After winning the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared to have sent a message that they were set to be contenders in the Western Conference. The Lakers were 14-9 on the season, but dominated in Tournament games, turning up their defensive intensity and seemingly finding an extra gear in those games.
Since then, they’ve failed to build on the promise of that Tournament run at all, slipping to 25-25 and ninth in the West (just 1.5 games up on Houston in 11th). What’s most concerning about the Lakers struggles is they have had their top stars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, on the court more than expected. Davis has appeared in 46 games and James has played in 44, although both have been frequently listed on the injury report and the duo sat out Thursday night’s loss in Boston. Health has played a role, as some key contributors have been in and out of the lineup, but even so, the inconsistency has been maddening and having James and Davis playing that many games was not supposed to be the recipe for mediocrity. Somewhat ironically, their best team performance in weeks in terms of effort and focus came in Thursday night’s shocking win over the Celtics with James and Davis sidelined — it was the first game all year that both missed.
Now, the Lakers have some real decisions with less than a week to go before the trade deadline. They have been linked to a number of players, most notably Dejounte Murray, but those talks have stalled out in recent days after appearing to be on the precipice of a deal at one point. The latest reporting from Adrian Wojnarowski indicated the Lakers aren’t likely to make a major move, saying fans and players on the team should be more prepared for more minor moves on the periphery of the roster. There are rumblings they’re interested in players like Nets wings Royce O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith, and just about any useful veteran figures to be linked to the Lakers between now and next Thursday, if for no other reason than the Lakers could use upgrades just about everywhere.
That’s what makes it so difficult to figure out not just what they’re going to do, but even come up with a plan for what they should do. This is a team that needs better play from the point guard position, something they thought they’d addressed in part by signing Gabe Vincent, who has only played five games. They also lack a solid defensive center beyond Anthony Davis, who famously doesn’t even like playing center. Jaxson Hayes’ signing has not panned out (although he had a big night against Boston) and that’s never been what Christian Wood provides even on his best days. Then there’s the ever-present quest for a 3-and-D upgrade on the wing, hence the interest in O’Neale and Finney-Smith.
The problem, of course, is they don’t have the ability to shore up all of those areas by the deadline and have to figure out what is the biggest area of need that they can address within reason (i.e., not moving too many future assets for a non-superstar talent).
The Lakers thought they’d moved past the need for taking major swings after their moves a year ago at the deadline vaulted them into the Western Conference Finals, but after mostly running it back this year and making smaller additions, they’ve regressed as a unit. Lakers fans have been at Darvin Ham’s neck all year about starting lineup choices and his rotation, and while he’s received the dreaded vote of confidence from ownership, it’s hard to shake the feeling that his days are numbered. Whether that move comes during the season or after, it’s hard to see Ham being back on the bench to start next season if things don’t change dramatically in the coming months. Maybe Thursday’s performance in Boston can spark something after their rag-tag bunch without LeBron and AD took down the league’s best team, but we’ll quickly find out if that was a mirage when they face the NBA’s hottest team in New York on Saturday.
As the deadline approaches, decisions on the short and long-term future will need to be made as the Lakers try to claw their way to the Play-In, hoping that once there, they can find a spark and the form that made a run in the In-Season Tournament. That performance feels like it was ages ago, though, and optimism in L.A. is as low as it’s been in a healthy LeBron and AD year.
Where do the Lakers land in this week’s DIME Power Rankings? Let’s find out…
TIER I: The Contenders
1. Boston Celtics (37-12, Last week: 1)
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (33-15, Last week: 2)
3. Minnesota Timberwolves (34-14, Last week: 3)
4. Los Angeles Clippers (31-15, Last week: 4)
5. Denver Nuggets (33-16, Last week: 6)
6. New York Knicks (32-17, Last week: 8)
7. Cleveland Cavaliers (30-16, Last week: 9)
8. Milwaukee Bucks (32-16, Last week: 5)
The Celtics have had just enough performances like Thursday night’s where it’s hard to completely buy in to them as the heavy favorite right now, but they still look like the most complete team and haven’t lost back-to-back games all year. The top-4 in the West, meanwhile, have separated themselves from the rest of the conference and just keep clipping right along. The big shuffle this week comes in the East, where the Knicks have closed the gap on the skidding Bucks to a half-game for second in the conference, as Jalen Brunson continues putting up monster nights. Even with Julius Randle sidelined through the All-Star break, the Knicks just keep on winning and have the league’s best vibes. Not far behind them are the Cavs, who are also riding a hot streak of late and are just now finally getting healthy. Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen have been on a tear and this past week saw the returns of Evan Mobley and Darius Garland, just in time for the stretch run. The Bucks, meanwhile, have lost three of their last four and are now trying to adjust to what Doc Rivers wants them to do. There are some positive signs defensively, but they’re still unable to stop strong opposing guard play and the offense is now dragging amid the coaching turnover.
TIER II: The Sixers
9. Philadelphia 76ers (30-17, Last week: 7)
It’s really just a bummer what’s going on in Philly. Tyrese Maxey made his return on Thursday night in Utah and immediately put up a 51-point outing to give the Sixers some life in a tight win over the Jazz and snap their losing streak. But with Joel Embiid out for an undetermined amount of time with a meniscus injury, it’s hard to see them keeping pace with the top-4 in the East. There is some cushion between them and the Pacers in sixth, so I don’t think they’ll slide into Play-In danger, but this is a team built around Embiid and any prolonged absence is something they aren’t constructed to withstand. Thursday’s performance in Utah showed that as long as Maxey is in the lineup they’re going to have a shot each night, but they also needed his 51 points to nab a win.
