As Los Angeles Lakers fans know, LeBron James suffered a foot injury and is out indefinitely. The team has not released details of the injury or how long he will be sidelined, saying only that he will be re-examined in three weeks.
Reports speculate that LeBron will likely miss at least a month, maybe longer. The Lakers’ final regular season game is April 9th, so it’s possible that James won’t play again before the playoffs.
Ah, the playoffs. The Lakers have been chasing what at times seemed like the elusive dream of qualifying for the postseason, particularly once they lost 10 of their first 12 games to start the season.
They have slowly moved up from the lower echelon of the Western Conference standings and now sit in 11th place. They need to move up at least one slot to make the play-in game. Only the top-6 teams all automatically make the grade and advance to the playoffs.
But without LeBron, progress for the remainder of the season gets much more difficult. Many fans have given up hope and assumed the team would lose momentum and fail to move up in the standings.
However, that isn’t necessarily the case. This Lakers team has shown more resilience than expected, and it is very possible, if not likely, that they will have enough success without James to reach their goal.
Why the Lakers can survive without LeBron James:
1. Roster Depth
This Lakers team has greater depth than at any time in recent memory. This should go a long way toward filling the gap created by LBJ’s injury.
Their top player is of course Anthony Davis, who is healthy again and playing as well as he did in 2020 when the Lakers last won the NBA title.
In the last two games, AD has been a huge force, totaling 58 points, 34 rebounds and 8 blocked shots while shooting 54% (21-39) from the field. The team will need him to continue to play at or at least near that level.
But Davis will be well-supported. D’Angelo Russell is slated to return to action shortly. In the three full games he’s played for the Lakers, discounting the one where he sprained his ankle in the first quarter, he’s averaged 17.3 points, 5.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds while shooting 45% from the field, including 37.5% on 3s. The expectation is his scoring will increase while James is out.
Prior to the trade deadline, the Lakers also acquired three other rotation players: three-point threat Malik Beasley, sparkplug Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura, who has a versatile offensive repertoire.
Several others can also be counted on. That list starts with point guard Dennis Schroder, who started the season slowly but has been at his best recently, averaging 16 points and 6.6 assists over the last 8 games while making 9 of his last 22 three-point attempts.
Austin Reaves is in the midst of a red-hot streak, averaging 15.5 points and 4.5 assists while shooting a whopping 76% from the floor and 58% behind the line over the last 4 games.
Then there’s Troy Brown, who just scored a season-high 19 points and has played good defense all season long. Also the player most likely to gain minutes in LeBron’s absence, Lonnie Walker. He recently stayed ready when he briefly fell out of the rotation and has averaged 17 points the past two games while shooting 50% behind the arc.
There’s even depth inside behind Davis. Mo Bamba has played a little more than a quarter a game for the Lakers but has averaged 5 points, nearly 6 rebounds and almost a block per game while shooting 38.5% behind the arc. And the ever-hustling Wenyen Gabriel averages 6 points and 4 rebounds in just 15 minutes a game.
Altogether, without James, the Lakers still have seven other double-figure scorers (Davis, Russell, Walker, Beasley, Schroder, Reaves and Hachimura). All but AD and Rui are shooting at least 35% on 3’s, as is Bamba. As an added bonus, 6 players (Brown, Vanderbilt, Reaves, Schroder, Walker and Davis) are shooting at least 80% from the free throw line, with Russell just a tad under but with more attempts he should also join that club.
The Lakers’ depth, especially on offense, should help the team continue to succeed.
2. Opponent’s Injuries
Injuries pile up this time of year throughout the league. The Lakers aren’t the only team missing a star. Here are some noteworthy injuries among the competitors.
- New Orleans– Despite a big win at Portland this week, the Pelicans are scuffling to stay afloat without star Zion Williamson, who is out indefinitely.
- Minnesota– Karl Anthony-Towns has played only 21 games for the T-wolves this season. He is expected back before the season ends, but the experiment of pairing him with Rudy Gobert did not go particularly well early on, as Towns was averaging his lowest points per game since his rookie season.
- Golden State– Star Steph Curry has played only 38 games this season. Although he is expected back soon, the defending champions have struggled all season long. Anthony Wiggins has been limited to just 37 games and has yet to look as good as he did in last year’s postseason. Meanwhile, their defense is giving up 13 more points per game than they did a year ago.
The Lakers have 18 games left in the regular season. All but 5 are against Western Conference opponents. Except for 2 games in Houston vs the last-place Rockets, all the others are against teams they are battling for the playoffs.
The best way to consider the standings is by looking at the lost column. Wins can be made up but losses cannot. The Lakers have the same number of losses as Portland. They have one fewer loss than Oklahoma City, one more than Utah, New Orleans and Minnesota, two more than Dallas and the Clippers, and three more than Golden State.
The Lakers are not going to catch Denver, Memphis, Sacramento (the surprise team in the NBA) or probably Phoenix for the top 4 slots in the West. But every other playoff position is up for grabs.
The Lakers’ schedule, with games against the T-wolves (twice), Warriors, Pelicans, Mavericks, Thunder, Jazz (twice) and Clippers, gives the team a golden opportunity to make up ground. Although 5th place is probably overly optimistic, they have a legitimate shot at rising up as high as the 6th slot, and should realistically be able to get into at least 8th place with or without LeBron.