By Nick Grunewald, WC Reporter
LOS ANGLES, CA (WC) – After months of constant drama and distractions, things finally started clicking for LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers won the trade deadline by flipping Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverly, and others for D’Angelo Russell, Jared Vanderbilt – who may have been the steal of the entire deadline – and Malik Beasley. They found themselves on a three-game win streak, including a 27 point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks. The Pelicans and Timberwolves continued to lose, while the Thunder rested Shai Gilgouis-Alexander, opening up a chance for the Lakers to jump them in the standings.
All that good came crumbling down as LeBron James injured his right foot in Sunday’s matchup with the Maverick. He managed to finish the game and complete the largest comeback in the NBA this season. But, things got drastically worse when it was reported Monday that he would be sidelined indefinitely and it would be multiple weeks until he is to be reevaluated. With that news, the Lakers’ slight playoff hopes were gone almost as quickly as they arrived.
There is no way to overstate how detrimental this loss is for the Lakers. Even at age 38, LeBron ranks eighth in the NBA in scoring with 29.5 points per game, he also leads the team in assists. They are 5-10 when LeBron and this production misses games.
The Lakers had an uphill climb before the news that James would miss time, but now it becomes even tougher. They are currently three games back of the sixth seed – which is what they would need to reach to avoid the play-in – and their cross town rivals the Clippers. But at this point, the play-in tournament seems like the only plausible option.
You would hope that Anthony Davis would be able to pick up some of the slack in LeBron’s absence – that was the idea when they traded a treasure chest of assets for him in 2020. Earlier in the season it looked like Davis had regained his All-NBA form, but injuries and the inconsistent play ran their toll and slowed him down. But in a loss Tuesday against Memphis, Davis looked to regain form putting up 28 points alongside 19 rebounds.
Even if Davis is able to raise his level of play in the absence of James, losing your best player will have its effects elsewhere. Maybe Davis can keep them afloat for 33 minutes each night – but what about the other 15 minutes with no Davis OR LeBron. Davis has also had issues with injuries in the past, can we reasonably count on his body to hold up with the extra load?
The road to the playoffs goes through the play-in tournament and the Lakers are still only one game out of the 10th seed. However, to get there the Lakers will need wins – instead, they opened their LeBron-less stretch with a gut wrenching loss to Memphis Tuesday night.
Coming out of the All-Star break, sitting 12th place in the West with only a quarter of the season remaining, the Lakers had no remaining margin for error in their hunt for a postseason berth. Now to get there, they’ll have to do it without their most important player.