The Los Angeles Lakers started the season exactly where they left off: as the best squad in the NBA and the Team To Beat in the 2020-21 season. Unfortunately, the wear-and-tear accumulated during the bubble playoffs in Orlando has consequences, consequences that have come to roost in the form of an Anthony Davis calf sprain and a LeBron James ankle sprain.
The Davis injury happened before the All-Star break, but the All-NBA big man remains on the shelf. LeBron's injury came just this past weekend, diagnosed today as a high ankle sprain, and will keep him off the floor indefinitely. Realistically, LeBron will miss at least a month of play; while it is inhuman that this is only the second serious injury he's suffered over a very long NBA career, Los Angeles knows the playoffs are all that matter and will not be rushing the best player in the league back from injury. They're taking the same strategy with Davis, who hasn't played since February 14 and will be reevaluated this week. That would indicate next week is the earliest possible return for Davis, and he'll have a ramp-up period to ease him back into things.
That likely means the Lakers are looking at two weeks without LeBron or Davis and a month with no LeBron. That is obviously not great. No team can be expected to get better after losing its two best players to injury, and it is especially so with the Lakers, who have a roster tailor-made to play to those two players' strengths. They now have to figure it out without the two suns around which the solar system of the team revolves.
Based on the loose timeline set above, that means the Laker will be without either star for four games (assuming AD returns on March 31) and without LeBron for 16 games (assuming he returns exactly four weeks after his high ankle sprain). It will not be easy, even after Davis returns and assuming he does so at full power. Without LeBron, the team's primary initiators will be Dennis Schroeder and Alex Caruso; until Davis comes back, the big man rotation will consist of Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell.
Assuming the Lakers go .500 until LeBron comes back (which even then might be optimistic, considering they were 7-8 with LeBron and no AD), there is a very real chance this Los Angeles squad takes a bit of a tumble down the playoff standings. They're one game ahead of the crosstown Clippers for the No. 3 seed right now and only 2.5 games ahead of the Nuggets and Blazers, with Portland bringing up the rear as the current six-seed. If the organization really slow-plays Davis' return to regular minutes, they could even fall as far as the No. 7 seed, currently occupied by the Spurs, merely five games behind the Lakers.
Of course, the season does not end when LeBron returns. Presuming he only misses four weeks, he and his team will have around 10-13 games to right the ship. That's enough time to make up ground in the seeding department, especially given how close the Western standings are right now and probably will be down the stretch. But unless the Jazz, Clippers, and Suns really struggle between now and then, hopes for a top-three seed are probably in the wind for the Lakers. They might even miss out on a No. 4 seed and homecourt advantage if the Nuggets figure it out.
Which means this is all shaping up for the Lakers to be perhaps the most dangerous low seed in NBA playoff history. A fully healthy starting five featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis should be favored in every game, as their title run in Orlando proved not even six months ago. They match up well with anyone. We might even see some standings jousting near the end of the year as teams like Denver and Phoenix attempt to avoid having to see those two in the first round.
The injuries are obviously bad for the Lakers, but the experience the rest of the team goes through over the next month should prove to be extremely beneficial come playoff time. Whoever is picking up the slack will learn to create without LeBron or AD there, which will be helpful in a pinch in the postseason. When AD comes back, the backcourt will learn how to play with him without leaning on LeBron. Given LeBron James-led teams traditionally struggle quite a bit when he's not on the floor, the trial-by-fire experience of playing off AD sans LeBron will be invaluable.
Maybe the Lakers end up treading water long enough for their stars to return and they don't lose much ground in the seeding battle. Maybe they bottom out completely and it becomes clear it'll have to be LeBron and Davis carrying the organization if hopes for a repeat are to be realized. Either way, we'll learn a lot about this team and its makeup over the coming month. But would any of us be surprised if the Lakers made a deep playoff run as a four or even a five-seed? I certainly would not. Between the timing of the injuries and how those injuries force the team to adjust, that potential future is lining up to be a reality.