On Wednesday, the word from LeBron James on his potential return to an NBA court on Friday against the Celtics was hope, as in, “I hope,” which is what he told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. James is coming back from two weeks out with an abdominal strain and, according to McMenamin’s source, the chances he gets back on the floor are “50-50.”
Said coach Frank Vogel, “He’s still day-to-day. No decisions have been made.”
If you’re a Lakers fan, you’ll take it. The Lakers were 5-3 when we last saw James on the floor, and have had that record flipped—3-5—without him. That’s been despite a pretty soft and home-heavy schedule, and while it is easy to blame the recent poor play on James, it is worth remembering that the Lakers were struggling even with a healthy James.
But there may have been enough changes within the Lakers in the time James has been gone to have some hope that improvement is on the horizon once James returns.
Lakers Finally Playing Anthony Davis at Center
For one thing, the Lakers have finally conceded that they are a better team without DeAndre Jordan in the starting five. To open the year, Vogel seemed determined to force his team into a two-big lineup, with Anthony Davis at power forward and Jordan at center. That left the Lakers open to opponents taking advantage of L.A.’s slow-footedness on the defensive end and the tendency of Jordan to clog the paint on the offensive end.
Vogel abandoned that approach four games ago, and has been playing Davis at center since, with Carmelo Anthony coming off the bench to play at power forward.
Vogel also finally got third-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker back on the roster and, wisely, yanked Kent Bazemore in order to put THT into the starting five. That has given the Lakers more athleticism and versatility on the wings, something Bazemore sorely lacked.
Horton-Tucker had 25 points and 12 rebounds on Wednesday in the loss to Milwaukee.
Vogel would not commit to keeping Horton-Tucker in the starting five when James comes back, but we ought to have faith that the coach can see what most of the rest of us can see: That the Lakers badly need his youth (he’s 20) and athleticism with its elderly starting five.
“That’s not to say when LeBron comes back or we’re whole, I haven’t made any decisions about what that’s ultimately going to look like,” Vogel said. “Sometimes, scoring off the bench is what you need. But he’s playing as good as anybody from the standpoint of both sides of the ball, what he’s giving to us on defense and what he’s giving to us on offense. He’s been terrific in his first few games back. He’ll have a big role but he definitely has a made a case.”
More Injured Lakers Will Follow
The hope, then, is that James will return to a team that has Davis at center and James at power forward, with Tucker and the struggling Avery Bradley on the wings, plus Russell Westbrook at point.
But that could undergo further evolution as the team gets healthy. The Lakers are still waiting on 26-year-old scorer Kendrick Nunn to come back from a knee injury—he could replace Bradley as a starter. They’re also hopeful that veteran Trevor Ariza will be back in a few weeks, and he is a potential starter, as well.
Rookie guard Austin Reaves, too, had made a case for a role on the bench, but suffered a hamstring injury and won’t be back until next week at the earliest.
In the end, then, the team James might return to on Friday should be a better one than when he left. And as the injuries heal, it will get even better.
As Davis said, “We put a team together, and we haven’t seen it yet.”