CHICAGO - The Los Angeles Lakers' playoffs drive is dying slowly, a grave condition that LeBron James suspects is caused by the inexperience of his peers and their distracted state.
"How do you know what's at stake if you've never been there before," James asked in a Los Angeles Times report following last Sunday's 128-115 loss to the 27-35 New Orleans Pelicans, who didn't even play a resting Anthony Davis.
As he champions the crusade of transforming the Lakers into a playoffs force, LeBron carries the added weight of keeping alive his personal streak of 13 straight playoffs appearances and eight consecutive NBA Finals trips.
Unfortunately, majority of his supporting cast - Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma to name a few - have never been to the playoffs . And that's where most of LeBron's grievances emanate, the lack of sustained urgency and the shortage of a veteran's wherewithal to finish off closely-contested games.
Yesterday, two days after the NOLA debacle, the Lakers dropped a costly 110-105 decision to another non-playoffs bound team, the 24-38 Grizzlies, who entered the FedEx Forum in Memphis bleeding from a four-game losing streak.
After seeing his triple-double (24 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists) get flushed down the toilet, a visibly irate LeBron ventilated his mounting team frustrations and told reporters, "Like, seriously, if you're distracted by playoff pushes out of all the stuff that's been talked about this year, nah. Just come and do your job."
Well, LeBron must also consider the thought that perhaps his teammates have given up on him. Remember, these are mostly the same dudes that James reportedly agreed to exile to New Orleans for Anthony Davis during the days leading to the February 7 trade deadline.
That being said, the right adjective to describe the Laker's lack of urgency could be jilted, not distracted. And it's not much of a stretch to conjecture that when Kuzma and company look at LeBron, the image they see is not of a leader, but a butcher knife in their backs,
"It's a make or miss league," says an NBA ad.
For the Lakers, it's simply a mess.
Demoted to 11th place in the Western Conference with a 29-31 record, the Lakers, based on last year's standings when the Timberwolves tallied 47 wins to pocket the eighth playoffs berth, LeBron and his current crew need to win 18 of their last 22 games to get a shot at the No.8 spot.
Is this even remotely possible?
"I can't predict the future, Homer. I prefer to report on what happens," said an email from Dave McMenamin, whose brain I picked considering his higher authority as ESPN.com's daily beat reporter covering the Lakers.
I say no. Freddie Aguilar has a better chance of winning a Philippine senate seat in this coming May elections than the Lakers earning a playoffs berth in April.
AND I SAY THAT because this diluted version of the Lake Show doesn't wield the sharp consistency and the appropriate manpower required to put together a lethal run.
As pointed out by McMenamin, "So far, I've reported on a team that's beaten Golden State in Golden State, Oklahoma City in Oklahoma City, and Boston in Boston. I've also seen them lose to Chicago, Cleveland, the Knicks, New Orleans and Memphis. I've seen them at their best when Lonzo Ball and Tyson Chandler were healthy. That's just not the case right now."
In my estimation, the Lakers are pretty much lifeless. And I don't need the coroner to confirm this.
Look, even before the Memphis loss, the Lakers were already 28th in 3-point shooting percentage, 21st in offensive efficiency, and fourth worst in defense. They are physically broken and mentally exhausted.
Not even the most loquacious motivational speaker can capture the words and incite the fight back among these dead men walking.
Even if the Lakers were to make the playoffs, it would only likely mean a first-round sweep at the hands of the two-time defending champion Warriors, a bloodbath that is poised to be more gory than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
To me, chasing that eighth seed is a gross misuse of talent and energy. The better approach is to shut down James for the remainder of the season. Rest that groin-injured machine that is 34 years and 58 days old, and whose knees have a brutal usage of 45,779 playing minutes on them.
Easier said than done, though, because making the playoffs is vital for the Lakers in so many ways. It placates an angry, impatient fan base that has endured five straight years of no postseason play. It makes corporate sponsors and media partners happy, not to mention the extra revenue to be made.
I believe the Lakers are better off choosing the short-term misery of another failed season in exchange for the long-term happiness of watching a recharged LeBron roar back next season, this time with an All-Star teammate or two who can help him make a legit push for a title.
Hollywood couldn't write a better script.
Putting LeBron in the cooler doesn't mean the proud purple-and-gold franchise is waving the white flag; it only means that discretion is the better part of valor.