A few weeks can make all the difference in the world.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ playoff hopes looked dead in the water just six weeks ago when they fell to the Portland Trail Blazers, 127-115, at the Moda Center. The loss pulled them six games below .500 to 26-32 and they found themselves above only the tanking San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets in the Western Conference standings.
At that point, the Lakers looked destined to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season and waste another year of LeBron James’ dwindling career. However, Los Angeles then made a striking about-face in mid-February and are now above .500 for the first time in 15 months.
At present, the Lakers sport a 39-38 win-loss record off the back of winning 13 of their 19 games following their aforementioned loss to the Blazers. Their most recent win was actually quite poetic as it also officially eliminated Portland from the playoff race.
The most obvious reason for Los Angeles’ sudden turnaround is the three-team trade that sent away Russell Westbrook and brought back D’Angelo Russell from the Minnesota Timberwolves prior to this year’s trade deadline.
While the resume of Russell, who played the first two years of his career with the Lakers, may pale in comparison to that of the 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player Westbrook, his ability to space the floor and remain effective when playing off the ball make him a much better fit for this team. His ability to run this Los Angeles team when needed has also been crucial and it was a major reason why they were able to survive James’ 13-game absence over the past month due to a foot injury.
Furthermore, another sweetener for the Lakers’ most recent win which pushed them above .500 was that it came against Russell’s former Timberwolves team. Los Angeles used a 24-2 run to swing the contest in their favor and take a 123-111 victory. Russell had a strong showing in his first game back in Minnesota after the trade, finishing with 12 points, 10 assists, and two steals.
However, the star of the night for the Lakers versus the Timberwolves, as it has been for most of this season, was Anthony Davis.
The eight-time NBA All-Star Davis put up 38 points, 17 rebounds, one steal, and two blocks which is even more impressive when considering that he had to contend with Minnesota’s pair of elite big men in three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and three-time NBA All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns.
Davis’ performance was the perfect way for him to cap off a dominant March where he played his best basketball of the season. In 13 games during the month, he averaged 27.9 points on 58.5% field goal shooting, 12.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, and 1.6 steals per game.
The 30-year-old Davis is having his best campaign since the Lakers won the NBA championship in 2020 and at this point, if he can continue playing at this level, it would not come as a surprise if he winds up carrying this team to another deep postseason run.
Los Angeles has won five of its last six games and could potentially ride this wave of momentum to a top-six finish in the West that would guarantee their playoff spot. With five games remaining on their regular season schedule, they are only 1.5 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors who currently hold the fifth and sixth seeds in the West.
The Lakers hold their tiebreaker with the Warriors in the wake of winning their season series, 3-1, though they do not own the one with the Clippers as they lost the first three games against them this year.
Regardless of whether they have to go the play-in route or wind up leapfrogging the Clippers or Warriors, this Los Angeles team, especially if James and Davis remain healthy, will be one to reckon with in the looming weeks. James and Davis are still two of the best players in the league at the moment and the supporting cast around them complements them almost as well as the one that they had in their 2020 run to the title.
Six weeks ago, this group was already being counted out by most pundits. Today, they are one of the hottest teams in the league. Six weeks from now, they could potentially be preparing for the Western Conference Finals or reeling from yet another implosion.
Either outcome will hardly come as a surprise at this point for these Lakers who have been on a rollercoaster of emotions since James’ arrival in the summer of 2018. This is the reality of this Lakers franchise and it has made for entertaining theater through the years. While it remains a fool’s errand to ascertain how far this team can go this season, the one sure thing is that Los Angeles will not be lacking for drama over the coming weeks.