Instead of taking on the world, LeBron James and Anthony Davis will head gently into that good night.
Instead of defying the odds, the Lakers will spend the coming weeks wondering how they were relegated from favorites to non-contenders.
A postseason that marked the greatest challenge of James’ career is shaping into a moment of resignation for the best player of his generation and the franchise that employs him.
The Lakers are toast.
A 93-89 victory over the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center offered a reprieve from frustrations that surfaced the previous night but didn’t change their outlook. Their predicament remains the same.
The Lakers are racing against time on multiple fronts, working to heal their injured players while trying to establish a semblance of cohesion on a team that has often looked disjointed on both ends of the court.
Something has to give, and on Monday that something was James, who missed his team’s second win in eight games after reporting continued discomfort in his sprained right ankle.
“It doesn’t matter at the end of the day if I’m not 100% or close to 100%,” James said following a loss to the lottery-bound Toronto Raptors on Sunday.
Dennis Schroder was also out, and could stay in the league’s health and safety protocols for the remainder of the regular season. So, as the Lakers looked to recover from a seven-game stretch in which they lost six times, they played without their two primary playmakers.
At this point, what’s important isn’t how many more regular season games they win or whether they avoid the play-in tournament. What’s important is for them to forge an identity, but can they do that without James and Schroder running their offense?
The misguided expectation of how the returns of James and Davis would magically solve the team’s problems was borne out of their performances last year in the pandemic-shortened championship season.
James’ leadership made the Lakers immune to the negative effects of the NBA bubble that damaged their rivals’ psyches. The presence of a second franchise player in Davis ensured their talent would overwhelm everyone else’s.
Their road to a championship looked rather effortless, as they won their first three series in five games each and the Finals over the Miami Heat in six.
But if last year demonstrated the benefits of a roster that includes James and Davis, this season has highlighted the dangers of building a team around these two particular superstars, one of them 36 years old and the other known for his fragility.
In his three seasons with the Lakers, James has sustained two major injuries.
Evidently, not even Supermen like James and Davis can pop up from the trainer’s table and play like All-Stars right away.
Complicating the situation is that James and Davis didn’t return to the same team they left. While they were down, the team picked up Andre Drummond and Ben McLemore. As it was, players were coming in and out of the rotation. Now, coach Frank Vogel has to figure out who plays how much while re-integrating James and Davis back into the team.
“Bron missing six weeks, I’m missing nine weeks, the team playing that entire time without their two best players and they were able to find a rhythm for themselves,” Davis said. “Then your two best players come back and now it’s a different dynamic of the team. The ball is in our hands a lot more. Guys’ [shot totals] might go down, or the rhythm that they usually play with or the style that they play is different.”
Recent results have prompted questions about roles, with Kyle Kuzma openly wishing for Vogel to play Marc Gasol more. Gasol’s role was reduced in the wake of Drummond’s acquisition.
Against the Nuggets, foul trouble intervened. With Drummond picking up his four fouls in opening half, Vogel turned to Gasol, who responded by collecting 10 points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes.
Davis recaptured some of his pre-injury mojo, scoring 25 points, including a critical floater with 41.8 seconds remaining in the game.
And after giving up an average of 113.3 points in their last seven games, the Lakers slowed down a Nuggets offense that came to Staples Center averaging 115.5 points per game.
Ordinarily, this kind of trial and error is what the preseason is for, to determine how the pieces of the puzzle should be linked. In this case, the process will take place down the final stretch of the regular season and, most likely, into the playoffs.
The Lakers won’t have the luxury of being a top seed as they were last year. They won’t be able to work their way into form against a team that barely sneaked into the postseason. In fact, they could very well find themselves in the play-in tournament, which would cost them already-scarce practice time in this condensed schedule.
And as James said bluntly, none of that will matter if he isn’t healthy. Vogel insisted his condition hadn’t worsened, but his absence Monday night was evidence that he wasn’t entirely recovered after missing 20 games.
James and the Lakers are running out of time. Less than two weeks remain in the regular season.