LOS ANGELES -- After the Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs only five times in the first 65 years of the franchise's existence, Friday's 111-106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets officially eliminated them from postseason contention for the sixth straight year.
At 31-41, L.A. is now a game worse than it was a season ago with 10 games left to play. That team, of course, did not have LeBron James.
In a sequence that just about sums up the Lakers' season, L.A. had the ball with 22.8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter on Friday and trailed by just three when James slipped out of bounds, losing the possession without the Lakers even getting a shot off to try to tie the score.
"Obviously, it's been a tough season for all of us," James said after posting 25 points on 8-for-25 shooting, 14 assists, 9 rebounds and 8 turnovers, which he described as a "s---ty" performance.
"It's not what we signed up for. Throughout the year, things happened. Suspensions, injuries, things of that nature. And just not being able to play sustainable basketball for 48 minutes. But you don't even try to wrap your head around it, you just keep pushing. Just try to get better tonight, move on to tomorrow, and go from there. Playoffs are never promised. You've got to come out and work. For me personally, you just continue to put the work in and see what you can do to help."
Former Lakers lottery pick D'Angelo Russell helped seal his old team's fate with 21 points and 13 assists, but he said he did not revel in their misfortunes.
"It sounds good on paper, but at the end of the day, we're not playing them," Russell said. "We're not competing against them for seeding. Just the win is good enough."
It was a rocky season from the start for James and the Lakers. In the home opener, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram both earned suspensions for their role in an altercation with the Houston Rockets' Chris Paul. After a 2-5 start, Lakers president Magic Johnson dressed down coach Luke Walton in a meeting, expressing urgency that the team improve.
Whatever excitement was generated come Christmas Day when the Lakers climbed to No. 4 in the Western Conference standings after a win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors was quickly tamped down as James (slight tear in his groin) and Rondo (fractured finger) both suffered injuries that kept them out of the lineup for weeks.
"I mean, you wouldn't imagine not making the playoffs," Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said. "All of us definitely thought that, but we got derailed by a lot of injuries. That pretty much sums up our season. At one point we were holding our heads high and we were in a great position, and then that bug just kind of came in and hurt us and hurt our season."
After a failed pursuit of Anthony Davis at February's trade deadline, Lakers brass still put the postseason as their team's top priority, with general manager Rob Pelinka likening the additions of Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala to the New England Patriots getting Julian Edelman back off suspension and making a run to the Super Bowl.
"We got a goal ahead of us to try to make the playoffs," Johnson said a couple days after the deadline. "That's what it's all about."
After a come-from-behind win over the Rockets in the first game following the All-Star break, the Lakers hit the skids, losing 12 of their next 14 games, culminating in Friday's defeat versus Brooklyn.
In one particularly damning stretch from late February to early March, L.A. lost to a Davis-less Pelicans team, to a Memphis team that came into the game with a 3-17 record in its previous 20 games, to a Phoenix team with the worst record in the league and at home to Staples Center cohabitants, the LA Clippers, in a game seen at the time as a last-ditch chance to mount a playoff push against the team it was chasing in the standings.
"Most losses hurt pretty bad, you don't feel great about them," Walton said of that stretch at shootaround Friday morning. "But I know what you're asking, yeah, those are the ones if taking the time to look back at the losses this season those would be some of the more painful ones."
With the playoffs out of the picture, the Lakers will enter into an offseason rife with speculation about the job security of Walton as well as the construction of the roster. Seven of L.A.'s 14 players are set to hit free agency.
James said his playing time could be further reduced to finish out the year.
"I'm probably going to have a conversation with the coaching staff and my trainer and go from there," he said. "But I love to hoop. S---, I'm going to have five months and not play the game. So, you know, hopefully I can be in as many games as possible."
Walton said he wants the rest of his team to embrace the opportunity of the final stretch of games as well.
"It's the same message," Walton said. "And it's going to be that message every day for the final three weeks. It's still about players getting better. It's still about going out there and respecting the game and giving everything we have to try to win. We owe that, like I said, to ourselves, our teammates, our organization, to the fans. So it will be a lot of that, and I fully expect our guys to continue to give that."