Opinion: Can the Lakers absorb LeBron James’ long injury absence?

The image appeared both comforting and discouraging.

A day after suffering a high right ankle sprain, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James sat on the bench and drew up plays on an iPad. Rarely do injured NBA stars sit on the bench during the game if they have a serious ailment.

While he was serving as a de facto assistant coach, however, James wore a walking boot on his right foot. Rarely do NBA players wear that device if they don’t have a serious ailment.

"Those things take a while to heal," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "They are slow recoveries."

In related news, the Lakers labored through a 111-94 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday that also marked the 14th consecutive game All-Star forward Anthony Davis missed because of a strained right calf. But while it doesn’t take a basketball genius to know the Lakers will struggle without James, it takes more than just a medical genius in determining how serious James' injury is.

“Our guys fought tonight. It’s going to take time to adjust but we’re going to play within our system.” Frank Vogel shares his thoughts with @LakersReporter on tonight’s #Lakers outing without AD, LBJ, and Gasol. pic.twitter.com/2uMZ4LgBho

The Lakers have declared James out indefinitely. But the Lakers offered no clarity on what the worst-case and best-case scenarios of that vague timeline actually means. They also did not provide much details on the severity of James’ high ankle sprain.

"Sorry to be boring," Vogel said. "We’re going to prepare to play without him until he’s back.”

All of which makes it hard to figure out what this means for the Lakers and their quest to defend their NBA championship.

If James stays sidelined for the next four to six weeks, it may not really matter. Although the Lakers (28-14) could fall below the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, they would immediately catapult back to title-contending favorites with a healthy James and Davis. No disrespect to championship hopefuls like the Utah Jazz, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, but the Lakers are nearly unbeatable so long as a healthy and mentally refreshed James and Davis are on the floor. They are that talented that the Lakers don’t need more favorable playoff matchups to ensure a path to the NBA Finals.

Unlike in most seasons when playoff seedings could affect home-court advantage, that might become a relatively moot point. Teams are hosting games with either a limited number of fans or no fans at all because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Lakers may not even be able to host playoff games with fans considering the high COVID-19 rates and the delay in vaccine distribution in Los Angeles County. And the Lakers played better in mostly empty road arenas (14-6) than at a completely empty Staples Center (14-9) anyway. Hence, who cares if the Lakers prolong their 0-2 record in games without James and Davis?

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