When the Los Angeles Lakers lost at home on Sunday afternoon to the Denver Nuggets it was their sixth straight defeat and 16th in 20 games since the mid-February All-Star break. Now at 31–47 on the season, the Lakers are two games back of the heroic San Antonio Spurs for the Western Conference 10th seed and the conference’s final play-in berth. Having failed to grab a win from a quick two-game weekend home-stand—they lost Friday night to the Pelicans in their first game with both LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the lineup since February 16—the Lakers now face some impressively long odds: With just four games left in the regular-season, their “elimination number”—the combined number of Spurs wins or Lakers losses that will send San Antonio through to the postseason and Los Angeles to hell—stands at two.
It can be hard to accept just how close the Lakers are to fully cooked, and you will be forgiven if you need to see them cold and dead before you feel comfortable joining me in dancing the tarantella on their grave. But their situation is extremely, extremely dire. LeBron James missed Sunday’s game with nagging pain and discomfort in his left ankle, which he rolled in a loss to the Pelicans on March 27. ESPN reported Sunday night that James is “unlikely” to participate in the Lakers’ Tuesday road game against the Phoenix Suns, also due to the ankle. I did a double-take this morning at this news, because it implies one of two possibilities, both of which are supremely bleak: An injury-related DNP Tuesday would indicate either that LeBron’s ankle is extremely torn-up and full of crabmeat, or that he and the Lakers are functionally throwing in the towel on this season’s increasingly hilarious-seeming championship ambitions. Either case would finally doom the Lakers, whose .273 win percentage in games played without James this season would stake them to the third-worst record in the league. Without James in the lineup, only a lunatic would bet on the Lakers to beat any NBA team.
Davis, who put up 28 points in 35 minutes Sunday but was roundly outplayed by counterpart Nikola Jokic, sounds like a guy who is already thinking about this lost and humiliating campaign in the past tense. “I think the biggest thing that I think about personally is what we could have been, had we stayed healthy all year,” Davis lamented after the loss to the Nuggets. He’s not wrong, exactly—the Lakers really would’ve been a different team if James and Davis had played something like 65 to 70 games apiece, at close to full health—but relying on injuries to explain what has happened to the Lakers requires some hilarious contortions. “You kinda feel like, OK, what could we have been if I was healthy all year, Bron was healthy, you know, K-Nunn was healthy,” pondered Davis, searching for a way to make sense of matters and finding that his best explanation requires properly appreciating the absence, of all people, of Kendrick Nunn. I think it is time for everyone associated with the Lakers to accept that the problems that plagued them even during their healthiest periods were not the kinds of things that were going to be solved by Kendrick damn Nunn.
Besides, it’s more fun to just gape and laugh at how comprehensively undone the Lakers were by their share of misfortunes. Los Angeles ranks 12th in total player games lost to injury this season, according to Spotrac, which is unfortunate but should not be considered fatal on its own. Five teams above the Lakers in the Western Conference standings have lost more games to injury, including the same Pelicans and Nuggets teams that comfortably handled them over the weekend. The Clippers, three spots and 7.5 games up in the standings, have been without Kawhi Leonard all season and without Paul George for all but 29 games. Incredibly, the Golden State Warriors have only had the trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green together and healthy for two total games this season. The Phoenix Suns, who have won precisely twice as many games as the Lakers, have lost 55 more games to injury this year than the Lakers. Request for sympathy denied!
The Suns may do the Lakers a favor this week. Phoenix rested Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton on Sunday and got flattened in Oklahoma City by a Thunder team with less than zero interest in winning basketball games. Suns head coach Monty Williams seemed annoyed by the result, and the Suns may feel some motivation to put a nail in the coffin of a divisional opponent scrambling for the bottom rung of the playoff ladder. But if they take the high road and continue to rest their stars, the Lakers might have a chance at a win even without LeBron. But either way, and any way you look at it, the Lakers are now in the deepest of shit. Where the play-in once seemed like a dismal and humiliating safety net for an underperforming squad with semi-credible championship aspirations, it now represents an absolute best-case scenario, the attainment of which will require something like a miracle. Do they even want it anymore? And would it even matter if they do?