Running the Break: Can the Lakers survive without LeBron James?

Lakers fans held their breath Saturday as superstar LeBron James laid on the hardwood clutching his lower leg. As James headed for the locker room, those watching had flashbacks to Christmas 2018 when the four-time MVP suffered a groin injury that derailed the Lakers’ ambitious playoff hopes. 

Seeing James go down with a high right ankle sprain at this point in the Lakers’ season feels eerily similar to the injury that sparked the team’s disappointing collapse just three years ago. The veteran is out indefinitely, but can he return in time to save the Lakers’ season? 

James has been one of history’s most durable star athletes throughout his 18 years in the league. His 2018 injury was the first to cost James significant playing time in his long career, spanning over 1,300 regular season games, plus 260 in the postseason. 

James’ first season in Los Angeles looked promising before his injury, after which the Lakers quickly started sliding in their leader’s absence. Other injuries and a lack of chemistry following James’ return kept them out of the 2019 playoffs. 

While I don’t expect the Lakers to miss the playoffs again, it looks like a long road to a potential repeat as NBA champions and similar issues might hinder them going forward. James’ co-star Anthony Davis has played just 23 games and there is no clear timetable for his return from a calf injury. 

Other Lakers have missed games for various reasons, including center Marc Gasol who has not played since the All-Star break due to coronavirus safety protocols. Given these setbacks, the Lakers just do not look as dominant as they did last season, when they held onto the best record in the West for much of the season. 

At full strength, the Lakers are certainly title contenders and should be the favorites to come out of the West after breezing through the conference to the 2020 championship. 

The question is whether they will be able to return to form in time for the playoffs, and how much damage will already be done by the time James and Davis return. 

The Lakers are currently third in the West, but you can expect them to drop several spots in the coming weeks. They’ve lost their last three games, including Saturday’s against the Hawks where James went down. 

The Lakers rebuilt their supporting cast in the offseason, but the reality is they do not have the depth to string together wins in the Western Conference without their two stars. 

Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schrӧder and Montrezl Harrell are their best players, at least on the offensive end of the floor, and none of them were starters on an NBA team last year. They excel within their roles, but three overqualified sixth men and a strange assortment of players designed to fit with James’ unique offensive game are not going to keep the Lakers in third place for long. 

Furthermore, Davis and James bear quite a burden on the defensive end as well, and the Lakers’ league-best defensive rating of 106.7 is sure to decline as well without them.

We don’t know when the two superstars will be returning, but the longer they remain sidelined, the more difficult a championship run becomes for the Lakers. The end of the regular season is less than eight weeks away, and it’s possible James could be out for that amount of time. 

Best-case scenario, the Lakers still have a playoff spot when James and Davis return. But even if that happens with several weeks left, they will be fighting for a higher seed and home court advantage to close out the season. 

I wouldn’t expect them to be playing in championship form during the last couple of weeks of the season either. Last year, the Los Angeles Clippers were a great example of a talented team that collapsed due to a lack of chemistry. They simply didn’t play enough games with all of their pieces together. 

While it is critical the Lakers play as many games with James and Davis as possible, it is also paramount they do not rush their two stars back onto the court. James’ history makes him seem indestructible, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him back at full strength in just a few short weeks. However, he is 36 years old, and there are a lot of miles on that right ankle. 

Davis’ calf strain feels quite similar to the calf injury Kevin Durant rushed back from in the 2019 playoffs that resulted in him rupturing his Achilles tendon and remaining sidelined for 18 months. Hopefully, the Lakers will give their star sufficient time to recover; his long-term health and availability in May and June are more important than the last weeks of the regular season. 

Regardless of when the Lakers return to full strength, they have their work cut out for them. The defending champions are decimated and look like anything but contenders without their stars. They’ll have to pick up the pieces quickly come playoff time and lean heavily on the leadership of James and Davis in order to make a deep run. It’s not looking good right now. 

Wyatt Allsup is a junior writing about Los Angeles sports. His column, “Running the Break,” runs every other Tuesday.