Without LeBron James & Anthony Davis, is it time for the Lakers to hit the panic button?
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
Just as the Los Angeles Lakers prepare to hit the road for a lengthy trip, they find themselves in the slow lane.
As they peer over their shoulder, a pair of would-be overtakers are right there, with both the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers poised hungrily, moving more swiftly, primed to surge past L.A. and disappear into the distance.
OK, enough with the driving-based puns. Let’s get to business.
Where the Lakers’ fall bottoms-out – and when their run ends – could turn out to be one of the most significant strands in how the entire season unfolds. In terms of entertainment value, it could electrify the opening stages of the postseason.
Imagine a playoff route that would require the Lakers to navigate past a play-in game, then the Clippers, the Phoenix Suns and the holders of the league's best record, the Utah Jazz, just to get out of the NBA’s Western Conference bracket.
James’ high right ankle sprain occurred back on March 20, with the Lakers in the third spot in the West. Heading into Friday’s games, they were in fourth — but with an identical 30-18 record as the Nuggets, with Portland only a half-game back. Both those chasers are charging, with Denver spurred by Nikola Jokic’s MVP candidacy and the Blazers by Damian Lillard’s effervescence.
The remainder of the campaign comes with multiple unknowns surrounding the defending champion Lakers. Two of them are the elephants in the room: the theories of how quickly and effectively James and Anthony Davis can return to action from their respective injuries. Another, not to be underestimated, revolves around how quickly recent pickup Andre Drummond can click with his new unit when he starts playing next week after a minor injury pause.
Yet even in the best-case scenario for all three of those factors, the team’s final position in the standings shapes up to be hugely important. This is a championship group but not a flawless one, nor a particularly young one. Last season’s cruise through the bubble never tested the Lakers’ reserves of stamina. A postseason gauntlet this time quite easily could.
A sixth-place finish in the West? Well, that would have the potential to set up (if the status quo remains) one of the juiciest first-round playoff encounters ever seen: a head-to-head tussle between the Lakers and the Clippers for Staples Center bragging rights.
Anything lower for the Lakers, and all kinds of considerations come into play. With a further drop into seventh or lower, a place in the league’s postseason play-in tournament would beckon. Things, for the Lakers, are getting a little nervy.
"They’re probably going to fall pretty far — into the seventh or eighth seed," three-time All-Star Antoine Walker told FS1’s "First Things First." "They don’t have the same sort of depth as last year. The schedule is not in their favor. Teams are now looking at the Lakers and thinking they can beat them. I don’t know how long they can withstand playing without LeBron and Anthony Davis."
With minimal information coming out regarding the key injuries, it is tough to predict what might happen. FOX Bet has the Lakers priced at +270 for the title, second behind the Brooklyn Nets, who are currently blazing a trail through the East on the back of spectacular offensive play.
There is no definitive timeline on Davis, who is struggling with an Achilles injury that has already kept him out for a month and a half. James seems likely to be out another three-to-four weeks, though head coach Frank Vogel has offered little in the way of meaningful updates, keeping his cards superglued to the vest.
Now a stretch without home comforts is upon this team, though there is a phony wrinkle to the idea of a true seven-game tilt, given that game two will be at Staples against the Clippers.
Even so, Friday’s visit to the Sacramento Kings is the beginning of seven games in 12 days, with a Finals rematch against the Miami Heat and a showdown with the Nets included. Upon the Lakers' return, a doubleheader against the first-place Jazz is on the horizon, all factors that might give the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, currently occupying seventh and eighth in the West, cause for optimism.
How soon, then, should James and Davis return? The obvious answer is when they’re ready – but such things have an element of built-in flexibility. Furthermore, to maximize postseason effectiveness, it is not as simple as returning and picking up right where they left off. A period of reacclimation will be desired, both in terms of shaking off rust and in terms of getting back into team flow.
"The Lakers know no one in the West can beat them if they’re healthy," FOX Sports’ Nick Wright said. "Who is the team they should even a tiny bit fear?"
There is justification for such confidence, yet it must also be accepted that the margin of difficulty increases with every drop in the standings. The Lakers are still a superteam, built for titles, but they have some issues.
There is a lot for them to consider, serious stuff not to be minimized by clumsy travel-themed puns.
There are legacies and ambitions, the emerging threat of Brooklyn and, in James’ case, the important matter of his drive… (sorry, couldn’t resist) … for five.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the Fox Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.