The Lakers are trying to walk a very thin line: Make sure LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the core return and are healthy for the playoffs, but win enough games the rest of the way to avoid the seven seed and the play-in games.
What would help is getting LeBron back for a few games, which apparently will happen, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic — LeBron plans to return next week.
"Sources tell me LeBron James is aiming to return to the Lakers lineup next week…"
— Stadium (@Stadium) May 6, 2021
LeBron had missed 20 games with a high ankle sprain. In his second game back, against Toronto, LeBron checked out with 6:42 left in the game and did not return due to ankle soreness.
LeBron is listed as out Thursday against the Clippers and is expected to also miss Friday against the Trail Blazers and probably Sunday against the Suns. That would leave four games, two sets of back-to-backs: Knicks then Rockets (Tuesday and Wednesday), then Pacers and Pelicans on the road (Saturday and Sunday). It’s hard to imagine the Lakers playing LeBron in both games of a back-to-back, meaning he likely only plays in two games the rest of the season even if he returns next week.
More concerning is the idea that LeBron will be battling ankle pain all through the playoffs. The Lakers are a top-heavy roster built around LeBron as the hub of everything; if he is not playing like his MVP-level self, this team cannot repeat as champs, and maybe not even get back to the Finals. In his last game against the Raptors (the one he left early due to ankle soreness), he was not moving like his vintage self, not attacking the rim but settling for jumpers, not crashing the glass, or moving the same on defense. The Lakers need a healthier LeBron.
Which is why holding onto the sixth seed matters — the top six teams in each conference will get at least five days off between games (the season ends on May 16, but the best-of-sevens after the play-in do not start until May 22). That’s a lot of time to rest and recover at the end of a compressed season that has left players worn down and bruised.
LeBron and the Lakers could use that time, but they need to secure a few more wins first.