Can the Young Lakers Stay Afloat Without LeBron?

Los Angeles is about to find out how much longer it will be without LeBron James.

The Lakers have gone 3-7 in their last 10 games as James recovers from a groin injury, but they could be without him for an extended period of time. According to Stadium NBA Insider Shams Charania, James’ agent Rich Paul said the star will return “when he’s ready.” The initial diagnosis of the injury had a minimum recovery time of three weeks, which will be Wednesday, Jan. 16. However, Paul said “if it takes longer, it takes longer,” according to Charania.

Earlier in the season, I looked at how the young Lakers core was adjusting to playing with James. Now the team has had to go back to life without its superstar. The early returns are not great.

Los Angeles is dead last in the league with a 100.4 offensive rating in the 10 games James has missed, according to NBA.com/stats. The Lakers sported a 108.8 offensive rating with James, good for 17th in the league. The team is 23rd in field goal percentage and 30th in 3-point percentage with James sidelined. The Lakers were third and 18th, respectively, in those categories when James was healthy.

Of Los Angeles’ seven losses, four of them were at home. Two of those home losses were to the lowly Knicks and Cavaliers. Even without James, the Lakers should not be dropping home games to lottery teams. So can the young core be reasonably expected to keep the team afloat?

Here’s what Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart have done in James’ 10-game absence. The outside shooting numbers are particularly woeful. Ingram and Kuzma have upped their scoring averages, but can’t adequately space the floor. Hart seems to have disappeared from the offense entirely.

Ball, one of the team’s worst 3-point shooters last season, continues to be volatile with his form. He’s hitting 38.2 percent of his deep shots in the last 10 games, but he shot 26.5 percent and 30.6 percent from 3-point range in November and December, respectively. This was after nailing 41 percent of his 3s in October.

Despite the offensive struggles, the Lakers played at the fastest pace in the league since James’ injury. Los Angeles should consider slowing down and letting its defense, which ranked second in defensive rating over the last 10 games, grind out victories while James recovers. Currently, Los Angeles has the same roster as its 35-win group last year minus Julius Randle and Brook Lopez. That group is not going to win many games without James, especially if it keeps shooting at this rate.

Los Angeles is currently 23-21, good for eighth in the conference. After hosting the Bulls, the Lakers will square off with the Thunder, Rockets, Warriors and Timberwolves. Two of those teams are at the top of the conference and the Rockets are surging behind MVP candidate James Harden. Minnesota throttled the Lakers 108-86 on Jan. 6.

In a loaded West where 14 teams are reasonably vying for playoff spots, the Lakers can’t afford to play they way they are right now without James too much longer. Wednesday will offer a clearer picture for the team when James’ re-evaluation takes place. If he’s able to return within a week, the team may have survived its disastrous shooting stretch. If he is sidelined any longer or wants to ease back into action, the Lakers will likely have to change their playing style to avoid leaving too much work for James when he returns.