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LeBron James’ ankle injury sapped his driving force, and doomed the Lakers

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LeBron James was less effective at getting to the basket for the Lakers after returning from his high ankle sprain.

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NBA: Sacramento Kings at Los Angeles Lakers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

By the end of the third quarter of Game 6 against the Suns, anybody watching knew the Lakers’ next destination was more likely to be Cancun than a semifinals matchup against the Denver Nuggets. Losing by 15 with 1:30 to go in the third frame, the Lakers were already down one-half of their superstar tandem, with the other clearly hobbled. With the shot clock half-expired, and the Lakers’ offense misfiring, LeBron James walked Jae Crowder over to the left block, attempting to post him up from the same place he’d done so with success in the first few games of the series.

Like he’d done innumerable times before, LeBron spun over his right shoulder, driving left into the heart of the paint. With the Suns defense collapsing around him, ignoring the impotent Laker shooters flanking the wings, Cam Johnson stepped in to halt James’s drive to the basket. Then, instinctively, LeBron planted his right foot hard, gathered the ball, and drop-stepped back over his left shoulder, leaving just Jae Crowder between himself and the basket. Without his dribble, LeBron had just one move left to make; his pump fake sent both Crowder and Johnson soaring by, leaving him with an uncontested bunny — a shot any high school hooper makes in his sleep. LeBron went up with two feet for a shot he might have dunked under more favorable circumstances of health and fatigue.

Instead, however, LeBron uncharacteristically exhibited the lift and touch of a present day Kendrick Perkins, clanking his attempt off the backboard and then front iron. Still, James corralled his miss for another shot at a bucket. This time, Johnson and Crowder were each on time to contest the shot, sending the King tumbling to the floor and causing a jump ball. While LeBron was able to win the subsequent tip, the Lakers eventually fell in defeat after another dozen minutes of basketball, putting an end to their run at a second straight title.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Three
LeBron’s post-ups diminished in effectiveness as the first-round wore on. Why?
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Through the first 41 games of the Lakers’ 2020-21 campaign, LeBron James was having a spectacular season, even in comparison to his own impossibly high standards. LeBron was among the trio of frontrunners for the regular season Most Valuable Player award, and had his Lakers in lock-step with the league’s best teams. Sitting pretty at third in the Western Conference, the Lakers trailed the Suns for second place by just a half game, and the league-leading Jazz by just two more.

To that point, while taking their recent collective performance in the bubble into context, the Lakers looked like the team to beat in the NBA — assuming Anthony Davis’ eventual health. They had cruised to wins in 68.3% of their games along with the fourth-best point differential in the NBA, the 13th-best offensive rating and the top-ranked defense. Even more impressively, they’d done so with Davis unavailable for nearly half of the season, relying on LeBron to bear the brunt of the load on both ends.

Unlike any other 36-year-old in the history of the sport, James had done just that with the ease of a superstar in his prime. On the fewest minutes per game of his career, LeBron was averaging 25.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 8 assists per game on elite usage (99th percentile) and efficiency (78th percentile in points per shot attempt).

By virtue of his advancing age, LeBron was no longer quite the downhill threat that he once was in his first Cleveland or Miami stints, but he began his 17th season by maintaining his awesome efficiency when attacking the rim. On 9.9 drives per game, LeBron averaged 6.8 points on 62.7% shooting from the field, the best accuracy in the NBA of anyone averaging at least four shots on drives per game.

Due to the unmatched potency of LeBron’s rack attacks, defenses were keen to cede anything but those drives to the Lakers’ offense. Coupled with LeBron’s passing vision, defenders were often stuck choosing the lesser of two evils; a wide-open Laker as far from the rim as possible, as long as he wasn’t named LeBron. Therefore, the threat of a LeBron drive, even more so perhaps than the drives themselves, had become essential to the Lakers’ ability to score. Still, 39% of LeBron’s shot attempts came at the rim (83rd percentile), more than any other single location on the court, with a large portion of those coming from his own slashing in addition to some timely off-ball cutting (2.1 PTS on 1.55 PPP).

As a whole, despite their outstanding record, the Lakers looked like had another gear to hit, especially once Davis returned. However, LeBron’s ability to pressure the rim in half-court and transition elevated the play of those around him, buoying an otherwise aimless offensive group. Coupled with the Lakers’ league-best defense, they appeared poised to repeat as champions.

Then, for the second time in three years, the unthinkable happened.

In the second quarter of the Lakers’ March contest against the Hawks, Solomon Hill dove into into LeBron’s mid-calf, causing his ankle to collapse inwards towards the center of his body. Despite having played through numerous nicks and bumps over the course of his career, this ankle sprain was obviously far more serious than the garden variety roll.

Jason Whitman DPT of Positive Physical Therapy in Los Angeles — who did not evaluate LeBron or have access to his medical records, but was able to offer outside medical analysis to Silver Screen and Roll — described to me what he saw in the footage of LeBron’s injury: “An unplanned medial external force [all 226 pounds of Solomon Hill] to the ankle joint caused an eversion ankle sprain of the deltoid ligaments.”

Whitman explained that these ligaments can take six to eight weeks to heal, but a more severe sprain could take as long as four to six months for a full recovery. For an elite athlete like LeBron, the structural damage to the integrity of his ankle was less significant than the bio-feedback limitations an eversion ankle sprain puts on his athletic abilities. According to Whitman, “Ligaments have proprioception cells that send a message to the brain which communicate where the joint is in space. Without the proprioceptive feedback, [the brain has] a decreased ability to fire muscles in a timely manner to perform elite athletic movements.”

