LeBron James’ injury could doom Lakers’ playoff hopes

Predictions that the Los Angeles Lakers would miss the playoffs were considered bold at midseason, when Anthony Davis was nursing another injury, Russell Westbrook’s inefficiencies were glaring and LeBron James was carrying too great a burden for a 19-year veteran about to face a brutal second -half schedule.

All remain true, and it is starting to feel inevitable that the Lakers will miss the playoffs. What’s worse: James suffered an ankle injury he described as “horrible” in Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. Lakers coach Frank Vogel declared James doubtful for Tuesday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks.

The Lakers (31-43) might not even make the play-in tournament. They are clinging to 10th place in the Western Conference, just one game ahead of the San Antonio Spurs for the final play-in spot. They split their season series, and the Spurs currently own the tiebreaker by way of a superior conference record.

It is not as though the Lakers are trying to lose. Their first-round draft pick belongs to New Orleans if they finish with a bottom-10 record and Memphis otherwise. They currently own the league’s ninth-worst record.

They have been that bad, and it could get worse.

Six of the Lakers’ final eight games are against the West’s top six seeds, and that does not include a rematch against the ninth-place Pelicans, who will benefit twofold from Los Angeles missing the playoffs.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James'  status for Tuesday's game against the Dallas Mavericks is doubtful.  (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James’ status for Tuesday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks is doubtful. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The Spurs, meanwhile, play the bottom-feeding Houston Rockets on Monday and will host a two-game set against the tanking Portland Trail Blazers over the weekend. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would relish the opportunity to oust his longtime rivals from the postseason, and three wins might be all he needs to do it.

The Lakers are 5-11 against the teams remaining on their schedule. The Spurs are 7-12.

Davis just completed his first practice six weeks removed from a right mid-foot sprain. He has played 10 games since mid-December, when he suffered a sprained left MCL. Even before then, he was performing well below expectations. There is no telling how much Davis can help over the next two weeks, if at all.

James’ 30.1 points per game lead the NBA, and his 37.2 minutes a night rank third among all players. He is 37 years old and has exceeded 40 minutes in five of his last nine games, including 42 minutes in Sunday’s collapse against the Pelicans, the majority of which came after his ankle injury. This is concerning territory.

The Lakers have a negative net rating in meaningful minutes whether or not James or Davis have been in the lineup this season. They are being outscored by 6.6 points per 100 possessions when neither takes the court — a bottom-six efficiency level. Force either or both to play the equivalent of playoff basketball for the rest of this season on bad feet, and the Lakers risk injuries that could further limit their chances next year.

The Lakers started Westbrook, Dwight Howard, Austin Reaves, Wenyen Gabriel and Stanley Johnson when James rested a sore left knee last week. Reaves is an undrafted rookie. Gabriel and Johnson did not appear on NBA rosters before Christmas. Howard, the future Hall of Famer, is barely a bit player in his 18th season.

And Westbrook? On only 16 occasions in NBA history has a regular rotational contributor posted a player efficiency rating below 15 and a usage rate greater than 27 for a single season. Westbrook will join that group. Antoine Walker is the only player ever to generate that level of high-volume inefficiency for a playoff team (the 2002-03 Boston Celtics). The last thing the Lakers want to do is hand the keys to Westbrook.

They might not have a choice. DJ Augustin, who signed on March 1, is the only other available point guard on the roster, save for part-time ballhandler Malik Monk. There is no one left to trust beyond James. He is now doubtful, and Westbrook may be the Lakers’ best option a month after they tried to dump his contract.

This very well could be the most disappointing season in Lakers history. The closest comparison is the 2012-13 edition that featured Steve Nash and Howard on the infamous Sports Illustrated cover that read, “Now this is going to be fun.” That team required 45.5 minutes per game from Kobe Bryant over a late-season stretch of six wins in seven games just to make the playoffs, which ended with his ruptured Achilles.

The Lakers proceeded to miss the playoffs for the next six years. The arrivals of James and Davis saved the franchise from ineptitude for a season, winning the 2020 championship in the bubble, but the Lakers are on a downslope again — losing in the first round last season and still fighting for their playoff life late this year.

Missing the play-in tournament would be an embarrassment for a team that features an iconic player and four of the top 75 (plus Howard, who deserved to be on that list). But be honest: Entering the play-in with 30-something wins, needing two wins to make the playoffs, is nothing to text home about. The Lakers have not won consecutive games beating the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings on Jan. 4 and 7, and it has not even been a year since James said of the play-in, “Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired.”

Now, it is his only chance, and even that glimmer of hope wanes each day. According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, the Spurs are now twice as likely to make the playoffs as the Lakers. Imagine that. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard—underdog long shots.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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