The defending NBA champions have held up well since Davis last took the court Feb. 14, all things considered. Los Angeles has a 7-8 record since that injury, and it was riding an impressive four-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s action, when Atlanta Hawks forward Solomon Hill landed awkwardly on James’s ankle as they pursued a loose ball.
James is officially listed as out indefinitely, but high ankle sprains typically require a matter of weeks, not days, for recovery. A 2018 study by InStreetClothes.com, a sports injury database, found that NBA players missed an average of 10 games with the injury over a six-year sample. The Lakers have not been without James for an extended stretch since he suffered a groin strain on Christmas 2018; he has missed just six regular season games since Davis’s arrival in July 2019 and appeared in every playoff game en route to the 2020 title.
It’s fair to call James the most irreplaceable player in the NBA this season. He has been the runaway leader in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, an advanced statistic that seeks to measure player impact, and has figured prominently in the MVP conversation by averaging 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists. James has orchestrated on offense at his typically high level despite a rash of injuries and coronavirus protocol absences around him, and his intensity has been a critical factor in helping the Lakers maintain the league’s top-ranked defense without Davis.
How the Lakers get by in James’s absence is complicated by Davis’s uncertain timeline. Davis has progressed and is set to be reevaluated Friday, the Lakers said earlier this month, but a return target has not been set. The Brooklyn Nets have handled Kevin Durant’s hamstring injury by turning to James Harden and Kyrie Irving. The Philadelphia 76ers are getting by after Joel Embiid’s knee injury thanks to Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. Without Davis, the Lakers don’t have that same type of star power to fall back on as they await James’s return.
Make no mistake, the next few weeks could get treacherous. Los Angeles enter Monday as the West’s third seed, but it is only two games up in the loss column over the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers’ upcoming schedule doesn’t do them any favors: They are headed on a seven-game road trip in early April and will face top contenders such as the Nets, 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks in the next three weeks.
The short-term goal for the Lakers should be to go .500 until Davis or James returns. Accomplishing that could be a tall order, and it will require forward Kyle Kuzma to replace James in the starting lineup and step forward as a primary scoring option. Dennis Schröder, the Lakers’ lead playmaker for the time being, will take the keys to the offense, and second-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker will get a greater opportunity to display his abilities as an attack-minded complementary scorer. One other potential source of offense is backup center Montrezl Harrell, who has sacrificed minutes, touches and shots since leaving the Clippers to join the Lakers this season.
While Los Angeles has no choice but to pursue a by-committee offense until one of its stars returns, Coach Frank Vogel said Saturday that he is hoping his team’s defense can carry the day. This week’s games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic, lottery teams with bottom-five offenses, will provide early opportunities to deliver on that approach by winning ugly.
The Lakers weren’t expected to be major movers before Thursday’s trade deadline, and James’s injury shouldn’t change that. They will probably enter the playoffs as title favorites, regardless of their seed, if James and Davis are back healthy. Their winning formula revolves around their two centerpieces, and a quiet trade market isn’t going to reveal anyone who can replicate their prodigious talents.
A slide down the standings could make the Lakers’ playoff path more difficult, but it should hardly be viewed as cataclysmic. The Lakers haven’t been able to host fans at Staples Center because of the pandemic, and they can’t expect more than a modest loosening of restrictions by California lawmakers before the playoffs begin in May. And if the Clippers and Lakers meet in the first round, they will be playing in the same building regardless.
While there isn’t much advantage to be gleaned from opening on their home court, the Lakers also have been exceptional on the road, posting the best road record since James and Davis teamed up for the 2019-20 season. What’s more, James is no stranger to taking care of business on the road in the playoffs; his teams once enjoyed a streak of winning at least one road game in 29 consecutive series before the 2017 Finals.
Thanks to James, Los Angeles also will possess an edge in postseason experience compared with the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns. Should the defending champions drop to the seventh or eighth seed, it’s possible those top seeds might seek to maneuver out of the Lakers’ way in the season’s closing weeks. After all, it’s hard to imagine a worse reward for compiling one of the conference’s best records than matching up with James and Davis in the first round.
The Lakers’ title hopes will rest on their ability to recapture the continuity and chemistry they enjoyed during last year’s playoffs. That’s no guarantee, especially because they will be on a condensed ramp-up timeline once their stars return. Teams such as the Jazz and Denver Nuggets, who thrive on execution and balance, now loom as more difficult playoff opponents than they would have before James’s injury.
If James does miss an extended stretch, an active MVP race will be turned upside down again, with Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, James Harden and others climbing in the injury-ravaged field. Adding a fifth MVP award is smaller potatoes than a fifth ring for James’s legacy, but he did say he “should have more than four” MVPs when asked last week.
That award pursuit, like the Lakers’ title defense, now turns on how quickly James can return to the court.