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Lakers vs. Warriors Preview: Can L.A. compete without LeBron James?

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With LeBron James sitting out with a sore groin, the Lakers will have to play better without him on the floor than they have for most of the season.

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Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers have been a bad NBA team when LeBron James isn’t on the floor this season. Not just “worse than with him in” or “struggling,” but straight up bad.

This might seem like alarmism. At 44-12, the Lakers do have the best record in the Western Conference, after all. How terrible could they really be, even without their star on the floor?

Pretty awful, as it turns out. When James is in the game for the Lakers, the team outscores their opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions. Only Alex Caruso (11.7) has a higher on-court net rating, and he has the benefit of playing lots of minutes a) without Rajon Rondo and b) with James.

When James is off the floor, though, the Lakers are outscored by a team-worst 2.6 points per 100 possessions. For context, the Lakers are nearly as bad as the Chicago Bulls (who are getting outscored by 3 points per 100 possessions on the season) when James sits. He is the only player that the Lakers have a negative net rating without — to tie back to the example above, the Lakers still outscore their opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions when Caruso sits — and is easily responsible for the highest swing on the team.

Why is this relevant? Well, in case you missed basically every single person even tangentially involved with NBA reporting tweeting about it yesterday, James will sit out for the Lakers’ game against the Golden State Warriors tonight due to a sore groin. That’s a smart move by the team given that James is 35 years old, the Warriors (12-46) are terrible and L.A. has a five-game lead in the standings on the second-seeded Denver Nuggets (40-18), but the Lakers will still have to show they can compete without James in the lineup. Especially when considering that the team likely will — and should — exercise the utmost caution while James deals with the injury that derailed his season last year.

Anthony Davis — who is probable to play with a sore left elbow — will need to step up, even if, again, the Warriors are bad and the Lakers should still be able to win this one fairly handily. But without James, they will have to find other ways to get the ball down the floor and get into their offense, something L.A. has really struggled to do without him.

As a result, expect Rondo to have a bigger hand in the team’s offense tonight — the Lakers are 1-1 without James this season in large part because of Rondo’s explosion against the Oklahoma City Thunder — and for Quinn Cook to possibly get dusted off as well.

There obviously isn’t anything the Lakers can do to replicate James’ skillset. He’s arguably the best player in NBA history, and in the middle of one of his most efficient offensive seasons. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect another player to come in and mirror what James does. Frank Vogel surely realizes that, but tonight’s game against the Warriors is an opportunity for him to experiment with some schematic adjustments that the Lakers can carry over to non-James minutes even when he returns.

None of them are likely to make L.A. a good team when James is on the bench, but maybe they can at least find a way to not be an aggressively bad one. We’ll find out in a few hours.

Notes and Updates

The Lakers and Warriors will tip off at 7:30 p.m. PST. The game will be televised locally on Spectrum SportsNet, and nationally on TNT.

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