Gary Payton knew, back in the late spring of 2007, that is was over. He was 38 years old and after a brilliant, 17-year career that featured nine All-Star appearances, his decline had become obvious. What was too bad, he remembered, was how ignominiously it all ended: The defending-champ Miami Heat, whom he’d helped to a championship over the Mavericks the previous season, ushered out of the playoffs in a four-game, first-round sweep to the Bulls.
“We were beat-up,” Payton said. “We were not the same team. Especially D-Wade, he was trying to come back, trying to play, but it is hard to have someone injured for a long time like that and just drop them into the playoffs and expect them to produce at a high level.”
D-Wade, of course, is Dwyane Wade, the Heat star who suffered a shoulder injury just after the 2007 All-Star game and missed 23 games from late February into early April, with Miami sinking to the No. 5 seed in the East along the way. Wade opted not to have surgery on the injury—a torn labrum—but hoped that rest and rehab would get the shoulder back into form. He played five games before the season’s end and was decent (23.5 points on 42.9% shooting) in the playoffs, but a far cry from the dominant postseason star of the previous season.
Wade’s flameout is the closest recent approximation to what the Lakers are coping with these days, a defending champion grinding through an injury to its star player and hoping that, somehow, there will be enough time to rekindle team chemistry for a postseason run. The Warriors had something similar with Stephen Curry in 2018, but that team had Kevin Durant on hand and never sankn below the No. 2 seed in the West. Golden State also nearly did collapse even with Curry back, going to seven games against the Rockets in the conference finals.
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For L.A., it’s star forward LeBron James, out since mid-March recovering from an ankle injury as the Lakers’ remaining schedule dwindles, now down to just 10 games over the remaining 17 days.
But in some ways, the task is even more complicated for the Lakers than it was for those Heat. The Lakers are also trying to push Anthony Davis back into top form after he returned a week age from more than two months off because of a calf injury. Davis had good numbers (26 points on 10-for-20 shooting) in the Lakers’ last game, against Washington on Monday, but overall, he is shooting 39.1% from the field and 18.8% from the 3-point line in his five games back on the floor. The Lakers are 1-4 in those games.
So L.A. is dealing with not one, but two Wade-esque situations. The Lakers’ lousy play with Davis back is reminiscent of Wade’s 2007 return, when he averaged 14.6 points and committed 4.6 turnovers per game as Miami also went 1-4. The consensus among the basketball cognoscenti at the time was that Wade and the Heat would come together in the playoffs, find their footing and steamroll back to the Finals. They didn’t come together, and they didn’t steamroll.
Not only do the Lakers have the challenge of returning two superstars into a tight pre-playoff schedule, but there are two other factors working against them. First is the buyout market, which saw the Lakers pick up Ben McLemore and Andre Drummond. L.A. was praised for those moves, but it has already become clear that Drummond and Davis, who both like working in the post, will have trouble finding offensive room to operate when they are on the floor together. It’s only going to get more crowded offensively when James returns.
And there is the tricky problem of the Western Conference standings. It was only 12 days ago, just before Davis’ return, that the Lakers were the fifth seed, a solid four games away from the dreaded No. 7 spot—and the play-in tournament that comes with landing there. That is now down to two games, and the Lakers are just 1.5 games ahead of Dallas for the No. 6 seed. That would likely result in an unwanted first-round foe: The rival Clippers.
For the most part, the Lakers have addressed this issue with nonchalance, sticking by the cliché that just getting into the playoffs is all that matters, and they do not care a fig about seeding. Credit Davis, though, for speaking some truth on that account.
“We have to start playing with a sense of desperation,” Davis said after the Lakers’ loss to the Wizards on Monday. “Even though we’re in the playoffs as of right now, we’re not that far off from being in a play-in game. We’ve got to play with a sense of desperation as well.”
They should be desperate. They are in the midst of an undertaking that most NBA champs just never have to face—jamming a superstar player back into the rotation and letting it work itself out in the playoffs. Fourteen years ago, with Wade in Miami, that undertaking ended very, very badly.