||-1.4|
|2020||Los Angeles Lakers||+5.7||+7.0||+1.3|
|1988||Los Angeles Lakers||+5.8||+2.7||-3.1|
|2003||San Antonio Spurs||+5.9||+6.0||+0.1|
Still, there is some precedent for the Lakers to succeed in the postseason. The net ratings of the 2000-01 Lakers and the 1994-95 Houston Rockets are in the same neighborhood as these current Lakers, so those teams might serve as interesting comparison points for LeBron and company today.
The 2000-01 Lakers are perhaps the greatest example of “switch-flipping” in NBA history, going 15-1 in the playoffs and improving their net rating by an incredible 10.1 points per 100 possessions. But it’s not like they were total duds in the lead-up to the playoffs. Although they had a bottom-five regular-season net rating among modern champions, the defending champion Lakers won 56 games and finished second in the West. Their two superstars, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, were also far healthier throughout the regular season than James and Anthony Davis have been this year.3
The 1994-95 Rockets hold the lowest regular-season net rating among all champions since the NBA expanded to 16 playoff teams in 1984. Like the Lakers, that championship squad played a number of games without one of its stars. But while injury was the cause for L.A.’s stars, the Rockets didn’t trade for Clyde Drexler until February 14, allowing him to play in only 35 games (Hakeem Olajuwon, the club’s other star, started 72 regular-season games that year). Also like the current Lakers, who barely went over .500 after the All-Star break, Houston played below-.500 ball in March and April of 1995 even after trading for Drexler. Despite having two of the greatest players ever in the lineup for most of the regular season’s stretch run, the Rockets were hardly dominant.
That’s not the case for the current Lakers. The Lakers have been incredible with both James and Davis on the court, notching a net rating of +11.1. That’s better than last season’s two-man net rating between James and Davis of +8.8, and even better than the 2000-01 Lakers when both O’Neal and Bryant were on the court (+9.2).
|Lineup type||Minutes||Net Rating||Minutes||Net Rating|
|James and Davis on||1455||+8.8||601||+11.1|
|James on, Davis off||862||+10.3||903||+7.8|
|James off, Davis on||677||-2.4||561||-1.0|
|James and Davis off||425||+1.3||1426||-1.7|
The Lakers revamped their supporting cast entering this season, adding Dennis Schröder, Montrezl Harrell, Wes Matthews, Andre Drummond and Marc Gasol to the roster while losing Avery Bradley, Danny Green, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard. Schröder, a guard with self-creation chops who’s used to thriving alongside ball-dominant stars like James, received the largest non-James or Davis contract in the offseason, and Harrell has had an even larger impact, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR.
These changes were meant to bolster the Lakers’ top lineups, adding more shooting and secondary initiation abilities while giving their one-star groups more firepower. Schröder offered some level of insurance for the Davis- or James-less Lakers, as the outcomes with Schröder initiating in the pick and roll and in isolation have been virtually identical to those of James, per Second Spectrum. But like James and Davis, Schröder has also missed time during the Lakers’ slide down the standings.
The concept of lineups with neither James nor Davis was likely not an important consideration, considering the team’s intention to play at least one of the two for the vast majority of minutes. In fact, in games in which they’ve both been available, at least one has played in 91.3 percent of game time. (The Lakers played an even larger proportion of minutes with at least one star last year.) And in the 27 games in which James and Davis have appeared together, the Lakers are 19-8, for a winning percentage of 70.4 percent — not far off last year’s 76.3 percent mark.
Yet because of injuries, the Lakers have played over three times more minutes this year without both James and Davis and find themselves in the play-in tournament, forced to win one game against either the Golden State Warriors or the winner of the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs just to make the playoffs proper.
Will the Lakers be able to show up and glide through the competition now that the rotation is healthy? Signs point to yes, as long as we’re comparing them to past champions. If James and Davis are healthy and playing, the Lakers’ top-end talent looks eerily like that of those past champions who underperformed in the regular season. But the picture is muddled when we compare L.A. to past teams who failed to win the championship. If the Lakers were to crumble in the playoffs, there is precedent for that as well.
In the 1977-78 season, the defending-champion Portland Trail Blazers played well in the regular season, but signs of collapse loomed. Stars Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas played in fewer games than the season before because of a variety of injuries. Walton heroically returned with a broken foot to play in the first two games of a playoff series against the Seattle SuperSonics, but he couldn’t manage to play in more. The Blazers lost in six.
In 1990-91, the defending champion Detroit Pistons won 50 games as “a pair of floating ligaments that dared become detached from their rightful resting place” limited Isiah Thomas to only 48 games, as Barry Cooper wrote in January of 1991. Thomas played in all four of Detroit’s conference finals games against the Chicago Bulls, but he was not himself and the Bulls swept the Pistons.
So there’s precedent for the Lakers either steamrolling opponents, now that their stars are on the court, or fading after the season’s avalanche of injuries. The biggest question of the play-in tournament and beyond is whether James and Davis are more Bryant and O’Neal, or more Lucas, Walton and Thomas.
Ultimately, that James and Davis remain so dominant when they are on the court is probably the most telling fact. Serious injury doesn’t just limit players’ availability, but also their performance when they are playing. In 1990-91, Thomas was not the most effective player on his team.4 James and Davis, on the other hand, remain the leaders of their team. Age and injuries haven’t caught up to them yet — at least when they are playing. L.A. has brought James and Davis along slowly specifically so that they will be healthy when the games count. And if James is as healthy as he seems since returning from his most recent injury, a playoff surge should be no surprise. (He is, after all, inevitable.)
Barring further injury, it’s not implausible to think the Lakers are ready to be the second six seed or lower to ever win a championship, following in the footsteps of 1994-95 Rockets. James may not have been projecting the future when he said his seed didn’t matter to him, but his words are more applicable now than ever. And these Lakers — not even guaranteed to reach the first round — are ready to put their inevitability to the test.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.