The Los Angeles Lakers began the 2020-21 NBA season as favorites in the Western Conference. They are the champions and had a strong offseason, making additions like Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell.
Unfortunately, injuries can cut down the most talented of rosters, and they have done exactly that to the Lakers this season. With both Anthony Davis and LeBron James missing time, Los Angeles is in danger of missing a guaranteed playoff spot.
The Lakers reside in sixth place in the Western Conference and could fall into a spot in the play-in tournament.
The good news for the Lakers is that James was back on the court Friday. According to in-season acquisition Andre Drummond, James' return will immediately boost the team's playoff chances.
"He makes the game very easy for everybody," Drummond said, per Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times. "I feel like he sees everything. He's like a quarterback, so having him out there's been really fun — my first game being on the same side as him. It's definitely been a great learning experience for me, I'm looking forward to being on the court with him more to do better things."
The bad news is that the Lakers fell to the Sacramento Kings in James' return and can't count on having a healthy James down the stretch.
James, who suffered an ankle injury in March, isn't sure that he will be back to 100 percent this season—or perhaps ever.
"I knew I wasn't going to get back to 100 percent. It's impossible," James said, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN. "I don't think I will ever get back to 100 percent in my career."
James was playing at an MVP level before the injury and has been remarkably durable throughout his career, but he's also 36. An injury two years ago sidelined James for an extended period and kept Los Angeles out of playoff contention.
Even with Davis on the roster, James' injury could derail the Lakers' playoff hopes. He remains the centerpiece of the roster and has felt the pressure of having to return before the playoffs.
"It's been urgency for me to get back ever since I got injured," James said, per McMenamin. "So that's just who I am. You guys could have seen the logging of the minutes and hours per day that I was doing as far as rehab and treatment. It was a lot more than I slept. So over the last six weeks, that's all I've been doing, is having an urgency to get back and play."
Now that James has made it back, the Lakers have hope. But time is running short for them to get back on track ahead of the postseason and for James to find a semblance of who he was pre-injury.
If James cannot be at 100 percent for the Lakers, a second successive championship may elude them. The roster is arguably better than it was a year ago, but James is still the engine that drives Los Angeles.