Therefore, although LeBron’s ankle may have been healthy enough to play on without a risk of severely re-injuring it, the lack of proprioceptive feedback would have hampered his ability to subconsciously move across the basketball court with his typical level of ease. Just this past week Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that LeBron’s ankle was only about 85% healthy in the playoffs, though his degree of comfort with it “fluctuated game-to-game.”

When specifically asked what 85% might feel like for James, Whitman suggested that LeBron “would lack explosiveness and proprioception in his ankle when making lateral movements,” two athletic traits crucial for accelerating past defenders and finishing through contact.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Six
LeBron was still really good, but never quite looked full himself after returning from his high ankle sprain.

Over the six weeks following LeBron’s eversion sprain, the Lakers struggled to tread water, going just 8-12 and falling to fifth place in the West. While impressively, Frank Vogel’s defense remained the fourth-best in the league during his pair of All-NBA caliber superstars’ combined absence for 16 of those 20 games, the offense floundered, grading-out as the second-worst in the Association in that time.

The team struggled to ingratiate the reactivated LeBron upon his return, dropping their first two games with him back, and he was forced out of the latter contest against the Raptors with additional ankle soreness. After only two more games before the conclusion of the regular season, LeBron failed to display his typical dominance around the hoop. Across those four games, LeBron averaged two fewer drives per game than he had previously, and his efficiency plummeted, converting worse than 50% of his attempts on drives.

Given the time to prepare for a series against an ailing LeBron, the Suns’ defense exploited his limitations, refusing to help on him with the knowledge that he couldn’t punish isolations to the extent he normally would. In the Lakers’ first round series loss, the Suns played LeBron to drive, knowing that he lacked the explosiveness to finish upon arrival at the rim. Shockingly, after scoring 0.84 points per possession on isolations in the regular season (36th in the NBA among qualified players with at least two per game), LeBron scored just 0.5 points per isolation in the playoffs, the worst mark in the league.

Further, despite averaging 14.8 drives per game in the playoffs — almost 150% of his healthy regular season average — LeBron made just 48.6% of his shots on drives, more than 13 percentage points worse than his healthy average. Without any reinforcements, LeBron attempted to force offense on his own to a degree his body was incapable of cooperating with.

At first, even with James’ reduced efficacy, it appeared that the Lakers had enough to topple the Suns. Through three games, the Lakers had won two, culminating in LeBron’s meme-able domination of Jae Crowder in the high post.

In each of those first three games, LeBron’s usage never climbed above 30% as he effectively attacked in bursts within the rest of the offense. However, the Lakers seemed to unravel as soon as they lost Anthony Davis in the second half of Game 4, letting their lead slip away to even the series before getting blasted in Games 5 and 6 by a combined margin of 43 points. As LeBron’s usage climbed near Westbrookian levels in parts of the final three games (all over a 30% usage rate), his efficiency plummeted, unable to shoulder the entire offensive burden by himself.

Without the gravity of another superstar on the floor, or the burst to explode through multiple defenders, LeBron simply couldn’t carry the downright anemic Lakers offense on his own. You can see his heavy feet as he turns the corner loosely on drives, and an extremely atypical lack of oomph to power through contact for finishes at the rim on his Game 5 misses in the paint:

...As well as those from Game 6:

Unable to create his preferred selection of shots, LeBron settled for those of the long-range variety, resulting in the largest number of 3-point attempts and the worst scoring average of any single series of LeBron’s playoff career.

With the Suns keyed-in on his already hampered drives, they dared the remaining Lakers to shoot. While shoot they might, they could not make. Despite broadly excellent shot quality, most of the non-LeBron Lakers couldn’t have hit water if they’d fallen out of a boat. In their six games against the Suns, the Lakers didn’t attempt a single very tightly contested 3-pointer, which the NBA defines as having less than two feet of space. They did however, take 106 wide-open (at least six feet of space from a defender) 3-pointers, the second-most of any team in the first round, on which they shot just 32.1 percent, the second-worst mark of any of those teams. They also shot an average number of open (four-to-six feet of space) 3s at the second-worst clip among playoff teams in the first round, drilling a paltry 27.4 percent.

Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stood out as the most egregious under-performers from distance, shooting a combined 2-22 on wide open threes. As the Suns dared the struggling Lakers to fire away from distance, they only shot worse, culminating in a miserable 28.6% from deep as a team in a Game 6 they ultimately lost by 13 points.

Without Anthony Davis, Dennis “Oh-for-Nine” Schroder, or anyone else creating offense for the Lakers in the final two games of the series, a sub-optimal LeBron, all alone amongst a swarm of the wrong colored purple jerseys, wasn’t nearly enough to topple the team currently favored to win the Western Conference, and perhaps even the title.

Laker fans should take solace in the fact that even these injury-riddled, bricklaying Lakers were able to give a team as deep and dynamically threatening as the Suns a legitimate run for their money.

Now in metaphorical Mexico, the Lakers will have plenty of time to recharge before returning to the court. With fresh legs, ankles, calves, knees, groins, et al, the Lakers’ superstars should be plenty ready to own the paint as they have in the past, powering through as many Jae Crowders and Cam Johnsons as opponents can throw at them. Some more shooting and ball handling couldn’t hurt, but even with minimal roster changes, the Lakers should return to the inner circle of contenders as soon as they hit the floor healthy, collectively owning the paint by way of LeBron’s rejuvenated driving prowess.

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