LA is in a similar situation to James’ first season with the team, when the star missed five and a half weeks with a groin injury.
When I saw the latest news about LeBron — that it looks like he’ll miss several weeks with a foot injury — the first thing I thought about wasn’t the rest of this season. Instead, I thought about James’ first season with the Lakers, 2018-19.
If you can remember this far, you’ll remember that the club consisted of James and a number of talented youngsters (Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma) who had been mentioned endlessly in potential trade talks for Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis.
These Lakers showed promise and earned the holiday spirit from the defending champion Warriors, featuring Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, on Christmas Day by 26 points. But the biggest takeaway from that day was that Los Angeles — ranked fourth at the end of the day — lost James for five and a half weeks with a groin injury in what was essentially his first long-term injury as an NBA player.
James’ ailment, when combined with Ball’s, underscored something that should have been obvious in that campaign: The team had little room for error, especially with James being an aging star who may face more injuries in the future. It also didn’t help that the players mentioned in the trade talks were young and unaccustomed to dealing with rumors. Either they had to be dealt with then or they were definitively told they wouldn’t be, to clear the air.
Instead, things were incredibly awkward. The result: Los Angeles fell apart, eventually going 9–18 without James that year, snapping their streak of eight straight trips to the NBA Finals.
Fast forward to now, after the 2020 NBA title the Lakers won on the bubble, and some of the same things are still true. James and fellow forward Davis—who became a Laker after the club eventually parted ways with most of those young gems in ’19—are physically fragile at this stage in their careers. And even with those two healthy, it seemed obvious that the Lakers were waiting a long time to deal with Russell Westbrook, who has long been considered the piece holding the roster back from being more complete and versatile on both ends of the floor. . (Yes, it’s perfectly fair to wonder what his return would be during the offseason or earlier stages of this season. But the downside was that he relied heavily on the greatness of James or Davis, who can’t be fully relied upon given their recent injury history.)
Immediately following the trades to bring in D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Mo Bamba and Rui Hachimura, the Lakers showed more athleticism, shooting and hustle. These were the kinds of complementary pieces that always seemed to make sense to maximize James, even if they came at a higher cost. That much was demonstrated in the three games James played after acquiring Russell, Vanderbilt and Beasley — all of which turned out to be victories over Western Conference playoff contenders.
We should be clear in saying that James’ leg injury doesn’t necessarily mean these Lakers, at 29–32, are dead in the water from a playoff standpoint. They have one of the NBA’s easiest schedules the rest of the way (though so do some of the teams Los Angeles is competing with for a play-in spot), and there’s an argument to be made that this new crew with a fully available Davis will be good enough to cover some ground, even if James is still weeks away. (Davis also missed 20 straight games earlier this season, from mid-December to late January.) But it’s certainly not a given that they will.
With James just turning 38, it’s a wonder the Lakers didn’t act sooner, with more urgency in the market, if only to stock up on wins and give themselves more breathing room in case James suffered an injury like him. It’s a lesson they should have learned since 2018-19 when he first joined the club.