Considering that four-fifths of the National Basketball Association’s 2022-23 regular season is already in the rear-view mirror, it’s a wonder that all save for the worst two teams in each conference remain in contention for an outright playoff spot. Typically, the chaff would have been separated from the grain by and around the All-Star break. Not this year, and it’s a reflection of both the parity in the league and the pace-and-space regime in which competitors find themselves. Modified rules and their application thereof have placed a premium on scoring, with close matches becoming the norm rather than the exception as a result.
Needless to say, the fact that would-be postseason protagonists continue to be jockeying for position has worked in the favor of those from the outside looking in. This is especially evident in the West, where only three games separate the 11th-ranked Lakers and the fifth-place Warriors. Little wonder, then, that the purple and gold have managed to stay upbeat despite the prolonged absence of acknowledged leader LeBron James. Which is why fans keep engaging and Could Have Beens and Would Have Beens; a handful of matches in January featured crunchtime non-calls that robbed them of all-important victories.
Speaking of What Ifs, those same followers of the sport believe the Lakers did themselves no favors by acting on an obvious handicap late in the season. They waited until the trade deadline early last month before making moves to shore up their roster even though it was clear to all and sundry that the Russell Westbrook experiment was not working. If anything, it had been an abject failure in the last one and a half seasons, and the need for them to capitalize on James’ few remaining productive years should have spurred them to take action pronto. Instead, their overly prudent stand has placed them on the bubble, having to gasp for air with James in the sidelines for an indefinite period.
There is, of course, no point in belaboring the past. Wallowing in regret will not get the Lakers closer to their immediate objective of prolonging their season. And, to their credit, they have focused on the task at hand. With Anthony Davis again wreaking havoc on the court and backstopped by able teammates that complement his skills, they’ve done well to hold the fort without James. The question is if they can escape mediocrity over the next two weeks, when the fitness of their anchor to burn rubber anew is slated to be evaluated. Certainly, the answer will determine their fate.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.