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Lakers' LeBron James’ injury: ‘It’s not an ideal situation,' Frank Vogel says

·5 min read
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Amid all the unanswered questions about LeBron James’ health and long-term effectiveness, the Los Angeles Lakers had at least clarity on the most pressing question.

The Lakers (37-28) ruled James out for Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers (44-22) after also missing Monday’s game against the Denver Nuggets because of soreness in his right ankle during his two-game return. Otherwise, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said James is listed as “day-to-day.” After already missing a combined 21 games this season because a high right ankle sprain, can the Lakers absorb another long-term absence with only seven regular-season games remaining?

“We’ll see. It’s not an ideal situation,” Vogel said. “Ideally, he’s 100% and has 10 games to get his legs and timing under him. We’re not going to have that situation. So we’re going to make the best of it.”

The Lakers, which are ranked currently sixth in the Western Conference, hold only a one-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers (36-29) and would have to participate in the NBA’s play-in tournament in they fall anywhere between seventh to 10th in the conference.

“We want him back as soon as possible. But we want him back as healthy as possible,” Vogel said of James. “That’s the No. 1 goal. Wherever we end up in the standings, we want him as healthy as possible going into the playoffs. Other than that, we’re just going to compete and try to win as many games down the stretch here.”

LeBron James scored 19 points in 28 minutes during Sunday's loss to the Toronto Raptors. He hasn't played since that game.
LeBron James scored 19 points in 28 minutes during Sunday's loss to the Toronto Raptors. He hasn't played since that game.

The Lakers have gone 9-13 without James this season. The Lakers have lost twice during James’ two appearances this past week as he fought rust, conditioning and timing after missing the 20 previous games. And the Lakers face various playoff contenders in the coming week, including the Clippers, Portland (Friday), the Phoenix Suns (Sunday) and the New York Knicks (May 12).

Yet, the Lakers won Monday’s game against the Nuggets without James and reduced a 16-point deficit to six after James left with 6:42 remaining in Sunday’s loss to Toronto. They have seen Anthony Davis improve his play gradually in the past seven games after he missed the previous 30 because of a strained right calf. And they have touted Andre Drummond’s improved comfort level after appearing in 12 out of a possible 16 games since the Lakers signed him through the buyout market.

With the Lakers hoping to avoid the play-in tournament, even James conceded “it doesn’t matter at the end of the day if I’m not 100 percent or close to 100%.”

“Obviously we’d love to have LeBron on our team. He makes things a lot easier,” Lakers guard Alex Caruso said. “He’s a really good player, has been to many Finals and many deep playoff runs. But I think we have a good enough group to win games right now and in the future.”

How that plays out hinges on two variables.

One, how long will James be out?

At 36 years old in his 18th NBA season, James recently said that “getting back to 100% is impossible.” But the Lakers stressed that James has not experienced any setbacks with his ankle. With the Lakers having minimal practice time, however, James’ only significant option to test out his ankle involved playing in a game. At halftime against Sacramento and Toronto, James said he felt additional soreness and tightness.

The Lakers had a rare practice on Wednesday, but Vogel said James remained restricted to individual rehab work as opposed to practicing with the team. Vogel added that the team might practice between Friday’s game against Portland and Sunday’s game against Phoenix, and noted the three-game window between games against Houston (May 12) and New Orleans (May 15). Otherwise, Vogel said James might participate in 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 drills before fully testing out his ankle in another games.

“You have to build this cohesiveness into games,” Vogel said. “Obviously if we had practice time, the whole process gets accelerated further. But nobody in the NBA has practice time right now.”

Another factor is how will the Lakers’ chemistry evolve?

The Lakers don’t have a definitive playmaker without James and Dennis Schroder, who remains sidelined for up to two weeks because of the league’s health and safety protocols. The Lakers also listed Talen-Horton Tucker as questionable for Thursday’s game against the Clippers after missing Wednesday’s practice with a strained right calf. So beyond adding to Caruso's playmaking responsibilities, Vogel has given Davis and Marc Gasol some of those duties as well.

Vogel also remains intent on playing Drummond both to accelerate chemistry with Davis and to gather a large sample size on how Drummond plays with other roster combinations partly since “he’s not quite where we want him to be yet.” Although Vogel expressed skepticism at playing Gasol and Montrezl Harrell together because they both traditionally play at the center spot, they remains flexible on allocating playing time for his frontcourt players for matchup purposes.

“I don’t really look at it as being stressful,” Vogel said. “We just have the hand that we’re dealt and we’re going to make the best of it. We have enough to get the job done. That’s not going to be perfect. But we have to maximize the time that we have together each day and understand other teams are in this situation as well.”

After all, the Clippers, Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets have all had varying overlapping injuries either to key stars or rotation players. But James’ absence from the Lakers arguably carries more significance.

“If we’re two or three weeks further healthy than we are right now, we like our squad,” Vogel said. “We like our chances against anybody. We’re just keeping a positive attitude about it and making the best of it each day.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James’ injury woes could put the Lakers in a world of hurt