Playoffs!?! Lakers struggling to keep pace for play-in spot

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook elevates for a reverse layup past Rockets guard Eric Gordon.
Lakers guard Russell Westbrook finished with 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists in another loss against Houston.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
Share via

Welcome to the latest edition of the Lakers newsletter, it’s Dan Woike, the L.A. Times’ beat reporter. I’m tasked with watching the team play basketball on a near-nightly basis so you don’t have to!

I’m writing this week’s newsletter from my seat on a plane from Houston to Los Angeles. The gentleman in front of me is already in full recline a good 20 minutes before we depart the gate. Seriously, only recline your seat if it’s a must. Don’t be a monster. Sit up straight and make the most of your time.


Travel is on my mind because the Lakers won’t stop doing it until April. That gives me plenty of time to complain about my biggest travel pet peeves — don’t bring change with you to the airport, wear your mask over your nose, keep your shoes on and, for the love of everything holy, don’t recline.

Sorry for being in such a sour mood. It’s early and I just watched the Lakers lose to the lowly Rockets last night in Houston, a result that didn’t really shock me because the Lakers are a bad basketball team right now. And they’re going to stay one until, at the very earliest, Anthony Davis returns to the court.

Why I dwell on all that, those pesky facts are getting in the way of some good feelings. That’s why, with as little snark as possible, here’s why the Lakers still think they have a chance.

Staying positive?

The Lakers entered the season thinking they had a lineup that provided them with tremendous flexibility and adaptability. But now, as the season enters its final month, the team has had to do more mental gymnastics than anything else to convince itself the season is salvageable.

The vibes in and around the team, as you’d expect, aren’t great.

Multiple conversations with staff members and players have included the some version of the phrase, “at least there’s only a month left” — not exactly the kind of message you hear from a group with realistic visions of playing until early summer.

No, the Lakers at their core have to know that they’re not good enough. LeBron James, as important of a barometer as any, has said so. After losing to Milwaukee earlier this season, he was clear about the team not being on the Bucks’ level.


After being swept by the Clippers in their season series, James said their city rivals were a better team. After losing to the Rockets, he clearly stated that the Lakers don’t have any margin for error against Houston — a team that’s 32 games below .500 with their eyes on the NBA lottery.

The Lakers? In a perfect world, that’s where their vision would be centered, too. But with their first-round pick headed to New Orleans as part of the trade to acquire Davis, the only lottery this team can worry about is the scratcher their holding onto over the final month of the season.

The mindset with our group has always been, ‘Through these struggles, can we be the team that catches fire down the stretch?’” Vogel said Wednesday. “And if you look at those pieces, that possibility is real. So we have to push through it.”

That hope is built on a few factors.

For one, the alternative, total surrender, isn’t the kind of thing you like to hear from a professional basketball team. And it’s not the kind of thing this group can verbalize.

Second, there is a sense that the Lakers have hope that conceivably a longshot scenario could come to fruition over the final month.

That hope begins with Davis, a player who by merely being on the court helps mask some of the Lakers biggest defensive issues. Davis was on the Lakers’ bench Wednesday without a protective boot on his sprained right foot — a minor sign of progress. He’s set to be reevaluated next week, which would be four weeks after he suffered the injury.


While playing without a center has helped open up the Lakers’ offense, it’s been brutal for their defense. You could see James struggling to battle with Houston rookie center Alpern Sengun on the block on a possession-by-possession basis. With Davis taking on most of that responsibility, it should give James more energy on the defensive perimeter and on the offensive end, where the Lakers need help.

Then there’s Russell Westbrook.

While there’s been an internal push to demote him to the second unit, Vogel has resisted the push. Before the Lakers played Houston on Wednesday, he was asked why he decided that Westbrook starting while trying to play through his struggles is the best option.

He’s one of the best players ever to play. He has had his struggles this year. There’s no doubt about that,” Vogel said. “But he had struggles in Washington last year, too, coming into a new environment, and he finished really strong. I do maintain that type of belief that he has that type of finish in him. And the best outcome for us is for him to reach that level with our team. I believe that’s the best outcome for us in all the ways we can go about this.”

Westbrook rewarded Vogel with a strong game against Houston. He’s often played well against teams with soft interior defenses, and rebuilding some confidence and finding some comfort in the final weeks of the season is necessary if the Lakers are going to challenge anyone in the postseason.

Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.

That’s where things are at, the goalposts having been moved as close as possible once it became clear this team wasn’t a serious championship contender. From there, they proved that they couldn’t play their way into the one of the top six spots in the conference for a guaranteed playoff spot. Then, it became fighting for either seventh or eighth place for the play-in tournament.

With that now out of reach, making the play-in tournament with the ninth seed and ideally hosting their first elimination game is the new target. If the Lakers survive that and actually get into the playoffs, maybe everything comes together.

Remember, lottery tickets do cash, but the odds and common sense say the Lakers’ playoff ticket probably won’t.

Song of the week

Too Late To Turn Back Now by the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose

How’s this for a universal truth courtesy of the Cornelius Brothers’ mother — “Love can break your heart and put you in misery.” Loving the Lakers has to have been misery for you, their fans, this season. But, it’s too late to turn back now. This team is who they are, the only group of players the Lakers have to try to make some kind of late-season run. At least the song can put you in a good mood even if the team can’t.

In case you missed it

Russell Westbrook decries fan harassment of family, ‘Westbrick’ after Lakers loss

Plaschke: Russell Westbrook doesn’t seem to understand calling him ‘Westbrick’ is fair game


Poor defense and injury plagued: Takeaways from Lakers’ loss to Spurs

How Jerry Buss, Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers created the modern NBA

How the Magic Johnson-led Lakers’ Showtime dynasty nearly never happened

LeBron James isn’t a pure scorer? Lakers’ Carmelo Anthony explains why

Elliott: LeBron James and Lakers showcase blueprint for team’s late-season revival

LeBron James scores 56 points, his most as a Laker, as L.A. beats Golden State


Why Lakers’ offense is as big a problem as their defense

Lakers coaching staff continues to seek right formula on defense

Time is running out on Lakers and Russell Westbrook

Until next time...

As always, pass along your thoughts to me at, and please consider subscribing if you like our work!