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Zo, No: With Lonzo Ball Out, Are the Lakers’ Playoff Hopes Kaput?

No Ball. No LeBron. No Rondo. Who’s left to keep Los Angeles in the postseason hunt in the competitive West?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If the Los Angeles Lakers were walking the line between crisis and complete collapse before, Sunday’s announcement that Lonzo Ball will miss four to six weeks is a firm push in the direction of the latter. The ankle injury that their starting point guard suffered in Saturday’s overtime loss in Houston was deemed a Grade 3 ankle sprain by the team.

Bad news was expected, to some degree: Ball couldn’t put any weight on his ankle after suffering the injury in Saturday’s third quarter, was carried off by teammates, and reportedly left the arena in a wheelchair. But there’s not much the banged-up Lakers could do about it. Ball will take a seat on the bench alongside LeBron James (groin strain) and Rajon Rondo (broken right ring finger), both of whom have been out since Christmas Day. The team has gone 5-8 in their absence; even with Ball, there was a feeling that L.A. couldn’t keep the postseason in sight much longer without its two crucial veterans.

Currently, the Lakers are in ninth place in the Western Conference and have no set date for when James and Rondo will return. Luke Walton said on Saturday he was hopeful that both would be able to practice Sunday. Even if that’s the case, both players will still likely need some time before they’re game-ready—Walton said they don’t anticipate either will play Monday against the Warriors—or be able to log their usual amount of playing time. In the meantime, the front office can call up guard Alex Caruso from the G League, pivot to Point Ingram, and give more responsibility to its shooting-guard rotation of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart. There’s a term among NBA scholars for situations like this. The PG version of it is “screwed.”

After Ball’s injury but before the injury timeline was announced, Walton doubled down that he wouldn’t rush Rondo back on the court. The Lakers are better off gambling on keeping afloat in the playoff chase rather than risking him or James getting re-injured just to get swept in the first round. Los Angeles was expected to be active before the trade deadline, as both James teams and teams semi-close to the postseason usually are. But if the Lakers were planning on making a dramatic swing for the fences—say, a Bradley Beal or an Anthony Davis—losing Ball almost makes it impossible. The Wizards or the Pelicans aren’t letting their best players go without the farm in return, and the Lakers currently only have a chicken coop. There’s not much of a roster to surround a potential acquisition at the moment, and the timing feels more off than before. Still, there’s no one in the league who can rally a strong finish to the season like James (though James Harden is making a good case right now with the Rockets), and Rondo’s been known to save a playoff series or two.

But losing Ball knocks off the last chunk of ball movement that Walton’s offense relies on; James, Rondo, and Ball combine to average more assists (19.2) than the rest of the active roster combined (14.2). L.A. is already one of the worst passing teams in the league, and there’s no obvious next-in-line facilitator to fill the gap Ball leaves behind.

Without James or Rondo, there’s no established leader on the Lakers. Kyle Kuzma’s been a more vocal floor general than Ball, and the latter has struggled to step up as a major scoring contributor. Ball is still only 21 years old, but he’s essential to this team, if only by default. Without him, Walton will be left looking in the refrigerator again and again like something else will miraculously change.