It was an unfamiliar, and unsettling, sight: LeBron James, hobbling. For nearly two decades, James has been the NBA’s ironman. More than 1,300 games. Another three-plus seasons worth in the playoffs. Nearly 50,000 minutes played. Only twice has James suited up for less than 85% of his team’s games. When James collapsed to the Staples Center floor on Saturday, it was fair to wonder if he was headed for another one.
It’s too early to assess the long term impact of the high ankle sprain James suffered against Atlanta. The Lakers have listed James out indefinitely, while James tweeted that “the road [to] recovery begins now.” High ankle sprains, typically, can have a longer shelf life. But this is James. Says Montrezl Harrell, “We forget that he’s human.”
James’s injury coincides with the ongoing absence of Anthony Davis, the Lakers forward who has been out since Feb. 14 with a calf injury. With no timetable for Davis’s return—the last official update came on March 12, when L.A. ruled Davis out for at least two more weeks—the Lakers may be forced to go the rest of the month—or longer—without their top two players.
Which raises two questions:
Is a playoff spot in jeopardy?
And if it isn’t—does any of this really matter?
The Lakers are firmly entrenched in the Western Conference playoff bracket, 2 1/2 games back of the top seeded Jazz and, more importantly, 6 1/2 up on the ninth-seeded Warriors. The schedule isn’t easy—L.A. plays Phoenix and New Orleans this week before heading out on a four-game East Coast trip, part of the NBA’s sixth-toughest remaining schedule—but it would take a major collapse for the Lakers to fall out. L.A. still has plenty of firepower with Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Dennis Schroder, as well as the NBA’s top rated defense, albeit one that has been anchored by Davis and James.
“We just got to stay together as a team,” Schroder said. “That’s about it. Next-man-up mentality, and that’s it. I mean, we’re going to talk to [James] and see what’s going on, but at the end of the day, it’s next-man-up mentality. So, whoever comes in, be ready to play and we still got to get some wins.”
The Lakers will likely slip in the standings, but seeding, for this group, may not matter. Fans are slowly starting to trickle back into NBA arenas but it’s highly unlikely the league will allow packed houses before the end of the season, mitigating home court advantage. James, whose Cavs teams finished atop the conference standings just once in his final four years in Cleveland, is no stranger to playing without home court. Theoretically the Lakers will lose out on a cushy first-round matchup, but L.A. opened the last postseason against the white hot—and healthy—Trail Blazers … and knocked Portland out in five games.
Besides—there’s an argument to be made that an extended break could help these Lakers. Just 71 days separated the end of the NBA’s bubble season and the start of this one. The expectation was that LeBron would ease into the new season—ex-Laker Danny Green joked that James might not even show up for the first month of the season—but he has played at full throttle, keeping the Lakers at the top of the Western Conference … and moving James to the head of the MVP race in the process. An extended rest could be beneficial.
All of it is predicated on James and Davis making a full recovery, of course. Davis’s injury is trickier; mild calf injuries, if not fully healed, can lead to more significant ones. But if the Lakers get James and Davis back by mid-April, if they can spend the final month of the season working their way back into shape, if L.A. enters the playoffs with the core of the team that stormed its way to a championship last season intact, any mid-March drama will be an afterthought.
Is James’s injury a big deal? For now, yes.
Ask again in July.