NBA Wednesday Tipsheet: LeBron's Lakers treading water as high-flying Denver visit LA
LeBron's first season in Hollywood has had plenty of drama, but is turning into a horror show, and LA's chances of making the playoffs dwindle by the day. Mark Kirwan fills us in...
"They haven't had James all season. He'd not missed a game for two years, and barely suffered a significant knock in his 18 year pro career, but Christmas Day's game versus the Warriors brought an unwelcome gift of a five-week layoff for the 34-year-old with a groin twang. But even allowing for the longest injury absence of his career, the Lakers could've overcome the 6-11 record they compiled without him.
Lakers drifting towards irrelevance
Denver Nuggets @ LA Lakers
Thursday, 3:30 (Uk Time)
Live on Sky Sports Main Event, Arena
There aren't many similarities between these two teams, but there is a growing sense with both that neither will cause much of stir in the postseason, for very different reasons.
For the Lakers, it looks like they won't even qualify. You'd think bringing in the best player in the game would be enough to add 12-to-15 wins onto your season total from the last campaign at a minimum, and they were on track to do just that back in December when even home court advantage in the first round wasn't out of the question. So what's gone wrong?
They haven't had James all season. He'd not missed a game for two years, and barely suffered a significant knock in his 18-year pro career, but Christmas Day's game versus the Warriors brought an unwelcome gift of a five-week layoff for the 34-year-old with a groin twang.
But even allowing for the longest injury absence of his career, the Lakers could've overcome the 6-11 record they compiled without him.
The real reason this season is turning into a lost one for the former Cav is because of his efforts to manage the roster. LA went all-out at the deadline to make a trade with the Pelicans for Anthony Davis, who was to be the second star on the roster, Dwayne Wade 2.0. New Orleans trolled the Lakers into offering almost every player on the roster for their disgruntled leader only to reject every offer. And everyone knows now that they're expendable, torpedoing any semblance of growing team chemistry.
Throw in some dubious acquisitions they did manage to complete, a recent spate of injuries to others, and constant murmurs about coach Luke Walton's future under the glare of the Lakers' media spotlight, and it's fair to say this season' gone about as badly as it could've for King James.
It's been the opposite for Denver - they're going to the playoffs, sitting as the second overall seed and could even sneak ahead of the Warriors for the first slot if GSW keep dropping games. That'd be a huge achievement for a team that missed the postseason last year and doesn't really have a star. Nikola Jokic, their center, leads them in points, assists and rebounds, and they've built a team around his dominant play, but he's not a face and name that grabs attention.
Even with home advantage though, it's hard to see them going very far come the playoffs. On the road, they rank fifth worst in the league. At the Pepsi Centre's altitude they've built this season's second-best home record, but even that hasn't held up recently. They've lost to both Utah and New Orleans in their own building in the last week, and the way the Jazz bossed them would suggest that, over a seven-game series, there's a hope for any opponent in the first round.
You'd think they'd the second-placed team in the West would be overwhelming favourites against a Lakers team that's 2-7 in their last nine, riddled with injuries and riven with discontent, but the handicap is 4.5. That tells you Denver cannot be trusted as a road team. It makes more sense to look at the total in this which should be around 222.5 when available. I'd happily take under, with both of these teams are trending down on scores. Denver are 11-18-1 on the totals in away games and the Lakers 9-22-1 in their home matches. That's the worst record in the league. Under is the only option really.
Pelicans playing spoiler
Utah Jazz @ New Orleans Pelicans
Live on Betfair Video
These two sides played just a couple of nights ago in Salt Lake City, where the Pelicans stunned the home crowd with a fourth-quarter rally to turn over a Jazz team that had won four games in a row and five straight at home.
Boosted by Donovan Mitchell's 46 points, Utah were coming off a win over the league-leader Bucks, but after hitting just three scores in the final eight minutes against the Pelicans their hot streak went cold and New Orleans added another scalp to the Nuggets who they'd knocked off a few days before.
Throw in Phoenix before that, and the other team turned upside-down by Anthony Davis' shenanigans are on a three-game winning streak and have won five of their last eight, including a victory over the Thunder as well.
Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle have taken over the scoring burden as Davis sits for lengthy periods of each game. He does still play a role on the team and was on the court during the decisive moments in the last game, but it's the players he hopes to leave behind this summer who are making plays now.
The Pelicans are playing spoilers at this point of the season with their playoff hopes gone and they're likely to upset a few more teams on the run-in, but the Jazz shouldn't really allow NOLA to put back-to-back wins on them, even if they've to head south for this one. The home team getting points here does appeal though, with the Pelicans 12-4 against the spread in their last 16 games, including six covers in a row. Utah have covered 50% of the time as an away favourite, and with the home team in the form they are, New Orleans +4.5 at 10/11 on the handicap looks the better play in this game.
Celtics' California swing
Boston Celtics @ Sacramento Kings
Live on Betfair Video
The Celtics head to Sacramento for the second game of a four-game road trip having lost five of their last seven games. The first was last night in the Oracle Arena where they defied their recent form with 33-point pasting of the defending champs thanks to Gordon Hayward's 30 points from the bench and Kyrie dishing 10 assists along with scoring 19 in a much-needed boost for Boston.
It's exactly what the Celtics need given the turmoil unleashed in recent weeks over the continuing uncertainty about Kyrie. It's not just the Pelicans who may lose their MVP-level talent this summer, and Irving's increasingly abrasive manner towards his club could be a negotiating tactic or could be a sign he's not sticking around.
Though they're definitely going to the playoffs, they're definitely not going back to the Eastern Conference Finals if they keep playing as they've done lately.
It's on to LA next - maybe the Lakers and Celtics can share some experiences of recent disharmony - where they'll play both Staples Center residents. All three remaining games on this trip are winnable, with the Kings not the scoring force they were earlier in the season but they are still scrapping for a playoff spot. That pursuit became a lot tougher in the last few weeks with the Clippers not tanking like they were supposed to after the trade deadline. Doc Rivers' team even took down the Kings last week on their own court to push further ahead of their Californian rivals.
Sacramento did at least beat the Knicks since then - quite a few teams have struggled with that modest task recently - but three straight losses prior to that have piled on the pressure as the season's end draws near.
Boston have the second worst away form in the league against the spread, only Washington fail to cover more. In addition, they have the toll of last night's game and travel in their legs, so you could make a case for the Kings here as a marginal favourite, but the total appeals more with both teams going under recently. Six of Boston's last seven have failed to meet the number, and four of Sacremento's last five were the same, while the Kings as a home favorite are 2-9 on totals this season, the worst percentage in the league. Take the under on 229.5 at 10/11.