Few things are stranger to witness on an NBA court than LeBron James getting hurt. James has been seriously injured so few times during his 18 years in the league that seeing him crumple to the floor in pain on Saturday after suffering a high ankle sprain felt like catching a glimpse of a comet that comes around only once every 100 years. There was the sudden, shocking realization that this can even happen to someone like him—and then the awareness that LeBron’s health thus far has been nothing short of a cosmic wonder.
No NBA player has played more games in the past eight months than LeBron, and while it’s easy to blame the short offseason for his latest injury, it’s hard to prove that’s the cause. What is provable, though, is that LeBron will be out at least the next several weeks, which is a longer absence than he had in any single season between 2003 and 2018.
In 2018-19, LeBron’s first season with the Lakers, he was sidelined by a groin injury for 17 games. Without him on the floor, the Lakers turned into a lottery team. This year, the situation is vastly different. The timing of LeBron’s absence is not catastrophic, but it’s certainly less than ideal, as the Lakers are fighting for a top seed in the West. Now the rest of the league is looking on to see how much this injury—and teams’ actions around the trade deadline—could affect the title race.
Much like how when LeBron talks, everyone listens, when LeBron gets hurt, everyone pays close attention. It’s a testament to his force that a couple of weeks on the sideline has the power to alter Vegas betting odds (the Nets surpassed the Lakers as the title favorites); and could mean that teams—including the Lakers—will see this event and consider being more aggressive at the deadline or in buyouts. With LeBron out, other contenders’ championship windows at least feel wider, whether that ends up playing out on the court or not.
The Lakers are currently tied for the 3-seed in the West, but they’re also three losses away from being the 7-seed. They had been the odds-on favorites to repeat as league champions, given that the roster is improved, Anthony Davis is still rising, and LeBron was considered an MVP front-runner. They began the year 21-6 and, after coming back down to earth, now hold a 28-16 record that will likely drop as they play without LeBron and Davis (who’s out with tendinosis and a calf strain in his right leg) for the foreseeable future. For L.A., this is no longer about attaining home-court advantage for the postseason. It’s about staying out of the play-in game.
Head coach Frank Vogel admitted over the weekend that after two losses without LeBron, the Lakers may rethink their approach regarding the trade deadline. As far as the Lakers are concerned, they must operate and play as if they will get a healthy LeBron back and ready for the playoffs. That means staying afloat during what’s one of the 10 hardest remaining schedules in the league and making sure they make the right moves to have a title team ready when LeBron returns. Reports say the Lakers have tried to shop Montrezl Harrell, and they’re reportedly considered the favorites to land Andre Drummond after he gets bought out in Cleveland. Improving their size seems to be a focus given that Marc Gasol has also missed time, and a player like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope may be the only piece that’s truly movable if the Lakers don’t want to part ways with one of their few promising young players in Talen Horton-Tucker.
Across the rest of the West, LeBron’s injury opens the door for a chaotic stretch run. The Lakers’ expected descent in the standings will likely make teams at the top of the conference consider a first- or second-round matchup they did not expect. Could the Jazz’s reward for getting the 1-seed be a meeting with the Lakers in Round 2? Or if the Lakers look like they may land in sixth place by season’s end, will teams avoid the West’s third slot like the plague? There will be not-so-covert tanking.
On the other hand, this development could also embolden teams like Utah, Denver, the Clippers, and even Phoenix. All of those teams fancy themselves at least fringe title contenders, and with LeBron’s health up in the air, there’s room to make moves. The Clippers, in particular, have to be mulling their options given they’ve yet to look the part of a true contender this season. And with Kawhi Leonard set to become a free agent this summer, the stakes and pressure are higher on them than anyone else. The question is whether they will be able to capitalize on this opportunity.
This year’s deadline doesn’t seem to have any big fish (apologies to Kyle Lowry, Victor Oladipo, and Aaron Gordon), but for the aforementioned four West teams, as well as Philly, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn (and maybe Miami?) in the East, the current landscape means they should talk themselves into small moves to bolster their chances. The Bucks already made a move by trading for P.J. Tucker. The Heat have been linked to LaMarcus Aldridge and Oladipo, and both Miami and Philly have reported interest in Lowry, who may be the closest thing to a player who can swing this title race. The Nuggets look primed to finally take a swing and not waste an MVP-level season from Nikola Jokic, while the Clippers have been connected to Lonzo Ball, George Hill, and Ricky Rubio (you think they need a point guard?).
If these teams weren’t already all on notice, then LeBron’s injury just put them there. The Sixers, in particular, seem like a team to watch given they employ Daryl Morey, who refused to blink at the sight of the Warriors at their peak. While the Warriors have receded back into the pack due to injuries of their own, LeBron and the Lakers had retaken that mantle as the player and team to beat. But with Brooklyn thriving and boasting more offensive talent than anyone, and LeBron nursing an injury, beating L.A. suddenly looks more realistic than it did a few months ago. That sound you hear in the distance is Morey furiously texting other GMs.
Ultimately, even if he is on the sideline, LeBron always looms over the rest of the league’s machinations. It’s a near-guarantee that he will still have a major hand in determining this year’s Western Conference champion, if not the Finals winner and even the MVP award. Father Time may have just countered LeBron’s bubble run with a rally of his own, but LeBron hasn’t been defeated yet. And perhaps until he retires, it will be hard to believe anyone can beat him until they actually do.