TIER III: Playoff Chasers
10. Phoenix Suns (28-20, Last week: 10)
11. Sacramento Kings (27-19, Last week: 12)
12. New Orleans Pelicans (27-21, Last week: 11)
13. Indiana Pacers (27-22, Last week: 13)
The Suns have climbed into a tie for fifth in the West and while they had a couple hiccups to start their East coast swing, they’ve gotten back on track in their last two. The Kings have been treading water for a bit, but we’ll see if All-Star snubs for Fox and Sabonis gives them a little jolt of midseason motivation. The Pelicans, meanwhile, have slid back into a Play-In spot after a brutal stretch against three top teams that served as a reminder of their place in the NBA hierarchy at the moment. Indiana has lost two in a row, but they were tight losses to the Celtics and Knicks. They’re still figuring out exactly how to best deploy Pascal Siakam, but the flashes are very fun and this is the team in the East no one wants to see in a playoff series.
TIER IV: Play-In Teams With Playoff Dreams
14. Miami Heat (25-23, Last week: 14)
15. Dallas Mavericks (26-22, Last week: 15)
16. Orlando Magic (25-23, Last week: 17)
17. Los Angeles Lakers (25-25, Last week: 18)
Miami snapped its losing streak this week and after what they did last year you can’t write them off even when they sit in Play-In position, but still, they feel like a couple levels below the East’s best right now. Dallas alternated wins and losses this week, with a Luka masterclass scoring 73 in Atlanta sandwiched between losses to Phoenix and Sacramento, and like Miami, they feel like a good mid-tier team that lacks the same gear as the top contenders. Orlando is also treading water, but that’s an improvement from their slide in January. If the Magic can get some more offensive consistency to go along with stout defense (Jonathan Isaac has started to look more like the old version of himself on that end) they’re going to be a handful. Then there’s the Lakers, who despite their own struggles actually move up one spot this week thanks to Utah’s skid and L.A.’s stunning win in Boston. We’ll see if that can spark something or if it was just a mirage.
TIER V: Trade Deadline Fodder
18. Utah Jazz (24-26, Last week: 16)
19. Houston Rockets (22-25, Last week: 19)
20. Chicago Bulls (23-26, Last week: 20)
21. Golden State Warriors (20-24, Last week: 21)
22. Atlanta Hawks (20-27, Last week: 22)
23. Brooklyn Nets (19-28, Last week: 24)
With a couple exceptions, these teams certainly seem like the most active going into the deadline. Brooklyn won’t part ways with Mikal Bridges, but they have a number of veterans teams are interested in and it seems likely they move at least a couple of players by Thursday. Atlanta’s still trying to move Dejounte Murray (and others) even as they’ve stabilized things a bit and don’t seem to be bottoming out anymore. The Warriors might just roll with what they’ve got but it feels like they need to shake things up to have a realistic chance at a run. The Bulls, likewise, might stand pat even after another round of Zach LaVine talks as they continue to tread water just below .500. Houston is apparently star hunting and going off menu from the guys that are known to be available, but to this point haven’t been able to get traction. Utah is fascinating as they’ve stumbled a bit but are still competitive nightly and could talk themselves into being buyers or sellers.
TIER VI: Planning For 2024-25 (But Not The Worst Teams)
24. Memphis Grizzlies (18-30, Last week: 23)
25. Toronto Raptors (17-30, Last week: 25)
26. Portland Trail Blazers (15-33, Last week: 26)
Memphis is just in a brutal spot with injuries but they are a dangerous team because all of the young guys they’ve brought in are hungry to make a name for themselves and prove they belong in the league. That means you can’t sleepwalk through a game with the Grizzlies, but they are just undermanned most nights and have begun preparing for next summer, moving Steven Adams for the expiring Victor Oladipo to clear some money. The Raptors did snap a five-game losing streak by beating the Bulls this week, but they are looking to lay a foundation led by Scottie Barnes for the future. Portland has officially pulled away from the pack below them, and their win over Damian Lillard and the Bucks had to feel particularly sweet on an emotional night. By all accounts they aren’t looking to really strip it down any more than they have with the deadline approaching (that could change, of course) and seem to want to be fairly competitive in the back half of the year.
TIER VII: The Tank Race
27. San Antonio Spurs (10-38, Last week: 28)
38. Washington Wizards (9-38, Last week: 30)
29. Detroit Pistons (6-41, Last week: 29)
30. Charlotte Hornets (10-36, Last week: 27)
It is a mess with these four, but they have been winning at a greater clip of late. Some of that is playing each other (which, again, let them just keep playing one another) but to their credit they have been a touch more competitive of late. The Hornets move into the bottom spot this week thanks to the league’s longest active losing streak at 5 games (including a loss to Detroit) and we are just waiting on the next trade by them as they look to tear down a bit more. Victor Wembanyama had his best month as a pro in January, so the Spurs have to be happy with how he’s trending right now, while the Wizards and Pistons have been able to find a couple wins here and there as well. All told, the vibes in the bottom tier are better than they have been, which is a low bar to clear but we’ll take it.