The way the Lakers are playing these days, every time they step on the floor solidifies LeBron James’ claim as the most valuable player in the league.
Remove James from the lineup and they border on unwatchable most nights. Sunday, with James sidelined for a 10th consecutive game, the Lakers morphed into something particularly grotesque, a group inferior to even the NBA-worst Cleveland Cavaliers, who entered Staples Center on a 12-game losing streak.
On a night when the sound most often heard was the home crowd’s collective holding of breath followed by groans of disappointment, the Lakers dropped a 101-95 decision to the last franchise to discover how much James could make a team forget how bad it actually was.
The Lakers couldn’t score. Like, at all. From the field, from the free-throw line, it didn’t make a difference.
If James’ absence was an opportunity for the likes of Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram to demonstrate how much they had developed over the last year, the situation has instead exposed them — at best, as not ready; at worst, as overvalued.
As “their” team, the Lakers are 3-7, with every loss they absorb making their overall record of 23-21 look more and more like a James-inspired miracle. At this point, the primary obstacle James encounters in chasing his fifth MVP award could be the number of games he misses.
This leads to an uncomfortable question for the Lakers: What if the groin injury to the previously indestructible James wasn’t a fluke, but a symptom of age?
James turned 34 last month. He has shared his belief that his prime will extend beyond that of the typical player, which explains why he staked a significant part of his legacy on a move to a rebuilding franchise.
By now, it’s obvious the Lakers can’t win without James.
If he misses another week, the Lakers very well could be a sub-.500 team by the time he returns. Anything beyond that and their chances of reaching the postseason could be threatened. They have a relatively soft landing coming up Tuesday when they host the Chicago Bulls, though the Cavaliers proved no team should be considered a soft landing for these Lakers.
Next are road games at Oklahoma City and Houston, followed by a showdown at Staples Center against the Golden State Warriors.
James initially downplayed the severity of the groin strain, but only to now be in his third week in street clothes. The Lakers have offered no indication of when he could return, limiting their medical updates on him to carefully worded news releases. The latest news was that he would be reevaluated Wednesday.
The concerns extend beyond this season, however.
Considering the Lakers view anything other than a championship as a failure, the reality is that this was always destined to be a lost season. The dreaming would start when they added another star-caliber player to complement James.
If the latter is the case, the Lakers have to be concerned if their young players have shown enough to merit a trade for a top player.
Kuzma is the best of the bunch and he remains maddeningly inconsistent. Ball is limited by his shooting. And who knows what to make of Ingram?
Without James, the Lakers are a team that requires everything to go right to win. Needless to say, that wasn’t the case against the Cavaliers.
As much as coach Luke Walton and assistant Brian Shaw warned the players multiple times before the contest to not underestimate the Cavaliers, they started slowly. The Lakers were down by as many as 15 points in the opening quarter.
The Lakers finished the game shooting 39.6% from the floor, including 20.6% on three-pointers.
They missed 11 of 27 free-throw attempts.
Walton restated his belief in the group, as if there was any chance of him saying anything to the contrary.
Asked what that belief was based on, Walton referenced the victory over the Warriors in which James was injured, as well as a win in Dallas.
“I see them every day,” Walton said. “I see the way they work. I’ve seen who we can be. Had two big wins last week. When we were actually healthy, we were on the road, beat the defending champs.
“I know what this group is capable of. So you see that, you believe in it. You see it once, you know it can be repeated.”
So this is where the Lakers find themselves, latching their hopes on little slivers of evidence, wishing something emerges from nothing.