Last year, on Christmas Day, LeBron James suffered a groin injury that resulted in him missing the following 17 games. During that stretch, the young Los Angeles Lakers went 6-11 and fell from the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference to the No. 9 seed. Then, right before James returned a month later, the team’s starting point guard Lonzo Ball suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
It goes without saying, but injuries were a big reason why the Lakers didn’t make the playoffs last season, and James’ injury was obviously the most devastating to the team. Now almost exactly a year later, James is hurt again — this time with a back injury — but Kyle Kuzma expects things different to be this time around.
After practice on Saturday, Kuzma — one of the six returning players from last year’s roster — told reporters that he thinks that playing without James will be “a little bit easier” than last year because of the makeup of this year’s roster (via Lakers.com):
“Last year we were a younger team so a lot of times in fourth quarters we would fold a little bit but we’ve got a veteran team and we’ve still got AD on this team. Those guys have been there, done that and been through plenty of wars to skirmish the injury of LeBron.”
The Lakers were also in a much better position in the standings than they were when James went down last season. The Lakers currently have a four-game cushion between them and the No. 2 seed Denver Nuggets, who they’ll see on Sunday. Last season, four games separated them and the No. 12 seed Dallas Mavericks.
If James needs more than just one or two games to fully recover from his back injury, the Lakers can give him the time that he needs and then some because they took care of business early in the season by going 18-0 against teams under .500. That’s not to say the Lakers are just going to roll over with James out, but with their lack of size on the perimeter, wins won’t come as easily as they did with James on the floor.
The Lakers will also sorely miss James’ playmaking ability, so Kuzma called on his teammates to pick up the slack in that regard:
“Just with ball movement. Moving the ball, sharing it — everybody. LeBron does a great job of having the ball in his hands and making reads, and what not, but with him not out there, we have to have more ball movement, more player movement and try to get it that way.”
Kuzma has shown better instincts as a passer this season, so hopefully he’ll be able to show that part of his game more as James works his way back to full strength and as Kuzma gets his jump shot back in rhythm.
The Lakers and Nuggets will tip-off at 6:30 p.m. PT on Sunday.