A few hours before the Los Angeles Lakers tipped off against the Sacramento Kings, word came out that LeBron James would be entering health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19.
It was a significant blow to the Lakers, who had just gotten James back from an abdominal strain and were hoping to finally field a relatively complete lineup for more than a couple of games, even if the team is still missing Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn. Moreover, this puts a dent to any momentum Los Angeles was hoping to generate after a 2020-2021 season that too was marred by injuries to James and Anthony Davis.
This wasn’t the first time James missed time this season, as a right ankle injury, the aforementioned abdominal strain, and his one-game suspension due to the incident with the Detroit Pistons’ Isaiah Stewart forced him to sit out 11 games, with the Lakers going 4-7 in that span. In fact, ever since moving to Los Angeles, he has missed as many games as he did over his combined stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice) and the Miami Heat.
Even without James, the Lakers blew past the Kings in a 117-92 win. Down for much of the first half, Los Angeles used a 22-6 run in the third quarter to take a 74-72 lead with 4:30 left in the quarter on a Davis jumpshot.
Davis led the Lakers with 25 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, and two blocks. Russell Westbrook had 23 points on 21 shots, while Malik Monk knocked down as many 3-pointers as the Kings (six) to finish with 22 points.
Sacramento wasted an extremely efficient performance from Richaun Holmes, who scored a game-high 27 points and missed only one shot attempt. De’Aaron Fox and Chimezie Metu were the only other Kings in double-figures with 17 and 14 points, respectively.
Even with the win, Los Angeles must address some looming issues that the Kings may not have taken advantage of, but will certainly not be lost on more defensively-astute teams.
Spacing will likely become an issue as James’ presence allowed for the Lakers to spread the floor for their shooters. The onus is on Davis and Russell Westbrook to create this space, but their own issues may also be put on the spotlight with James out.
Davis’ jump shooting this season has been off to say the least and it may be a larger point of emphasis now that the gravity of the defense will be focused on him. Thankfully, he takes nearly 90 percent of his shots from inside the three point line, with a third of those coming from within three feet.
Westbrook’s problems go beyond his shooting as he has made some questionable decisions in crunchtime. His passes can at times be easily telegraphed, with his 108 turnovers easily the most in the NBA. The high number of turnovers also translate into more possessions for opposing teams, which would only spell trouble for the Lakers. Opponents aren’t also afraid of him when he’s behind the 3-point line and him taking nearly 75 percent of his shot attempts from inside the 3-point line feels a lot less than it really is. Increasing that would be more helpful for him and Los Angeles, as he can still bully guards in the post and drive past switching bigs.
The chemistry between Davis and Westbrook has also been improving, especially as they can connect in a variety of ways. Defenses will likely key on this and the Lakers would be wise to play it smartly rather than force the issue.
Beyond Davis and Westbrook, the likes of Talen Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk, and Carmelo Anthony will carve out larger roles. Converting on the increased opportunities, however, is another matter altogether. Horton-Tucker, who played well with James out, struggled to find his footing once James returned. THT had more shot attempts (three) than points (two) against Sacramento so him getting out of his slump will be crucial especially when the games are closer.
Monk showed out earlier today against the Kings and his role as the scorer off the bench will be needed all the more with James out. The same goes for Anthony, who has always been a steady presence but will be called on for more with his friend from the 2003 draft class on the sidelines.
On the whole, the team needs to address their defensive issues, despite being two years removed from being a defensively sharp championship team. They were beaten for easy transition baskets and some alley-oops against Sacramento, who outscored them on the break, 23-15. Prior to the Kings game, they allowed 114.1 points per game (third in the league), and that they were able to limit the Kings to 92 points (after 15 straight games of opponents scoring at least 106 points on them) should help build their confidence moving forward.
Moreover, they have struggled with managing extra possessions as further evidenced by the 48.2 rebounds per game they allow, which is the third-worst mark in the NBA. This has in turn allowed their opponents to attempt 92.3 field goals a game, good enough for the 29th in the league. Controlling the boards and in turn possessions will limit any unnecessary damage.
At 12-11, the Lakers remain in the thick of the playoff hunt a little over a quarter into the season. The margins, though, are thin, as they remain close with the fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, while they are half a game from the play-in slots.
The NBA’s current COVID-19 health and safety protocols indicate that James would either have to return two negative RT-PCR tests in a span of 24 hours or be out for at least 10 days, which would mean he would have to sit out the next six games. After today’s win over the Kings, the Lakers will face the Mavericks, the Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Orlando Magic.
No LeBron James more often than not spells trouble for the Los Angeles Lakers and the win against the Sacramento Kings may be the start of dispelling that notion. As welcome as this win is, the Lakers can’t be complacent as they remain in a precarious position, even when James was healthy.