Words by Clinton Jackson
As LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers continue to moonwalk their way out of the playoff picture, a few things are crystal clear. They’ve lost eight of their last ten games to fall eight games under .500 and 10 games back of the eighth playoff seed. As a Bron-less playoff becomes more of a reality, it’s time to take a look at five ways that the Western Conference has humbled the NBA’s 4th All-Time Leading Scorer.
- Turning on the Playoff Switch: Shortly after the All-Star Break, LeBron stated that his level of intensity has been “activated” in regard to making a playoff push. Unfortunately, the time to do that and set the team-wide tone to make the playoffs is from day one in the Western Conference. Not once you get in a mid-season jam. While in the Eastern Conference, the lack of conference depth afforded James the luxury of being able to flip the playoff focus on with 20-30 games to go in the season. Fast forward one year later, the competition is constant from top-to-bottom in the West. And unless you’re the back-to-back champion Golden State Warriors, there isn’t a team in the West that can casually flip on the playoff switch after the All-Star Break.
- Losing Streaks: In Cleveland, Bron and the Cavs could drop four of six games and risk only sliding from the 2-seed to the 3-seed in the standings or not even losing their spot at all. Due to a lack of quality teams in the Eastern Conference, that benefit allowed the Cavaliers to remain within the top four seeds of the conference over the past couple of years. Using the same losing skid as above, a squad can go from the 3-seed to falling out of the playoff picture with extreme quickness. The likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and other teams in the playoff picture remain hungry, play good consistent basketball, and will continue to stand their position to claim one the eight playoff spots.
- Western Conference Star Power: There is no shortage of certified ballers in the Western Conference that are competing at a high level. Aside from the Warriors obviously being the modern day Monstars of the NBA (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins), the star power is something that James has never experienced on a nightly basis. When in the Eastern Conference, he was used to facing each western foe only two times a year. But by joining the West, he has to see this heightened competition four times a year. Matchups against James Harden/Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook/Paul George, Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum, the upstart Nuggets and the Joker, the steadfast Jazz, Pop in San Antonio, A.D. in New Orleans, KAT in the Twin Cities, along with other high profile talent, has definitely tested James’ ability to rack up wins this year.
- Competition in the Bottom Half of the Western Conference: In the West, the only team that can be played down to is the Phoenix Suns. And even if you do, Devin Booker can easily drop a cool 50 points. With that in mind, teams outside of the playoff hunt still compete on a night-in-night-out basis. Squads like the Sacramento Kings (9th Seed, 34-35 record), New Orleans Pelicans (12th Seed, 30-42), and Memphis Grizzlies (14th seed, 28-42) can’t be slept on and will definitely steal a win if a focused effort isn’t given until the final buzzer sounds. Compare these teams and the level of competition to their Eastern counterparts that are in the same position in the standings. The Orlando Magic (33-38), Atlanta Hawks (22-47), and the Cleveland Cavaliers (17-53) pose far less of a threat and haven’t been serious players in the playoff conversation throughout the year. So in prior years, LeBron would have the ability to take his foot off the pedal when playing the far more inferior opponents at the bottom of the East. This year, that opportunity is non-existent and battles with the bottom half of the Western Conference have to be taken with the same seriousness as the top half. With a 31-39 record that has them as the 10th seed, James will have to be all gas and no brakes no matter the team in future seasons with the Lakers. If not, the Lakers may never be considered conference elites.
- Age: With the 2018-2019 season being James’ 16th year in the Association, the 34-year old failed to factor in the eventual physical breakdown that every athlete experiences at some point in their career. The groin injury he suffered this past Christmas caused him to miss 18 consecutive games. That span was the longest chunk of games he has missed at once throughout his career and is a rare showing of his mortality due to the mileage he has accumulated over the years. Aside from that, his actual age makes locker room dynamics and a relationship with the Laker youth core more delicate. When you look at Lonzo Ball (age 21), Brandon Ingram (age 21), Kyle Kuzma (age 23), and Josh Hart (age 24), LeBron is at least a decade older than the Lakers youth movement. These aren’t his boys like Dewayne Wade or Chris Bosh in Miami. Definitely nothing like combining forces with NBA veterans in Cleveland to the tune of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and company. So the business of basketball, year-round work ethic, playoff pushes, trade deadline rumors, and most of all life, may not be in full harmony between the face of the NBA and the Laker youngins. And without that meshing, team chemistry is low and turbulence has been a part of LeBron’s journey in the City of Angels which has negatively impacted their play throughout the year.