LeBron James Injury Looms Over Lakers Trade Deadline Plans

LeBron James of Lakers reacts after injuring his ankle against the Hawks Saturday night.

Getty LeBron James of Lakers reacts after injuring his ankle against the Hawks Saturday night.

So, now what? The Lakers were already primed for a busy few days as the NBA trade deadline approaches, but now, with LeBron James out indefinitely because of a high ankle sprain, the team will have to scramble for options to keep the team afloat until it can get fully healthy. That’s not going to be easy—Anthony Davis is still out, too, at least through the end of the month, and the Lakers have the league’s sixth-most difficult remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com.

The Lakers entered Sunday’s game against the Suns in third place in the Western Conference, with a handful of teams close behind. The Lakers are only 2.5 games ahead of the No. 6-seeded Blazers.

When Thursday’s deadline comes around, then, the Lakers will have to figure out the extent to which they want to overhaul the roster to withstand this wave of injuries or just stick with their original plan to tinker around the edges, adding a big man and a shooter, likely in the buyout market, with the team’s open roster spots.

If the Lakers can come away with, say, Pistons guard Wayne Ellington and Cavs center Andre Drummond, they’d be happy—assuming they get James and Davis back quickly. If those two are out for longer than expected, though, that probably won’t be enough to keep the Lakers near the top of the West.

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Will the Lakers Trade a Key Player?

But are the Lakers willing to give up what it will take to make a bigger move? If L.A. truly wants to add an impact player, it will likely cost them some combination of Montrezl Harrell, Talen Horton-Tucker and/or Alex Caruso. All three of those players can be free agents this summer, so it is possible they could be leaving, anyway. Still the Lakers have shown no signs of being willing to move any of them.

Harrell, especially, could be a valuable trade chip. There were several teams interested in doing a sign-and-trade with the Clippers when he was a free agent this offseason, and that would be the case again if the Lakers put him on the trade market.

Harrell, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, is averaging 14.5 points and 6.1 rebounds off the bench. If the Lakers were to sign Drummond, it would likely make Harrell unnecessary because it remains unlikely that the Lakers would trade center Marc Gasol.

At $9.3 million, Harrell’s contract could be matched with more useful players than Gasol, who makes only $2.5 million.

One issue, though: Harrell is represented by Klutch Sports, the agency that reps James and Davis (as well as Horton-Tucker), and there is a feeling around the league that L.A. won’t trade Klutch players. Harrell took a discount to join the Lakers and it might reflect badly if they turn around and trade him months later.

Does Playoff Seeding Matter?

Most likely, the Lakers will choose to stay the course with their roster and only make minor changes. Securing a favorable seed in the Western Conference would be nice, but it is not all that important to a veteran group like the Lakers. It is possible they will slip out of first-round homecourt advantage, but, at 14-5, they have been the best road team in the NBA this season.

Still, the issue for the Lakers would be a much more difficult path back to the Finals playing from a lower seed—L.A. could get the Clippers, Suns and Jazz in consecutive series, for example. But the Lakers have shrugged off questions about seeding this year.

Earlier this month, forward Kyle Kuzma said, “I don’t really know that it’s as imperative as past years. There’s not really a home court advantage and regardless, before you get to the Finals, you’re going to play the Clippers or the Jazz, or you’re going to play somebody that’s up there. It doesn’t really matter too much. Bron was a four seed his last year in Cleveland (2018) and went to the Finals. It doesn’t matter.”

If that is the case, the Lakers probably won’t change their trade-deadline plans that much this Thursday. But with an injury-ravaged lineup and a difficult road ahead, that is a pretty big risk.

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