LeBron James' absence exposes Lakers' deeper issue

Seerat Sohi
·4-min read

Witnessing the absence of LeBron James is always a mildly shocking experience.

We’re conditioned for more of him — more points, more records, more rebounds — not less.

Just last month, Anthony Davis’ calf injury seemed like nothing more than a springboard for LeBron’s MVP case, an opportunity — not a burden — to carry the Los Angeles Lakers on his back and seize the narrative. As he stopped checking out of games at the five-minute mark of the first quarter and the three-minute mark instead, as a career-low in minutes slowly crawled up to his average for the last few seasons, little thought was given to the possibility that he might not be able to.

And then he turned his ankle against the Atlanta Hawks. The average recovery time for a high ankle sprain is four-to-six weeks, but the Lakers have listed him as out indefinitely. They dropped their first game without him on Sunday night against the Phoenix Suns, losing 111-94.

On offense, the Lakers looked like they had the rug pulled out from underneath them. How else could it possibly feel to have LeBron James and then lose him?

LeBron James sits in a chair near the bench area wearing black sweats with his hoodie pulled over his head and a black facemask with a walking boot on his right foot.
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James watches from the sideline during the first half against the Phoenix Suns. He is expected to miss significant time with a high ankle sprain. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

He is everywhere, doing everything, making the game so easy for his teammates that to play alongside him is to slowly learn to depend on him. As a result, James’ teammates always tend to splinter in his absence. Against the Suns, the Lakers’ unique roster construction only exacerbated that problem.

Two years ago, the Lakers famously abandoned the formula of surrounding LeBron with shooters, opting instead for defensive-minded playmakers like Rajon Rondo and now Dennis Schroder, and high-flying bigs that allowed the Lakers to rule vertical space. This offseason, they became ground-bound, letting go of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, and signing Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol.

James’ passing ability was pushed to new heights in this new offensive framework. It turned out he could create scintillating offense even in mucky space. Instead of chasing high-priced shooters in free agency, the Lakers prized toughness, which is financially undervalued, and its importance increases in the playoffs.

The pivot worked. Even in Davis’ absence, the young cabal of Talen Horton-Tucker, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma found their footing alongside James, defending and running like strange but pretty constellations revolving around him.

But without James on Sunday, they looked disjointed. In fairness, the starting lineup — Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, Wesley Matthews, Markieff Morris — had never played together, but they won’t have an easy pathway to connect. Most players aren’t equipped to create plays in the absence of spacing.

The Lakers are a high-powered engine that only one man can drive. James’ absence, in this context, is a temporary problem, but could rip off the Band-Aid on a deeper issue. Maybe the Lakers swung the pendulum too far in the direction of power over finesse. James actually leads the Lakers in 3-point attempts. Caldwell-Pope is the only rotation player shooting 40% from three.

Gasol’s eventual return from being out due to the NBA's health and safety protocols could provide a possible solution. His presence hasn’t exactly been overwhelming, but his impact should multiply since his skill set — shooting and playmaking — is exactly what the Lakers are missing. Even with him, though, the Lakers were in the bottom 10 in shooting accuracy and rate. They could use some more floor spacing.

Shooting and toughness aren’t binary, of course. But the Lakers are swimming close to the hard cap, and players who are three-and-D shooters without a heavy price tag, like P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza, have been scooped up. If the Lakers have to choose between spacing and defending as they wade into the waiver wire, they should probably prioritize the former (read: Wayne Ellington).

James’ ability to clean up every hole makes assessing weaknesses difficult. If the Lakers can clarify their needs while he recovers, his absence could end up being a blessing in disguise.

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