LOS ANGELES — After the Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs only five times in the first 65 years of the franchise’s existence, Friday’s 111-106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets officially eliminated them from postseason contention for the sixth straight year.
At 31-41, L.A. is now a game worse than it was a season ago with 10 games left to play. That team, of course, did not have LeBron James.
In a sequence that just about sums up the Lakers’ season, L.A. had the ball with 22.8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter on Friday and trailed by just three when James slipped out of bounds, losing the possession without the Lakers even getting a shot off to try to tie.
It was a rocky season from the start for James and the Lakers. In the home opener, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram both earned suspensions for their role in an altercation with the Houston Rockets‘ Chris Paul. After a 2-5 start, Lakers president Magic Johnson dressed down coach Luke Walton in a meeting, expressing urgency that the team improve.
Whatever excitement was generated come Christmas Day when the Lakers climbed to No. 4 in the Western Conference standings after a win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors was quickly tamped down as James (slight tear in his groin) and Rondo (fractured finger) both suffered injuries that kept them out of the lineup for weeks.
Following a failed pursuit of Anthony Davis at February’s trade deadline, Lakers brass still put the postseason as their team’s top priority, with general manager Rob Pelinka likening the additions of Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala to the New England Patriots getting Julian Edelman back off suspension and making a run to the Super Bowl.
“We got a goal ahead of us to try to make the playoffs,” Johnson said a couple days after the deadline. “That’s what it’s all about.”
That goal became more and more improbable as losses mounted, particularly against some of the league’s worst teams, the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns.
After a come-from-behind win over the Rockets in the first game following the All-Star break, the Lakers hit the skids, losing 12 of their next 14 games, culminating in the Friday’s defeat versus Brooklyn.
In one particularly damning stretch from late February to early March, L.A. lost to a Davis-less Pelicans team, to a Memphis team that came into the game with a 3-17 record in its previous 20 games, to a Phoenix team with the worst record in the league and at home to Staples Center cohabitants, the LA Clippers, in a game seen at the time as a last-ditch chance to mount a playoff push against the team it was chasing in the standings.
“Most losses hurt pretty bad, you don’t feel great about them,” Walton said of that stretch at shootaround Friday morning. “But I know what you’re asking, yeah, those are the ones if taking the time to look back at the losses this season those would be some of the more painful ones.”
With the playoffs out of the picture, the Lakers will enter into an offseason rife with speculation about the job security of Walton as well as the construction of the roster. Seven of L.A.’s 14 players are set to hit free agency.