Health is the Only Thing Standing in the Way of the Lakers and a Championship

The new-look Los Angeles Lakers are now 5-2 since the Westbrook trade. On Sunday, they completed the largest comeback the NBA has seen this season, erasing a 27-point second quarter deficit and beating the Dallas Mavericks 111-108.

There were good things to say about just about everyone on the Lakers squad in that game, including Anthony Davis who had 30 & 15, played incredible defense and put the game on ice with a beautiful baseline fadeaway jumper over Luka Doncic.

LeBron hurt his other foot in the game but still managed to bully his way to 26 points and 8 rebounds. LeBron’s contributions basically just get taken for granted at this point; like he gets 26 and 8 and gets no credit for it, in fact he might even get some slander because he’s averaging 30 for the year. But he was playing on one ankle, and basically only had one way to score which was to get right up close to the rim and lay it in. He was still able to manufacture buckets; Dallas could not prevent him from getting to the rim even on one leg. Very gutsy performance from LeBron.

Now, last but not least, Jarred Vanderbilt is just an amazing player. This dude had Luka Doncic in an absolute torture chamber on Sunday, just totally shut off his water. 15 points, 17 rebounds (8 offensive!), FOUR steals and ferocious defense and energy all game long. People were comparing him to Dennis Rodman after the game. He was spectacular; he brings so much to the table. Jarred Vanderbilt is a player that every team would love to have, and yet he’s on his 4th NBA team despite being just 23.

I liked him when he was on Minnesota last year, and I thought he was one of those guys that every team in the league would love to have, but then he’s kind of bounced around the league a little bit and so you kind of have to wonder: is he really all that great if he’s on his third team in 2 years?

But with Vanderbilt, it was a unique situation. He was included in the Rudy Gobert trade, and so because Minnesota was so desperate to acquire Gobert (and overpay in the process) they sent Vanderbilt over to Utah. So Vanderbilt was not traded to Utah because he’s bad; he was traded because he’s good and Utah wanted him in the Gobert trade.

And then I think the reason Utah was willing to send him to the Lakers is simply that Utah is trying to tank right now. They don’t want to be good. They want a high draft pick.

So there’s some context necessary when it comes to looking at Jarred Vanderbilt’s career. You might think at first glance that he’s a guy who never really catches on anywhere, kind of bounces around the league. But I don’t think he’s ever been traded because his team wanted to get rid of him; I think he’s just been in unique situations over the past year or so.

Sometimes good players get traded. Mikal Bridges is really good and he got traded; that’s because Phoenix had to actually offer Brooklyn some attractive pieces in return for KD. Mikal Bridges is an attractive trade asset. Domantas Sabonis has been traded twice and he’s an All Star player; as a rookie he was included as part of the trade that sent Paul George from Indiana to OKC. Then he was involved in the Buddy Hield/Tyrese Haliburton trade that sent him to Sacramento last year.

There are many other reasons that players are traded beyond just “His team wanted to get rid of him.”

Anyway, Jarred Vanderbilt is awesome. Such a huge addition for the Lakers. He can defend elite players like Luka, and probably eventually KD.

The only problem is that in the West, most of the great teams out there have great guards (Denver has Jamal Murray, Memphis has Ja, Sacramento has De’Aaron Fox, Golden State has Steph, Portland has Dame, Dallas has Kyrie as well, Minnesota has Anthony Edwards who is a 6’4″ shooting guard). So these guys are just bad matchups for the 6’9″ rangy wing Vando.

However, when it comes to guys like Luka, Kawhi, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, Andrew Wiggins and maybe even KD and Zion Williamson, the Lakers have a guy they can throw at them. That’s a big deal.

So things have gone pretty well for the Lakers since getting rid of “the vampire,” as one anonymous (of course) source described Russell Westbrook and his effect on the Lakers locker room.

The only problem for them has been injuries to their most important players. LeBron, despite coming back into the Dallas game and finishing it out, is going to miss at least 2 weeks, probably 3, due to his foot injury. And it’s not the same foot as the one that has been bothering him all season, either: he now has injuries to both feet this season, which is a serious concern.

So just when things were starting to look up for the Lakers, and it seemed like the skies were finally starting to clear up after over 2.5 seasons of misery, LeBron is now out of the lineup for an extended period of time due to injury (and not only him, but D’Lo is hurting as well and is going to miss at least one more game).

This has been a recurring theme the past few years. Really, ever since the 2020 championship and the 72 day offseason between the Bubble Finals, it’s just been a string of injuries to LeBron and AD.

And it wasn’t just the Lakers, either. The Heat, who made it to the Bubble Finals against the Lakers, were pretty banged up for most of the 2021 season, too, as they also only had a 72 day offseason.

The Nuggets, who lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in the Bubble, were hobbled for two years after the bubble; Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are just now in 2023 healthy for the first time since the Bubble.

