The Los Angeles Lakers’ early-season struggles have been well documented, but help appears to be on the way.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, there is “growing optimism” that superstar LeBron James will make his return for the Lakers’ matchup against the Boston Celtics on Friday, Nov. 19. James is said to be “making good progress” after resuming individual workouts in recent days, set to join Los Angeles for its upcoming five-game road trip.
The 36-year-old has been sidelined since Nov. 2 with an abdominal strain, missing the last seven games. He has missed a total of nine games so far, with the other two coming from an ankle sprain suffered in the third game of the season.
MORE: LeBron James injury timeline
With the Lakers getting out to an underwhelming 8-7 start, can LeBron’s return get things back on track?
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How does LeBron James’ return impact the Lakers?
Let’s start by stating the obvious: the Lakers returning one of the greatest players of all time will impact the team in a positive way. Even in Year 19, coming off of a couple nagging injuries, you can expect James to step in and right the ship.
Prior to his abdominal strain, James was averaging a team-high 24.8 points to go with 7.0 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game.
He was still throwing down ridiculous dunks, often enough to have a two-minute highlight package from six games.
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The Lakers are 4-2 in games where LeBron has played and 4-5 in games where he has been out.
While his on/off numbers do paint the picture of how crucial he is to their success, it mostly magnifies how much better they are offensively when James is on the floor.
With James on the floor, the Lakers’ offensive rating of 109.8 would rank them eighth-best in the NBA. When James is off the floor, the Lakers turn into a bottom-five offense in the league with a rating of 101.6.
As it stands for the entire season, Los Angeles’ offensive rating of 104.8 ranks them 23rd in the league, a far cry from where a title contender would hope to be.
With James back in the lineup, the Lakers will be less reliant on running offense through Russell Westbrook, who hasn’t had the most ideal start to his time as a Laker. Westbrook is averaging a league-leading 5.3 turnovers per game, a number that has only gone up since James’ injury.
On the other hand, star forward Anthony Davis is starting to find a rhythm with more shot attempts, averaging 26.4 points over the last five games. While StatMuse shows that Davis is only averaging roughly three more points in games without James compared to games with James this season, LeBron will have to take it upon himself to keep the eight-time All-Star engaged on offense even when the trio is back on the floor together.
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That will be the biggest hurdle to overcome, as the threesome didn’t exactly click just yet prior to James’ injury. With Westbrook and James once again sharing playmaking duties and all three players splitting shot attempts, can they iron out the kinks and become the dynamic force Lakers faithful hoped they would be prior to the start of the season?
The answer to that question will be the difference between a championship team or a team that is bounced out of the playoffs well short of their goals.
What will happen to the Lakers starting lineup when LeBron James returns?
Along with James, the Lakers’ other four starters in his last game prior to his injury were Westbrook, Davis, Kent Bazemore and Avery Bradley.
Since then, Bazemore has been removed from the starting lineup in favor of the 20-year-old prospect Talen Horton-Tucker, who has returned to action following preseason thumb surgery, and Carmelo Anthony has played himself into a starting role in James’ absence.
Since it’s safe to assume James, Westbrook and Davis will all start, that leaves head coach Frank Vogel with a decision to make on Anthony, Horton-Tucker and Bradley.
My guess would be Bradley stays in the starting lineup for his perimeter defense, while Anthony rounds out the frontcourt alongside LeBron and AD. Because of Horton-Tucker’s ability as a playmaker to create offense for others, his talents would be better suited to lead the second unit with James and Westbrook dominating the ball for the starters.
Moving THT to the bench gives the Lakers some real depth for the first time this season, as the young forward is off to a hot start, averaging 22.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.0 steals through his first two games.
It will be interesting to see how Vogel actually handles the starting five and the team’s rotation as they look to steady what has been a sporadic start.