The Los Angeles Lakers just played against the Sacramento Kings on Thursday in what was their first game without LeBron James. And after a rough start, they seemed to be playing well without him, as Lonzo Ball flirted with a triple-double and the team seemed set to start their time without James with a win.
We all know how that ended, as thankfully for the state of sports talk radio hot takes — but sadly for the Lakers’ record — the team lost on a buzzer-beater from Bogdan Bogdanovic and the “are the Lakers better without LeBron?” joke/narrative couldn’t get started.
The Lakers will get another shot at the Kings tonight, and if they care about playoff positioning, they best not miss. That appears easier said than done if the team’s play without him against the LA Clippers was any indication.
All indications are that James will miss his third game in a row on Sunday, which would give the Lakers a chance to right their wrongs and dethrone the Kings without any help from James.
The issue, as the rest of the Eastern Conference has known and some Lakers opponents have found out this season, is that it’s easier to win games with James on your team than it is without him. With James on the bench, the Lakers’ margin for error is a lot smaller.
The problem there is that the one thing the Lakers can demonstrably still do — and potentially do even better — without James is to get out and run, but the Kings don’t offer the chance to outrun their opponent. That’s how they like to play too.
The Kings rank second in the NBA in pace with 105.36 possessions per game, while the Lakers are slotted at third with 104.03. The Lakers are even quicker without James, as they never play faster than the 107.7 possessions per game they play while he sits, a pace that would rank first in the NBA if a team managed it over the course of a full season.
The two sides have also had similar offensive success at their breakneck speeds, with the Kings ranking 14th in the NBA in offensive efficiency and the Lakers sitting at 17th. However, what gives the Lakers a chance is that they have been far better than the Kings defensively, holding teams to 106.7 points per 100 possessions (the ninth-best mark in the NBA). The Kings sit at third in the league in defensive efficiency, hemorrhaging 110.7 points per 100 possessions.
But the Lakers’ offense may not be as good as it normally is with James missing another game. The only player who the Lakers are worse offensively when they sit than they are when James is off the floor is Kyle Kuzma, who has been unbelievable as a scorer this season but probably has to credit at least some of that stat to sharing the floor with James a ton.
All this is to say that the Lakers should be poised for a win against the Kings even without James, but there are also reasons they lost last time. The Lakers need to figure something out on the offensive end beyond “just run a lot and hope the similarly young and fast Kings get tired or miss more shots” if they don’t want to lose further ground in the Western Conference playoff race.
We’ll see if they can when they host the Kings at Staples Center at 6:30 PST tonight. The game will be televised locally on Spectrum Sportsnet.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.