LeBron James injury update: What’s next for the Lakers
As James cooked the man’s team with step-back threes, drives to the hoop and pinpoint passes, the executive shook his head, his eyes telling him what so many of his peers have quietly believed for some time.
Teams might make big moves at the trade deadline. They might get better to make their run in the Western Conference. But, the executive later said, if James and Anthony Davis were on the court, “it would all be for naught.”
But with no Davis and no James now and for the foreseeable future, the Lakers are set to tumble. Losing streaks can build quickly, especially with the schedule compacted this season. How far will they fall? And does it change anything?
“At the end of the day, they need both of those guys healthy in the playoffs — regardless of seeding,” one Western Conference scout said.
Sunday in their first game since James screamed in agony on the Staples Center court, the ligaments in his right ankle seriously injured, the Lakers started Dennis Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wesley Matthews, Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma in a 111-94 loss at Phoenix. The canyon-sized holes in their roster are too large to ignore, especially when that is the best lineup the defending champions can put on the court.
James sat on the Lakers’ bench in all black, the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and a walking boot on his right foot as the team lost its second straight game.
For now, these are the Lakers, a team tasked with trying not to lose too much ground in a crowded Western Conference until they manage to get whole. That goal has proven elusive for most of the season and it’s one they still can’t grasp. While no one can say how long James will be out, it’s going to be a while.
“Basically,” coach Frank Vogel said, “we’re just saying indefinitely.”
The only dates that truly matter to the Lakers are May 29 and the two months that follow, the NBA playoff schedule that ultimately will decide whether this season was a success or not.
In the meantime, things might get tough to stomach.
If James misses six weeks, that takes the Lakers into May — a 21-game stretch in which more than half of their opponents are currently in the top eight in their conference. Help may come at the trade deadline or via the buyout market, but on-court continuity is going to have to wait.
Video highlights from the Lakers’ loss to the Suns in Phoenix on March 21, 2021.
Instead the Lakers will try to make it work with the guys who are left, players like Morris who acknowledged being drained before the All-Star break because last season for the Lakers still doesn’t actually feel like it ended.
“The two seasons have blended together with the short offseason. We did draw confidence from the adversity we faced throughout last year that helped us in the playoffs,” Vogel said with some optimism. “And this is the next version of that. Different circumstances of course but [it’s] a lesson that the returning group grew from last year, that these challenges strengthen you throughout the course of a season if you remain together and will benefit you come playoff time.”
They just have to get there. After Sunday’s games, the Lakers are six games ahead of seventh place in the West in the win column, a number that’s important because teams 7-10 in each conference will take part in a play-in tournament.
The Lakers still could face new challenges. They’re still playing in a pandemic, the virus with tremendous ability to remove a player from your plans with just one nasal swab. And pushing forward with new players doing more, while it’s an opportunity for growth, it also has drawbacks for a contender.
“The problem with two big guys missing time is you put a big tax on role players,” the scout said. “What they don’t want to see is Dennis get hurt or Kuzma tweaking something because he’s now playing such a big role.”
The goal for the Lakers remains the same — get to the playoffs healthy. It was always going to be hard. And it still is.
“Whether it’s guys being out or the quick turnaround dealing with the COVID restrictions, everybody has to manage all of these things,” Vogel said. “And our guys have been troopers with all that stuff and competed through it. You always want to win every game. You always look at the standings and feel like there’s a few more you could’ve won, but our guys are doing a good job
“And we’re gonna continue to compete and honor the game right way and compete the right way and win as many games as possible during this stretch.”
It just might not be possible to win that many.
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