LeBron James, Lakers soul searching amid late-season freefall

Defending NBA champs fighting to make postseason
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It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The Los Angeles Lakers worked to keep the team afloat over the past two months as superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis recovered from injuries.

But once the two returned, the Lakers expected to flip a switch and start winning more consistently again, building some momentum on the way to defending their NBA title.

Instead, the Lakers faceplanted. Los Angeles is 1-5 since Davis returned to the lineup from a right calf strain and 0-2 with James back on the floor after missing 20 games with a right, high-ankle sprain.

“The entire team is kind of in a slump right now, in a drought,” Davis said. “Not more so individually, but just collectively on both ends of the ball. We’ve just got to stay the course, stay together. This is the lowest we’ve been in a while, at least in the past two years. … But the only way is up. We really can’t get any lower than this.”

The Lakers now face the daunting task of four, back-to-back games to finish out the season in which they are playing their worst basketball of the year, losing six of their last seven games.

Five of L.A.’s next eight opponents have winning records.

“I just don’t think we’re connected right now,” Kyle Kuzma said, when asked about his team’s struggles. “I think we’re unhealthy and just not good enough. Losing six (games) is very tough, and we’ve all had winnable games during that stretch. It’s a little disappointing.

“We’re not together as a whole -- team, staff, everything. We’ve just got to get back onto it.”

But wait, there’s more. The team’s most effective player, point guard Dennis Schröder is out indefinitely because he’s back on the NBA’s health and safety protocol for the second time this season. The Lakers are 0-5 when Schröder is out.

And James re-aggravated his right, high-ankle sprain late in his team’s embarrassing loss to the Toronto Raptors --12 games under .500 -- on Sunday night.

The Lakers now host the hottest team in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets coming to town, winners of nine of their last 10 games.

“The plan is to see how I feel and go from there,” James said, when asked about the prospect of playing against Denver. “I definitely want to get healthy, not only for myself, but for my team. It’s challenging for us right now, but we’ll be fine.

“I think our team is predicated on health – that’s the No. 1 thing for our ballclub. We’re a team that needs to be healthy; we need to be full.”

At 36-28, the Lakers are in a three-way tie with the Dallas Mavericks (36-28) and Portland Trailblazers (36-28). The Lakers are currently the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, owning the tiebreaker over the No. 7 seed, Portland.

So, the reigning NBA champs could be relegated to competing in the play-in game to reach the postseason.

“We’re just not playing well right now. … But we’ve got a good team,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said. “We’ve got a good process to evaluate, grow and make adjustments. And that’s what we’ve got to do right now.”