For the second time in this young NBA season, LeBron James will miss a few games due to injury. And instead of another ankle sprain, LeBron’s upcoming absences will be to recover from an abdominal strain. With the Lakers taking the long view in maintaining their star 36-year-old’s health, they’re wise to proceed conservatively, ruling LeBron out for at least a week, and maybe two. Nonetheless, the Lakers will have to find a way to carry on shorthanded for now.
With LeBron, the Lakers have won four of six contests, and without him, they’ve gone 1-2. Overall, the Lakers are likely worse than their 5-4 record suggests at this point in the early-going, considering their strength of schedule. So far, they’ve played a pair of games against the openly tanking Thunder and Rockets each, as well as a game apiece against the surprisingly frisky Cavs and Grizzlies on the second night of a road-road back-to-back. They also lost both times they faced well-rounded and rested contenders in the Warriors and Suns.
Unfortunately, after Thursday’s loss to Oklahoma City, things get quite a bit tougher, with a stretch of eight games that will include matchups against six probable playoff teams in the Blazers, Hornets, Heat, Bulls, Bucks, and Celtics. Without LeBron, this admittedly talented, but still far-from-figured-out Laker squad will be lucky to emerge from the next couple of weeks still above .500.
Still, the LakeShow must go on, even with its star performer out of commission. Unfortunately, as has historically been the case with all teams constructed around LeBron, as soon as he leaves the floor, so does the team’s ability to generate any sort of offense. Last season, the Lakers’ offensive rating fell by 6.8 points when LeBron left the floor, the difference between having an above-average offense and one within the league’s bottom quarter. This season, despite Frank Vogel’s attempts to aggressively stagger James’ minutes against Russell Westbrook’s, the Lakers’ offensive rating falls by 5.8 points whenever LeBron sits.
With LeBron on the bench, in uniform or street clothes, Russell Westbrook’s ability to generate offense is paramount to the Lakers’ chances at survival. Despite his maximalist, (decreasingly) turnover-prone playmaking, Westbrook is fourth in the NBA in potential assists and assist points created.
A specific connection worth keeping an eye on is Westbrook’s ability to generate chemistry with Anthony Davis. So far, Westbrook’s assisted on more AD buckets than all but one other passer-scorer combo in the NBA, and the two should only continue to develop chemistry as time goes on. Especially if Westbrook can improve his abhorrent free-throw and jump-shooting accuracy (26.3% from three and 62.9% from the line) to even just towards his career averages (30.5% from three and 78.9% from the line), he and Anthony Davis should be able to out-talent any bad-to-mediocre teams.
But even if Westbrook can help the Lakers survive sans LeBron, they’ll still likely struggle to tread water now when Westbrook sits. Though they’ve actually fared quite well so far in minutes without either offensive powerhouse, the Lakers had only played 68 non-garbage time possessions without LeBron or Russ manning the point before Thursday, a measly total for a team about to undertake an extended stretch of games bereft of the better half of the team’s playmaking motherboard.
Although Rajon Rondo is the only viable and available option to take over the reins of the Lakers offense when Westbrook sits during LeBron’s absence, the return of either Talen Horton-Tucker or Kendrick Nunn would provide alternatives, and probably superior ones. Unfortunately, both are likely weeks away from returning to game action, and Thursday night’s 19-point meltdown against the Thunder (for the second time in a week) exposed the degree to which Regular-Season Rondo is power-washed and, despite a characteristically voluminous performance, it also demonstrated Russell Westbrook’s penchant for needing to do too much in the game’s final moments when he flipped the ball out of bounds and launched a 30-foot brick, all in the game’s final minute.
In short, with LeBron, Rondo sits and Russ defers, ameliorating these issues before even considering what other strengths LeBron’s presence might bring with it. Without him, the existing flaws in both players’ games are further exacerbated.
Making matters worse, LeBron’s absence may be even more immediately detrimental to the team’s defense than the offense. Though they’ve struggled to a just-average rating on that end so far (107.2 defensive rating, 13th in the NBA), they’d have been much worse without LeBron’s efforts as a helper.
By helping clean up the mess created by the Lakers’ perimeter defenders, LeBron has contributed perhaps his largest defensive output since his days of wreaking havoc on that end in South Beach. In six games this season, LeBron’s block rate is at 2%, a number that would be the fourth-best of his career, while his steal rate is at 2.9%, better than any of his 18 previous seasons. While he’s undoubtedly lost a step as an on-ball stopper, the Lakers’ otherwise weak perimeter defense has required more effort from James than in any recent season.
Without LeBron (or reinforcements), the Lakers’ defense is likely to deteriorate even further as perennial turnstiles Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Rajon Rondo, and Russell Westbrook allow a steady stream of rack attacks. Even AD won’t be able to patch all of those leaks on his own.
But if there’s any silver lining to LeBron’s absence, it’s that it provides an opportunity for the team to build a winning infrastructure independent of him. The Lakers will never be at their best without their best player, but the next couple of weeks will force Russell Westbrook to continue building a synergistic relationship with Anthony Davis, the best roll-man he’s ever played alongside. At best, this stretch could portend a verdict on the trade for Russell Westbrook, at least in the affirmative.
Still, as long as the shorthanded team is married to an ill-equipped Rajon Rondo running the show in non-Westbrook units, paths to a competent 48 minutes of basketball may be entirely unavailable. When Westbrook and AD both exited Thursday’s game against the Thunder for just two minutes, leaving Rondo to run the show, they watched the Thunder score five unanswered points, cutting the Laker lead to just one. While this stretch wasn’t the sole reason the Lakers again lost to one of the three worst teams in the NBA, handing the opponent a five-spot in crunch time certainly didn’t help. Until Nunn and Horton-Tucker get back, it’s not entirely clear that the Lakers’ Rondo problem is completely solvable.
If things deteriorate in the coming week and change, there is plenty of season left to get healthy enough to right the ship. However, if Russ can captain some smooth sailing, the Lakers will set a new high-water mark for LeBron’s teams playing in his absence. And, if the Lakers can win without their king, they’ll be in even better shape to do so when he does eventually return to his throne.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.