The reason why the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook in 2021 has reared its ugly head merely two games after the All-Star break. Following two wins, LeBron James could be out with an injury for “multiple weeks.” The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that James played through the foot injury that he suffered during the Lakers’ 111-108 win against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.
The franchise is concerned that James could miss a significant amount of time during this final sprint to the postseason, and now “multiple opinions” will be needed to diagnose the severity of the injury. Beginning Tuesday evening, this new 2023 iteration of the Lakers had better be ready to carry a heavy load if they want to participate in the postseason.
While there are people who would deem James’ run with the Lakers before and after the COVID bubble to be a bust, that is simply not true. Currently, the Lakers are in a similar situation that has hurt the franchise since James’ arrival — the 33-plus-year-old star missing many weeks due to injury.
It happened during his first season with the Lakers in 2018. The Lakers defeated the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day, but James suffered a groin injury that kept him out of the lineup for 17 games. The Lakers fell from the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference to No. 9 and missed the postseason.
Even though Anthony Davis missed significant time in 2021, the defending champion Lakers still held onto the No. 3 seed until James went down with a high-ankle sprain on Mar. 20. They fell to the play-in tournament and still managed to go up 2-1 against the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. However, Davis injuring his groin and James being less than 100 percent resulted in them losing to the eventual Western Conference champions in six games.
After 2020-21, the Lakers felt that Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell were not enough to hold serve if James and Davis missed time so depth from a championship team was gutted for Westbrook.
James and Davis again missed time at various points during the season, and the Lakers missed the postseason entirely. At the beginning of this season, they fielded a barely NBA-caliber roster alongside James, Davis, and Westbrook. Again, both James and Davis have missed significant time, but the Western Conference is so bunched together that the Lakers remained viable.
The Lakers traded Westbrook and others near the deadline to turn the roster back into a unit that when orbiting around James and Davis can produce enough energy to be a force in the NBA.
Now James is out for what appears to be an extended period of time and the Lakers are faced with the problem that has haunted them since his arrival: What are they supposed to do when this aging NBA legend has to miss an extended number of games?
Last season, games with Davis sans James did not result in an above .500 stretch. This season, Davis helped yank the Lakers’ season out of the gutter during a five-game stretch without James, but then he missed 20 games from mid-December to late January. The Lakers went 10-10 during that stretch, 1-2 in games that James didn’t play.
When the Lakers play on the road Tuesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, Mo Bamba, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, and Davis will be on the court. Westbrook will be in Los Angeles but he will be playing for the Clippers against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and James will be rehabbing his injury.
So while the Lakers very much improved this roster that has gone 4-2 since the trade deadline, it is now 2020-21 all over again. A roster that complements the Lakers’ star players, at least one of whom is not in the lineup.
Once again one of them is going to miss extended time late in the season, but there is no perch to fall from this time. The Lakers are already on the lowest branch. Will this season end with an admirable run, or will the Lakers say behind closed doors, “If Russ just could have given us what he gave the Washington Wizards in 2021?”