Analysis | LeBron James’s injury plunges the Lakers deeper into a nightmare start

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers lost to their crosstown rivals for the second time this season Wednesday, and LeBron James limped off well before the final buzzer with an injury.

In an unsettling scene that recalled James’s groin strain on Christmas Day in 2018, the all-star forward walked gingerly off the court midway through the fourth quarter with what Coach Darvin Ham initially called “leg discomfort.” James, who has dealt with an illness and a sore left foot in the past week, said he felt something in his groin after backing down on Clippers forward Paul George to draw a foul with a little more than five minutes remaining in regulation. After he missed two free throws, James headed to the locker room and did not return.

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“I didn’t do anything strenuous on the play,” said James, who finished with 30 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes. “When I landed, I felt a little spasm or strain in my groin, so I immediately asked to come out the next play down when I went to the free throw line.”

The Lakers, who were trailing 101-89 at the time of the injury, went on to lose, 114-101, falling to 2-9 on the season. James said this injury was “not as bad” as his 2018 groin strain, which sidelined him for more than a month. On Thursday, the team said James is day-to-day with a left adductor strain; he is doubtful to play Friday against the Sacramento Kings.

“On one of his moves, he may have tweaked something,” Ham said Wednesday. “I don’t want to speculate. . . . He’s the face of our ballclub. That’s human nature to be worried and concerned.”

For the 37-year-old James, the injury was the latest setback in what has been the worst start to a season of his 20-year career. Lakers guard Patrick Beverley announced the team’s plans to get back into the playoffs at the home opener last month, yet Los Angeles enters Thursday’s action with the second-worst record in the league. While James is averaging 24.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.9 assists as he closes in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record, his game has shown noticeable signs of age-related decline.

The four-time MVP is shooting a career-low 23.9 percent on three-pointers, and his 45.7 field goal percentage is his lowest since his rookie year. James’s 20.1 player efficiency rating is down considerably from last season, and it is also at its lowest point since his 2004 rookie of the year campaign. But even during his rookie year, when James was only 18 years old, his Cleveland Cavaliers went 4-7 in their first 11 games.

Crucially, James’s presence on the court is no longer enough to guarantee that his team boasts an elite offense. From 2008-09 to 2017-18, James led a top-10 offense for 10 straight seasons while playing for the Cavaliers and Miami Heat. This season, the Lakers rank last in offensive efficiency.

Opponents seem comfortable with allowing James to attempt deep jump shots, and the Clippers applied full-court pressure at various points in the second half in an apparent attempt to wear him down. In addition to struggling with his outside shot, James is averaging a career-low 4.8 free throw attempts and just eight drives per game — down dramatically from 14.1 in 2019-20, when he led the Lakers to the title.

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“I would like for the whistle to be blown once I get hit,” James said. “Four free throws once again. I looked at a lot of guys tonight, shooting a lot of jump shots, and they’re going nine [or] 13 times to the free throw line. I’ve got to learn how to flop or something, seriously. I need to learn how to do that, swipe my head back or do something to get to the free throw line. It’s getting too repetitive. It’s three games straight.”

Though James said Wednesday he would “hopefully be in the lineup” against Sacramento, his absence would weigh heavily and come at an inopportune time for the Lakers, who are set to play four straight home games against teams with losing records over the next 11 days. The Lakers were blown out by the Utah Jazz this week when James did not play on the second night of a back-to-back, and they went 8-18 when he was sidelined last season.

The Lakers’ upcoming stretch includes Sunday’s game against Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn Nets. Because of injuries and other absences, James and Durant have not faced off head-to-head since Dec. 25, 2018.

“If [James] has to sit a game or a few games, guys have got to be ready to play and compete and hoop,” Ham said. “Can’t feel sorry for yourself. These games are coming at a rapid pace. For us to hang our heads, that could spill over into more games being lost.”

The sting of the Lakers’ poor start has been made worse by the knowledge that they must swap 2023 first-round draft picks with the New Orleans Pelicans, per their 2019 blockbuster trade for Anthony Davis. With few trade assets and with their salary cap flexibility limited by major financial commitments to James, Davis and Russell Westbrook, the Lakers don’t appear to have any quick-fix solutions at their disposal. Now they must brace for the possibility that James’s injury could make their bad start significantly worse.

“I’m never worried about myself getting into a rhythm,” James said, “because I put the work in. I’m never worried about that. I’m actually not worried about my body, either, because I put the work in. The body will let me know when it’s time to go, and I’ll be ready to go.”

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