National Basketball Association

LeBron James' return fuels expectations chatter for Los Angeles Lakers

May 11

Is "The King" ready to return for good this time?

LeBron James reportedly is likely to suit up for the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets, which would end a five-game absence due to an aggravated ankle injury.

The original thinking was that LeBron would return Tuesday night against the New York Knicks, but he'll get one more day of rest, instead.

According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, concerns about LeBron's ankle were quelled following on-court work Sunday and Monday. Not only was James pain-free in his ankle, but could also cut and elevate, per Woj.

And although it'll have been only a five-game absence heading into Wednesday's expected return, it's felt like much longer than that in Los Angeles.

That's because prior to this recent stint on the sidelines, James played just two games with the Lakers after missing 20 in a row with a high ankle sprain.

The Lakers lost both of those games, and LeBron was largely ineffective ⁠– by his standards ⁠– averaging 17.5 points, 6.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds in the two contests.

Following that, the superstar returned to the inactive list and his daily status became a question.

During his absence, the bulk of which coincided with a long layoff for running mate Anthony Davis, the Lakers tumbled down the standings in the West.

On March 20, the day LeBron was initially injured, the Lakers were 28-14 and second in the Western Conference. Coming into play Tuesday, the Lakers sit at 38-30 ⁠– seventh in the Western Conference.

That drop is significant, as being the 7-seed in the NBA's new playoff format leaves the Lakers in the play-in tournament, a new wrinkle LeBron is none too pleased about. 

To climb out of the play-in tournament, the Lakers not only need to win, but they'd need some help. The sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers have a 1.5 game cushion over the Lakers, plus Damian Lillard & Co. hold the tiebreaker in that head-to-head.

So, even if L.A. wins out, the Lakers could still find themselves with the 7-seed, but a win against the Knicks on Tuesday would be a big boost.

According to PlayoffStatus.com, a win Tuesday would bump the Lakers' likelihood of improving their seeding to either No. 6 or even No. 5 to a 30% chance. With a loss, that percent chance drops to below 7%.

Obviously, having a healthy LeBron for the home stretch would go a long way toward securing those kinds of wins. 

But beyond possibly improving their playoff standing, it'd be beneficial for LeBron to get some game action ahead of the potential play-in tournament.

For Shannon Sharpe of "Undisputed," LeBron's return is a beacon of hope, so long as the 36-year-old doesn't hit another stumbling block in his recovery as a result.

In Skip Bayless' mind, reports of a sprightly LeBron mean an end to any exemptions for the four-time NBA champion, should he falter in the playoffs.

"I gotta say he's real close to 100%, and I gotta say that means you get zero excuses."

Even if LeBron isn't at full strength, Chris Broussard said he believes the Lakers are the team to beat in the West.

"If LeBron James plays every playoff game at 85-90% … and AD truly is back ⁠– like he's played the last two games ⁠– then I got the Lakers in the West. … Now, we get to the Finals? I think the only other team in the league that can beat the Lakers is Brooklyn."

Chris Broussard joins Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless to discuss why LeBron's return makes the Lakers the favorites in the Western Conference, but not in the NBA Finals.

If LeBron does make his return Wednesday, he'll have just three regular-season games to get back up to speed.

Let the anticipation begin.

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