The defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers were considered the favorite to win their second straight title. But how did that change when LeBron James sustained a high right ankle sprain in Saturday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks?
James could miss up to a month. Will that cause the Lakers to be players at the trade deadline? And what will the ripple effect be for other would-be title contenders?
We take a look at those questions and more with a panel of NBA experts. USA Today’s Matt Eppers moderated a roundtable with USA Today basketball writers Jeff Zillgitt and Mark Medina, J. Michael Falgoust of the Indianapolis Star, Jim Owczarski of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic.
Eppers: How does LeBron’s injury affect the trade landscape? Do the Lakers feel more urgency to make a move? Do other contenders see their window potentially opening a little more?
Owczarski: In the East, the Bucks are not looking that far ahead that specifically. The stated goal from training camp is to win a championship, and Jrue Holiday doubled down on that with the Tucker trade. Tucker said he felt it could happen, also, which is why he eyed the Bucks as a potential landing spot. But for a team that has not reached the Finals since 1974, they aren’t looking at who could be on the other bench in that round — it’s about getting there.
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Medina: Matt, Lakers coach Frank Vogel conceded as much that LeBron’s injury will impact how the Lakers look at the trade deadline and buyout market. It already has. The Lakers declined to keep Damian Jones past his second 10-day contract. He’s a marginal player. But the Lakers did that so they have an extra roster spot for any potential moves. That being said, I don’t think the Lakers are going to make a deal as they value the continuity and upside that Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker provide (and those are the guys that their most tradeable assets). The Lakers’ movement will still be in the buyout market. Because of LeBron and Anthony Davis’ injury, it’s about adding to their frontcourt first and improving their 3-point shooting personnel second.
Zillgitt: Teams like Utah, Phoenix and the Clippers should see this as an opportunity to take advantage if there’s the opportunity to make the right addition. Denver and Portland also could fit into that group with a winning streak.
Falgoust: As I said about Golden State, well-run teams don’t panic and tear up everything because of a rough patch, or because fans are skittish about the future or in this case injuries to 2 stars that aren’t season-ending. If the Lakers end up a 4 seed with those 2 guys back healthy when the playoffs start they’ll be OK. I think.
The Clippers really need a true point guard. And I feel bad that Utah has been so good this season that I haven’t mentioned them yet.
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Rankin: The Suns just beat the Lakers pretty soundly without LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. They’re 2-0 against the Lakers, which means they have the tiebreaker. Phoenix understands this is a golden opportunity, but realize if James and Davis are back healthy, that’s a problem in seven-game series. Phoenix hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010. So even though they’re having a great year, there’s still this, let’s wait and see what happens element in the air, too. The Suns have a style that works and a leader in Chris Paul who is in his wheelhouse as far as leading this team. So they have the right guy who understands the situation and Booker is playing at a high level. The playoffs don’t start today, they start in two months. So what happens between now and then, especially in this weird season, is an unpredictable as it can get. But yes, Suns see this as an opportunity, but still have the Clippers, Jazz. Have always had trouble with Denver. They’re better, much better, but they’re still making the climb and stumbles aren’t out of the question. Remember, they just lost to Minnesota and let two guys combine for 83 in Towns and the rookie Edwards. They’re better, but a work in progress.
The Jazz rely so much on the 3. A bad shooting series, and it could be over early for them, but they have found a formula and are still seeking respect. That can work for you or against you. Donovan Mitchell is surrounded by shooters and he can knock it down as well. Gobert is playing his role perfectly, Conley is very solid and Clarkson is the X-factor, but in the West, you’re still thinking healthy Lakers and Clippers. Don’t see that changing unless LeBron is out for far longer than the possible three to four weeks and the Clippers underachieve.
Zillgitt: Jazz front office, led by Dennis Lindsey and Justin Zanik, isn’t known for trade deadline deals; they like the squad they have and the chemistry. So I’m not expecting anything major from Utah.
Rankin: You’d think Utah and Phoenix will stay pat, but sometimes the offer can be too to pass up. Not sure who can make that kind of offer to have their team shake up what’s working, but we’ll see.