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Luke Walton says Lakers have to prepare like LeBron James may not be back for a while, even if they hope he returns soon

Luke Walton and the Lakers aren’t sitting around praying for reinforcements from LeBron James. They know they have to try and win with what they have, even if they’re having a hard time doing so.

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Los Angeles Lakers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James has not played in the last 14 games for the Lakers. This much we know.

What is less clear is when James will return, but head coach Luke Walton said the Lakers can’t worry about that right now.

“We’re not going to play the next week expecting that LeBron is going to be back,” Walton told reporters after the Lakers’ shootaround on Monday morning. “We’re going to play and practice and get after it like we’re not going to have him for a while.

“Hopefully he gets back within a couple days, but that’s kind of our mindset when anyone gets hurt.”

But whether the Lakers focus on James’ absence or not, it’s clear that it’s hurting the team. The Lakers are 5-9 since James got injured in their Christmas Day victory over the Golden State Warriors, the sixth-worst record in the NBA over that timeframe.

The Lakers have also seen their offensive rating drop from 16th in league before James was hurt to 26th over the time since he went down, a difference of about 4.7 points per 100 possessions. The team has also went from the 10th-best defense in the league to playing the fifth-best defense in the NBA over the span since James went down, but their defense hasn’t been impenetrable enough to stop the bleeding.

The Lakers will at least get some reinforcements in the form of Rajon Rondo likely returning to the lineup on Thursday, but Rondo isn’t LeBron. No one is, and no one knows that better than James, who has now missed the most consecutive games of his storied career and who Walton said is “dying to get back on the basketball court” after the Lakers’ loss to the Golden State Warriors.

However, Walton also said that James “knows that getting healthy is the top priority.” In the first year of a contract that could extend until James is 37 years old, James getting healthy also has to be the Lakers’ top priority.

To that end, Walton said that James’ return will be completely based on his health, and not how the team is playing without him. He and the Lakers — and it sounds like James himself — know that the team can’t rush this.

Because of that awareness, when James will be healthy enough to play is what’s totally opaque. He’s been cleared to practice but hasn’t played any 5-on-5 with contact yet, and the Lakers’ most recent press release only said that his return to practice would be followed by “progress towards a return to game play thereafter.”

Basically, no one knows when exactly James is going to be back.

Walton said that he wants James to be able to get “at least a full day of practice” before he returns, something James hasn’t done yet but that Walton will attempt to get him if he’s ready for it.

“We’ll manipulate the practice schedule however we need to to get him playing against some people,” Walton said at Monday’s shootaround, before adding “I would imagine that when he’s feeling healthy enough to go, that he’ll go.”

For now, that’s the closest thing the Lakers have to any sort of prediction on when James will be back, and so they have to prep to continue along without him. Even if they haven’t found a successful way to do that yet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per and You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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