LeBron James' NBA Finals streak is at eight years and counting, so it seems a little ridiculous to ask whether his Los Angeles Lakers will clear the comparatively low bar of playoff entry.
The timing of the question, too, feels suboptimal. James' Lakers took down the defending champion Golden State Warriors in preseason action Wednesday, flashing an encouraging uptempo style and showcasing the breakout-ready talents of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma and others. Though Friday's rematch may not play out the same way, we could, at the very least, infer from Wednesday's 123-113 win that the Lakers are one of the top eight teams in their conference.
Note, too, that a handful of playoff hopefuls in the West are in dire straits. Jimmy Butler's imminent exit will knock the Minnesota Timberwolves down a peg, as it's unlikely the return package for the disgruntled star will include a player capable of leading the third-stringers to practice domination over the starters. In San Antonio, Dejounte Murray's torn ACL throws the point guard position into disarray. Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol are a combined 71 years old.
The runway is clearing for the Lakers, even if they may not have needed the help.
Simplify things, and reductive reasoning gets you there: James is the best player walking (levitating on?) the planet, he has talent around him and...I mean...there's just no way he falls short of such a modest expectation, right?
Except we may not be considering the downside here. Maybe we're being coaxed into a foolish state of certainty by the irrational exuberance that always surrounds the Lakers. Maybe we're too hopped up on the idea of L.A.'s return to relevance, or maybe we just want to believe a) that James can extend his prime longer than anyone has a right to, or b) that the young Lakers are magically prepared for meaningful games without having played any.
A significant injury to James would upend Los Angeles' season and almost certainly result in a lottery berth, but there's no need to rely on such an extreme scenario to find ways for the Lakers to miss the playoffs.
Even if healthy, James' age and mileage will inevitably produce decline. Every second that passes brings slippage closer. Surely, though, if James was able to drag a suspect Cleveland Cavaliers team to the Finals at age 33, he'll be able to lead a younger, more defensively capable Lakers club to 48 wins and a postseason berth—even if the aging curve renders him, say, 10 percent less effective than he was a year ago.
Then again, maybe we're glossing over something critical: Cleveland's point differential should only have produced 42.8 wins in 2017-18, according to Cleaning the Glass. That's 42.8 wins with an unbalanced schedule that featured 52 games against crummy Eastern Conference opponents. The Cavs' actual win total, 50, represented the biggest discrepancy between expectation and reality in the league last year. Framed another way: Based on Cleaning the Glass' numbers, nobody was luckier than the Cavs.
I've written before that this year's Lakers are a better overall team than last year's Cavaliers, but there's room for debate on that point. The comparison is a close one, which is why it's noteworthy that the 2017-18 Cavs would have fallen well short of the postseason had they been in the West. The Denver Nuggets won 46 games and posted a net rating more than twice that of Cleveland's, and they watched the playoffs from home.
If you bake in some level of decline for James, that could offset the Lakers' superior supporting cast and produce a team that may not be any better than last year's Cavaliers. If that's the case, L.A. won't have the luxury of 52 games against the East; it'll instead face an unbalanced West-heavy schedule—one that'll be far more difficult and, alarmingly from the Lakers' perspective, bereft of tankers.
Things could change as injuries arise and reality sets in across the league, but for now, the West features 15 teams that are at least outwardly committed to winning games. The Sacramento Kings don't own their 2019 first-rounder, so they have no incentive to lose. The Phoenix Suns geared up over the summer, adding vets like Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza. That's not "we're giving up" behavior. The Mavericks, Grizzlies and Clippers—lottery teams all in 2017-18—are going to compete. That's before we even get to the eight teams that made the dance last year, all of whom will try to do it again.
For years, we've started the season acknowledging how brutal the West looks. Ahead of 2018-19, it appears uncommonly tough. Gone are the days when a dysfunctional and injury-riddled New York Knicks team offered James a break in the schedule. In the West, so-called pushover games now feature opponents who've been around and won. A lot. Good luck half-assing it against these two, for example:
Coasting for long stretches, as has been James' recent custom, will be costlier than ever. Drop a seemingly meaningless game in November and one or two more in January, and suddenly, the Lakers' win total goes from 50 to 47. That difference, caused by a momentary lapse in focus, could mean everything. Hit the snooze button once, and playoff hopes could evaporate.
And we can't be sure LeBron's key teammates are ready to pick up the slack when he cruises or sits out altogether...which, by the way, he will. James isn't playing another full 82-game slate. There's no way.
Few teams have more young talent than the Lakers, who can basically rely on a high-volume approach to developing a new star. Ingram, Ball, Kuzma and Hart won't all pop, but at least one probably will. With that many realistic candidates for future stardom, the Lakers can count on somebody to take up the mantle as James' top sidekick.
But Ball missed 30 games last year and spent much of the summer rehabbing after knee surgery. A player in need of significant skill development (shooting while going right and finishing at the rim, to name two areas), would have been better served by a healthier offseason.
Ingram, everyone's favorite future star, could make a leap. But life as a second banana to James is hard, and not everyone takes to it easily. Chris Bosh talked about the stress of adjusting years ago. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have both spoken recently about the challenges of playing with an icon of James' caliber. If Ingram's not up to the task, he should be forgiven. He's 21, after all.
The veterans—Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee—are suspect contributors. Nobody's sure who'll play center in the minutes that matter. L.A.'s defense, a strength last year, figures to slip as James introduces his customarily casual approach on that end, which will water down the intensity of his teammates.
Internally and externally, there are uncertainties. Obstacles. Hazards.
Yes, James remains the NBA's most capable ceiling-raiser. If he can't take a mediocre or untested club to the playoffs, nobody can. But he is aging, he doesn't currently have a second star to lean on, and the Lakers are riddled with the kinds of questions that always attach to teams full of young players. And, again: the West.
If you've got to bet, put your money on James and a potentially terrific young core. But the Lakers' playoff ticket is nowhere near punched.