Updated: Oct 9, 2021
After spraining his ankle against the Atlanta Hawks on March 20, LeBron James was forced to watch his fellow Lakers from the sidelines for 25 games—the longest absence of his career. It’s a testament to his unfathomable longevity throughout his 17 years in the league, but it also reminds NBA fans around the world that the 36-year-old James is human.
The Lakers managed to keep the ship afloat for the majority of the games James missed. However, as the top teams in the Western Conference have surged as the postseason draws closer, Los Angeles has faltered without their top starpower. Fellow All-Star Anthony Davis returned from a strained calf on April 19, but the Lakers have won just four out of 11 games since.
Los Angeles’s usual supporting cast—Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, and others—was thrust into major minutes to compensate for the loss of their two stars. Even still, after the return of Davis and the eventual return of James, this group will play a major role in the postseason. It seems that the Lakers and their championship window are looking more vulnerable than ever.
The performance of James and Davis during Los Angeles’ 2020 postseason was a display of sheer dominance. At 35 years old, James established himself as the de facto point guard of the offense. He scored 27.6 points, collected 10.8 rebounds, and dished out 8.8 assists on average in the Lakers’ 21 playoff games. His Finals experience aided him substantially—James understood how to penetrate the Miami Heat’s feared zone defense.
Davis, almost ten years James’ junior, provided the perfect blend of dizzying footwork near the basket and soft touch outside the paint. He averaged 27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists during those 21 games. Despite suffering a heel contusion and ankle injury in the Finals, Davis played through the pain to finish the job and bring the championship to Los Angeles.
This year’s Lakers came into the season with a revamped roster and lofty expectations to defend their title. But the injuries to James and Davis in the second half of the season have created a different feeling, one of urgency to reach the postseason with all players healthy. James has been struggling to push off his injured ankle, and Davis recently picked up another injury in a strained groin.
Los Angeles needs to be careful with their superstars to prevent any major injuries in the postseason; soft tissue injuries should never be tested. But the two likely share the mentality that it’s “now or never”; James won’t be dominant forever, and over half of the current Lakers roster will hit free agency this offseason.
It’s difficult for any NBA fan to come to terms with the fact that one day, LeBron James will retire. Indeed, he conceded in a rare moment of vulnerability that the ankle sprain will likely prevent him from ever reaching “100 percent” again. He still has several productive seasons ahead of him, and the Lakers can be considered contenders for as long as he and Davis are on the same roster. But as the pieces around them begin to ebb and flow, Los Angeles needs to prepare for a future without their transcendent talent.