National Basketball Association
LeBron James injury puts Los Angeles Lakers' playoff hopes under microscope
National Basketball Association

LeBron James injury puts Los Angeles Lakers' playoff hopes under microscope

Updated Mar. 22, 2021 5:57 p.m. ET

Could the defending NBA champions be in danger of missing the playoffs?

That's the kind of chatter swirling around the Los Angeles Lakers after LeBron James was ruled out indefinitely with a high right ankle sprain.

Meanwhile, the Lakers are waiting to reevaluate Anthony Davis' calf injury in the coming days, leaving L.A. without its two biggest stars for the time being.

In their first game without "The King" since the injury, the Lakers didn't do much in terms of confidence-boosting.


Granted, they were facing the Phoenix Suns ⁠— owners of the Western Conference's second-best record ⁠— but the Lakers never led in a 111-94 blowout loss, and they shot 20% from beyond the arc, tied for their worst mark of the season.

Kyle Kuzma, the player most assume will be tasked with picking up the bulk of the slack, had just 13 points on 31.3% shooting.

Still, one game isn't indicative of how the Lakers will cope with James and Davis on the shelf, particularly one game against a team battling for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

To Nick Wright of "First Things First," the remaining healthy Lakers, including Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder, just need to keep the ship afloat for a month.

"Let's say LeBron misses 16 games. That would be a month. If the Lakers go 5-11, he'll come back, and they'll be the 6- or the 7-seed. They'll be fine as long as they don't go 2-14 in this stretch. ... And it's an opportunity for a guy who constantly feels disrespected ... in Kyle Kuzma, to step up in a way he has not stepped up, honestly, since his rookie season."

The combined record of L.A.'s 15 opponents in its next 16 games, which include a double dip against the Utah Jazz, is 331-300, a winning percentage of 52.5%

That could seem a bit daunting, but taking an opponent-by-opponent approach might result in a bit more optimism in Los Angeles. Of the 15 upcoming opponents, eight have records of .500 or lower as of Monday morning.

In Wright's mind, seeding doesn't hold much weight when it comes to the Lakers' quest to defend their title. The larger priority is getting into the tournament.

FOX Sports NBA analyst Chris Broussard echoed those thoughts, saying it comes down to assuming one of two options: either James and Davis both return to full health before the playoffs or they both do not.

"I think both of these guys will come back healthy. A.D. should be back, you know, in a couple of weeks. He's had time to rest his mind as well as his body, so I expect him to come back and play much better. And LeBron? We know how he recovers, how he takes care of his body. ... I've still got the Lakers, assuming those two are healthy."

Another issue to consider is the NBA's reconfigured playoff format for this season.

The top eight records no longer automatically make the cut in each conference.

Instead, the teams with the 10th-highest through seventh-highest winning percentages will enter the play-in tournament to determine the seventh and eighth playoff seeds.

For all intents and purposes, that turns all of the Western Conference's attention to the No. 6 seed, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

"The most important seed in the West is now the No. 6 seed. ... All of a sudden, you've got teams at the top hoping the Lakers avoid the play-in tournament. You've got teams in the middle saying, 'Can we pass the Lakers to get in?'

"And now the 6-seed, potentially you avoid the Lakers and potentially avoid the top seed in the West. So the 6-seed becomes the most important thing."

Where the Lakers will be when the dust settles is anyone's guess.

But it's safe to say that plenty of teams will be watching to see how far down the standings James' injury drags the Lakers — if not out of the playoffs altogether.

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