LeBron James has issued an apology on social media to Laker Nation after a recent loss.
With him, a promise: “… we’ll get better!”
James and the Lakers are currently in a position where they would enter a qualifying tournament after the end of the regular season. Not ideal, of course.
Really, though, any team’s mantra this season should be to just get in – any way you can. Given the range of big-name players’ injuries and the hour-by-hour uncertainty due to the virus, being healthy ahead of the playoffs is more of a priority this season than usual.
This is one of the main reasons why the impending trade deadline of February 10 could be a real dilemma for general managers. Because the standings really can’t give an accurate reflection of a team’s position.
Imagine these scenarios: Jamal Murray joins defending MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets in time for a playoff run. Or Victor Oladipo in Miami, if he continues to improve since the leg surgery that sidelined him for nearly a year. Or maybe the Los Angeles Clippers get Kawhi Leonard back.
Consider the impact of Anthony Davis’ return to the Lakers roster.
All or part of this probably alters the landscape.
So while taking the occasional glance at the NBA standings — as Nuggets coach Michael Malone will — don’t overthink it.
“We had injuries. We had COVID. But again, we’re not saying, “Woe to me,” Malone said. “Because it’s our reality and you have to deal with it.”
Klay Thompson recently returned after his more than two-year absence from the Golden State roster, not to mention that Kyrie Irving was finally able to make his season debut for Brooklyn after a months-long stalemate sparked by his vaccine status. Now, the Nets are expected to be without Kevin Durant indefinitely due to a medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprain.
One thing the recent playoffs have shown is that peaking at the right time is at least as important, if not more so, than seeding during that time. Last year’s conference finals featured the No. 2 and No. 4 seeds in the West, as well as the No. 3 and No. 5 seeds in the East. The previous season, a No. 5 seed in Miami appeared in the NBA Finals. In 2018, James took fourth-seeded Cleveland to the title series.
So while teams like the Nuggets or the Clippers may not have their desired seeding come playoff time, surely either of those teams would happily trade a chance to play. opening a home series against stars like Murray – maybe even Michael Porter Jr.? -or Leonard back and ready to go.
“One day at a time is really a mantra that we have to live by,” Malone said.
Malone and his team recently discussed how this season could be even tougher than the previous two.
Admittedly, the bubble playoffs have been tough with the long isolation.
And last season was a challenge to navigate all the protocols.
But this season – which has reached the midpoint – can be complex at the top level and filled with more uncertainty. Around the time a team finds some consistency or rhythm, one or more key players — or coaches — enter league health and safety protocols.
The Clippers remain another team currently in a play-in spot in the West. A return of Paul George and perhaps Leonard could be the boost they need to get back to the Conference Finals.
Or they could simply become sellers at the trade deadline.
In Portland, Blazers first-year coach Chauncey Billups got quite the initiation. He suffered big injury after big injury, including dynamic guards Damian Lillard (surgery to treat an abdominal injury) and CJ McCollum (collapsed lung).
“This year has been amazing,” said Billups, who saw McCollum return in Monday’s win over Orlando as the Blazers remain 10th in the West. “It’s just crazy. … But it makes me a better coach.”
Inevitably, there will be frustration, like after the Lakers’ 133-96 loss to the Nuggets this weekend. The great Lakers and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson chimed in on social media: “…we as (at)Lakers fans can accept being overpowered, but we deserve more than a lack of effort and no sense of urgency. Owner (at) JeanieBuss, you deserve better.
Guard Russell Westbrook was asked about Johnson’s assessment in what has been an injury-strewn Lakers season, including Davis being sidelined since mid-December with a sprained knee ligament left.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion in this world, whatever it is,” Westbrook said, adding that Johnson isn’t on the team every day. “He is unaware of what is going on internally with us and is trying to figure things out.”
The Lakers aren’t alone in taking their next steps.
“It’s like a shitty shoot every night,” Billups said. “Everyone deals with this stuff. Each team. If it’s not COVID, then it’s injuries. I mean everyone.”
Conclusion for fans and teams: hang in there and hang in there.
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.
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