With LeBron out indefinitely, which team will step up at the NBA trade deadline?

Vincent Goodwill
·6-min read

When LeBron James’ right ankle turned abnormally Saturday afternoon and he didn’t shake it off in superhuman fashion, a layer of intrigue was added to an already peculiar season.

That gimpy walk to the locker room set off a bat signal to the rest of the NBA, at least to the ones with a realistic chance of getting to the NBA Finals. James’ second semi-serious injury in three seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers isn’t so much a signal that he’s slowing down — because he could show up in a week, tearing off his cape like James Brown — but it’s yet another sign this season isn’t like any other in recent history.

And if there’s a window, you’d better have a crowbar handy.

It’s been an unnatural 12 months for the NBA. The pausing of its season due to COVID-19, then restarting it in the Orlando Bubble, then coming right back a few short weeks later to maximize every dollar to be had was bound to claim some athletic casualties.

Everyone was on high alert to see how the Lakers would handle the quick turnaround, and with Anthony Davis already on the shelf indefinitely, LeBron joins him.

It could amount to being much-needed time off for James, and with Davis’ injury history, that calculus had to be figured in when planning this Lakers season. Ultimately, this could be a mirage, mere construction cones on the way to the Finals.

Nobody doubts either one will be available for when the games really count, but the advantage could come for other contenders in the attrition in the later playoff rounds.

LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to an apparent injury during the second period of a game against the Atlanta Hawks at Staples Center on March 20, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
LeBron James will be out indefinitely for the Los Angeles Lakers. (Michael Owens/Getty Images)

Even if the Lakers slip in the standings from third (where they sit Saturday night) to even sixth (2.5 games ahead of sixth-seeded Portland), there’s not a building they’ll be intimidated by or a team they’ll fear with reasonable health.

Fans are slowly being allowed into NBA arenas, but it’ll be a far cry from a raucous atmosphere that can swing a Game 5 or 7. The Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns could wind up being formidable, but odds are the Lakers could be more concerned about the Clippers or Nuggets in a playoff series.

Why teams shouldn't remain static with LeBron out

Unless … one of these teams puts some chips to the center of the table to make a roster move of consequence before Thursday’s trade deadline.

Buyout candidates usually present a lot of pre-transaction maneuvering, but rarely is the return worth the fanfare.

Trading future picks or taking on the ever-popular pick swaps makes for good fodder amongst the nerdy basketball crowd, but opportunities to win or even knock off the game’s most decorated player.

The last we’ve seen of the Los Angeles Clippers, they were ready to leave Disney World, choking away a 3-1 lead in the second round to the Denver Nuggets. And although some furniture has been moved, they’ll have to make believers out of those who blindly bought in last year — and here says they desperately need someone to put pressure on defenses, to make other teams uncomfortable and maybe add a dose of kerosene in the locker room.

They’ve been solid, and more harmonious compared to last year’s “We got this” approach, but the Lakers have at least capitalized on acquiring personnel specifically to make life easier for a healthy LeBron. The Clippers haven’t quite done that for Kawhi Leonard, their resident superstar with an opt-out after this season.

It’ll take a lot to get anyone to fix their mouths to say “The Clippers will come out of the West,” and they don’t even have a lot in the way of movable personnel.

But they’d better try.

Utah is trickier, with so many good players and a chemistry you have to be careful with. The recent slide has raised some eyebrows, but acquiring a large piece — even to aid Donovan Mitchell — must be weighed heavily, even if the Jazz acknowledges this is a great opportunity to get out the West.

Milwaukee picked up P.J. Tucker, and he’ll help. But there’s more work that could be done, especially because Miami is always lurking and anyone with a pulse knows Pat Riley is itching for another shot at the Lakers, at LeBron, in the Finals.

We’ve barely seen the Brooklyn Nets in full form, and even though Kevin Durant’s hamstring injury has been treated conservatively, there’s no guarantee what any of this will look like in two months.

They need him — and possibly a little more — to take the whole thing.

Whether LeBron should’ve won more MVP’s is immaterial (although four seems adequate), but this point is undeniable: He’s the most irresistible force in the league, the sun in which everything revolves and perhaps at his best, the most impactful.

His availability isn’t taken for granted but one can bet, each day he’s absent it will be felt. Every day between now and the trade deadline, the Lakers’ approach to adding reinforcements will be more bandied from other teams, building to the inevitable crescendo Thursday afternoon.

LeBron’s absence is a reminder the NBA isn’t what it was with team building. The franchises that try to get a little too cute, refusing to go all-in because they want to have a decade of contention instead of this real shot at champagne, find themselves on the outside looking in.

 LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to an apparent injury during the second period of a game against the Atlanta Hawks at Staples Center on March 20, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
Will a team take advantage of LeBron James' injury at the trade deadline? (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

It’s this year.

And next year.

Then the league shifts, stars realign, teams recalibrate and a new crop of impact players are already on the scene, knocking on heaven’s door.

Teams can’t mortgage their entire future, that would be foolish long-term planning. But no one can pretend as if things we knew to be true just two years ago has stayed static.

Miami was supposedly in cap purgatory.

The Boston Celtics had the best present and future of anyone.

The Phoenix Suns were rudderless, hopeless.

James Harden would headline a contender in Houston for years to come.

One of the few constants in that time turned his ankle, and is out indefinitely.

He’ll return for sure, but who’ll truly be around to greet him upon his re-arrival?

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