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The Lakers’ bumpy start to the season got a bit bumpier on Thursday afternoon with the news that LeBron James would be out of the lineup with an abdominal strain. ESPN’s report said the Lakers were expecting him to miss at least a week but also acknowledged there was no specific timeline for his return.
Just a few hours later, the Lakers blew a 19-point lead to the Thunder, a loss that was particularly concerning considering they had blown a 26-point lead to the same Thunder just a few weeks before. The latest collapse left the Lakers at 5-4 on the season with a point differential just barely in positive territory.
They’re now staring down a tough upcoming schedule with games against the Blazers, Hornets, Heat, Timberwolves, Spurs and Bulls coming up, all of which will likely come without LeBron.
How long can the Lakers survive without LeBron James?
The Lakers’ ultimate goal is a championship this season but in a tough Western Conference, they don’t have the luxury of ignoring the regular season entirely. They currently hold the No. 6 seed in the West but they’re just a half-game ahead of the Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings. FiveThirtyEight’s NBA prediction model was comparatively down on the Lakers even before the season began but it still gives them just a 42 percent chance of even making the playoffs right now.
The Lakers do have two other stars to lean on with Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook but they’ve been outscored by an average of 2.5 points per 100 possessions without LeBron on the floor this season. The big concern is whether they can count on Westbrook to effectively lead units without Anthony Davis on the floor as well.
The Lakers have been outscored by a slightly worse 3.5 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook is on the floor without LeBron or Davis. Just trying to surround Westbrook with shooters and letting him create hasn’t created efficient offense without another primary creator. Those units have managed just 97.6 points per 100 possessions. Westbrook has functioned primarily as a scorer in these units, averaging 36 points per 36 minutes on a 62.5 true shooting percentage with an astronomical usage rate but he’s racked up 9 turnovers to just 8 assists that true shooting percentage is likely headed for some regression to the mean.
This may be a chance to give Malik Monk or Carmelo Anthony some additional on-ball creation opportunities. Anthony has been tremendous in a more ancillary role but we know that he’s at least capable of scaling up on the ball. Almost a quarter of Monk’s offensive possessions last season came in isolations or as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, all part of a career year for him in terms of scoring volume and efficiency. This season he’s registered fewer than 10 total possessions in each scenario.
However, a more attainable stopgap for the Lakers may be rising to the challenge on defense. The team has been roughly average at the end so far this season. They’ve had some success with their two-big lineups, even with LeBron off the floor — lineups with Anthony Davis and either Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan but without LeBron have only allowed 100.7 points per 100 possessions.
All this is to say, the Lakers have a few different levers to pull and a short stretch without LeBron shouldn’t doom their season. But if his absence stretches on, or if he returns at somewhat less than 100 percent, things could get tough in a hurry.
The Celtics are righting the ship … with defense
The Celtics are another team who got off to a rough start this season and things appeared to be coming to head when Marcus Smart called out Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum after a Nov. 1 loss to the Chicago Bulls:
“I would just like to play basketball. Every team knows we’re trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen. Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball.”
The three reportedly met to discuss Smart’s comments and there was some reporting that the emotions were high. But what could have fractured the team’s chemistry appears to have brought them together, for now at least.
Since the meeting, the Celtics have responded with two straight wins, each powered by dominating defense. They first held the Orlando Magic to 79 points in a 13-point win. They followed that up by holding the red-hot Heat to 78 points in a 17-point win. They’ve forced 32 turnovers and registered 13 blocks over the two games and while they certainly benefited from some wildly cold outside shooting from both teams but recommitting themselves at the defensive end seems like a solid way to rebuild trust and build some positive momentum.
This week on The Long Two, Ben Ladner breaks down why James Harden’s struggles are about a lot more than fouls and what makes Evan Mobley’s defense so exceptional for a rookie.