The Celtics were able to stay pretty healthy in 2021 after making the bubble semifinals and having the short offseason, but they were the exception to the rule.

A big part of the Lakers’ injury woes, though, is simply the fact that LeBron is now in his late 30s and is no longer made out of vibranium; he’s not indestructible anymore. He’s going to miss 15-20 games a year minimum now, whether due to injuries or just necessary load management.

But what really exacerbates the problem is that when AD is hurt, LeBron then has to really step up his game, carry a bigger burden, and log playoff-level minutes (35-37 a game), which increases the risk of injury for him. The same is true when LeBron gets hurt and AD has to carry the team: the over-exertion over a long stretch of games usually results in him getting hurt.

Post-Bubble, LeBron and AD really haven’t played together a whole lot.

According to, LeBron and AD have only played together this season for 28 out of their 63 games, or 705 minutes in total.

Last year, the disastrous 33-49 campaign, LeBron and AD only appeared together in 22 of 82 games, or just 576 minutes for the whole season.

In 2021, LeBron and AD appeared in just 27 of their 72 games (remember it was a shortened season after the Bubble), for 601 total minutes.

This means that since the 2021 season, LeBron and AD have only been on the floor together at the same time for 77 games, out of a possible 217 games over that span.

That’s pretty crazy to think about. For all the slander and criticism the Lakers have gotten over the past few years, it’s pretty obvious why they have under-achieved: LeBron and AD are rarely healthy at the same time.

They’ve played 1,882 minutes together out of a possible maximum of 10,416 minutes (48 * 217) over the course of the 2021 and 2022 seasons, plus the first 63 games of this 2023 season. That’s only 18% of the total minutes the Los Angeles Lakers have played since 2021.

Here’s the worst part about it, now that we’ve seen just how rare it is for LeBron and AD to be healthy at the same time:

  • LeBron has played 148 out of the 217 possible games since 2021 (5,283 minutes)
  • AD has played 112 out of 217 possible games since 2021 (3,832 minutes)

Yet they’ve only appeared in 77 games together over that span.

What this shows is that they’ve often been injured at different times, as I was saying earlier. I just wanted to back up that claim with some data.

AD gets hurt, LeBron has to carry the load all himself, and that leads to LeBron getting hurt. AD comes back, has to carry the load himself because LeBron is hurt, and then that leads to AD getting hurt.

It’s a vicious cycle for the Lakers that has repeated itself over the past three seasons, and the worst part about it is, it’s likely to play out again in the next few weeks. AD is healthy, LeBron is hurt and out for a few weeks, and so it’s increasingly likely AD gets hurt at some point in the next couple weeks, which could derail the team heading into the play-in/playoffs (assuming they are able to get there).

LeBron can’t be playing 36-38 minutes a night on average at this stage of his career. And AD is just not quite as durable as you’d like him to be in general, so it’s wise to limit his minutes.

The problem is that over this season and last year especially, the Lakers roster has been so bad there’s been no other choice but to lean heavily on LeBron and AD.

Now that the Lakers have a legitimate roster, Darvin Ham shouldn’t have to lean so heavily on LeBron and AD when the whole squad is healthy. LeBron will be able to play 32-33 minutes a night instead of 37-38, and AD will be able to do the same.

The question is whether the squad will be able to make the playoffs, which is really a question of “Will the Lakers actually be able to get healthy enough to put together a late push here?”

Because if they’re healthy, they’re going to win a lot of games.

And that’s my original point here with this post: the only thing standing in the way of this Laker team is injuries. They are good enough to beat any team in the league, I truly believe that. If LeBron, AD, D’Lo, Vanderbilt, Reaves, Beasley, Rui, Schroder and all the rest of the guys stay reasonably healthy, this team can actually win a championship.

Their 30-33 record is not reflective of who they actually are. The current iteration of the Lakers are 5-2 this year, although of course they have to overcome the 25-31 start the team had before the trades.

Who has a better superstar duo than LeBron and AD?

The Suns have a better top four players in KD, Booker, Ayton and CP3, but I’m just talking about the top two players. There isn’t one duo in the league I would take over LeBron and AD. I’m taking them over Embiid and Harden, over Tatum and Brown, over Giannis and Jrue, over Steph and Klay, over Luka and Kyrie–I’m taking LeBron and AD over all those combos. And I love the Lakers’ depth. They are legitimately 10 deep.

I think the Lakers have Championship upside, I really do. They can beat any team in the league–if they’re healthy. And that’s the big “if” here, because for more than 2.5 years, LeBron and AD have not been able to stay healthy.

So by no means am I saying here that the Lakers will win the Championship. I’m just saying they can, if they manage to stay healthy.

But the odds of them staying healthy over the next 3.5 months are pretty low, unfortunately for them.

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