Los Angeles Lakers: 3 bold predictions after 2023 All-Star break

The Los Angeles Lakers have 23 games remaining in their 2022-23 season. Over the All-Star break, LeBron James deemed them among the “most important” he’s faced.

“It’s 23 of the most important games of my career, for a regular season. It’s the type of mindset that I have, and I hope the guys will have, coming back off the break.”

At 27-32, Los Angeles — now at full strength — sits two games out of the final play-in spot, but only 3.5 behind the no. 6 seed in the West. Before the homestretch gets underway, here are a few post-All-Star predictions for the Los Angeles Lakers.

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3) Rob Pelinka will forego the buyout market

The Lakers have one roster spot available for a buyout candidate. And while there are a handful of intriguing names circling the market, I don’t think Pelinka goes in that direction (barring injury).

“If we see the right opportunity to fill a need in the buyout market, we will take a look at that,” the general manager said last week. “But I don’t want to definitively say that we’ll sign another player. We feel like these 14 players fill a need that (Darvin Ham) was looking to fill, and he was excited about these 26 games we have to coach these 14 guys.”

The Lakers have 13 players (including rookie Max Christie) with a legit case to be in the rotation. It’s a good problem to have, but one that becomes more complicated if say, John Wall, is thrown into the mix. Adding a non-rotation guy as insurance isn’t worth the paperwork.

Ham is already up against the clock to hone a rotation, establish cohesion, and win a bunch of games with his revamped group. At this point, the Lakers are better off focusing on what they have.

2) D’Angelo Russell will earn his money

Russell will be eligible for a two-year, $67 million max extension this summer. The Lakers say they want him to be a part of their long-term plans, but that’s a hefty price tag. If Russell struggles down the stretch, he’s not getting the max.

DLo seems genuinely thrilled to have another go-round with the Lakers, this time as a seasoned veteran. He, LeBron, and Anthony Davis are stoked to bounce off each other.

“I can only imagine being out on the floor and how easy the game could be with a player like that, that much gravity around him,” Russell said about LeBron. “AD as well.”

As a career 36% three-point shooter amidst the most efficient shooting campaign of his carer, Russell will adequately space the floor and thrive off-ball in ways Russell Westbrook cannot. When need be, DLo can make a create for himself or a teammate in ways Patrick Beverley cannot. (Bonus prediction: Dennis Schroder thrives as a Sixth Man).

He’s averaged 17.5 points on .450/.375/.769 splits and 5.7 assists in three games. FWIW, the Lakers are already +10.6 with Russell since the trade. DLo should remain ultra-motivated with a max deal on the line.

Of course, we’ll see how things go with impending free agent Kyrie Irving and the Dallas Mavericks …

1) The Lakers will make the playoffs

LeBron is talking like a man on a mission, despite the foot/ankle injury that he’ll have to carefully manage the rest of the way (can it hold up through a lengthy, grueling playoff run?).

“I want to make a push to make the playoffs. I don’t want to see myself not being part of the postseason for two years straight. It’s just not part of my DNA,” LeBron said on Sunday. “We’re sitting up here talking about the record and things of that nature, and that’s all cool, but I’m more passionate about trying to make the postseason and give ourselves a chance to compete for another Larry O’Brien Trophy. That’s just who I am. That’s what I’m cut from.

“So I hope I can figure out a way to just make sure that I’m available on the floor every single night for these 23 games to give us a chance, give our group a chance to be able to compete every night and give ourselves a chance to win every night so we can give ourselves a chance to get into the postseason.”

Plus, the Lakers’ final game before the break offered reasons for hope. LeBron finally suited up with the deadline additions, and the result was the Lakers’ most joyous win of the season: a 120-102 rout of the New Orleans Pelicans, in which LeBron’s played his fewest minutes of the year (29).

“I love what we were able to accomplish the other day,” LeBron said about the feel-good win. “The worst thing for us is that we had to go on a break. I would have loved if we could have played Friday and got a couple of games under our belt, because it’s the first time our whole group was together from top to bottom.”

The schedule should be favorable. The Lakers have the fifth-easiest remaining slate by opponent win percentage, per Tankathon. 14 contests are at Crypto.com Arena. They should get the Golden State Warriors twice without Stephen Curry, the Pelicans without Zion Williamson, and multiple late-season matchups with squads who could throw in the towel by then.

The Lakers probably need to go at least 15-8 to qualify for the play-in. A tall order, but they can get it done. LeBron and AD will then power them into the first round.

“I’ve always been confident in any club that I’ve been on once we got into the playoffs that we can compete with anyone, and I feel no different now,” LeBron said in Salt Lake City. “With the roster the way we’re shaped up right now, if we can finish off this regular season on the right foot, then we can compete versus anyone in the Western Conference, if not the whole league. … If we can punch our ticket, we can compete versus anyone.”

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