The Lakers didn’t play Talen Horton-Tucker in their Game 4 loss to the Suns on Sunday. That’s not particularly surprising. He didn’t play in Game 3 either. Teams tend not to rely on 20-year-old second-round picks in big games, and Horton-Tucker, through little fault of his own, hasn’t appeared ready for primetime in a limited sample thus far in this series. He’ll get there. It just might be a few more years before he does.
There’s just no telling where the Lakers will be in a few years. LeBron James is 36 years old. He doesn’t have too many more rides left on the carousel, and thus far, it’s starting to seem like this one is slowing down. Due at least in part to a high ankle sprain, James has not scored more than 25 points in any game this series. The last time he failed to do so in a series? The 2011 Finals. For the first time in almost a decade, James is looking mortal. It won’t be long before he starts looking downright vulnerable.
That’s an unfortunate place for the Lakers to be in a 2-2 tie against the Suns, because with Anthony Davis hurt, they now need the superhero version of James that might no longer exist. The Lakers scored only 42 points in the largely dismal second half that followed Davis’ injury, including a disastrous 15-point third quarter that cost them the game. At times, James has looked healthy enough to carry the Lakers through the rest of this series. At times, he hasn’t. But what can’t really be disputed is that he shouldn’t need to.
While it isn’t fully clear how close the Lakers actually came to acquiring Kyle Lowry, all reporting on the subject suggests that Horton-Tucker was the sticking point in negotiations. Their exact motivations for pulling out of trade talks are unknowable. They might not have been willing to sacrifice a player they perceive as a key part of their future for such a short-term addition. They might have viewed the overall package, which reportedly included Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but could have been amended to include Montrezl Harrell and others as cap filler in Caldwell-Pope’s place, as too pricey. But the decision, as a whole, was a statement. The Lakers thought they were good enough to win the championship without a blockbuster trade.
They still might be, but what they failed to do was insulate themselves against an injury like this. You make a trade for a player of Lowry’s caliber, at least in part, for this exact situation. Teams with three stars instead of two can tread water for a week in the playoffs if the wrong ankle twists. James knows that well. He won his first championship despite Chris Bosh missing more than a round. He and Dwyane Wade were enough to keep the Heat afloat until Bosh returned. He and Lowry would’ve had a better chance at doing the same without Davis than James will without another headliner.
These Lakers are a two-star team in a three-star league, and now they might have to win two games out of three with only one of those two stars. Their competition simply has better insurance. Brooklyn almost never had its entire group of superstars together at one time. They still earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference because the drop from three to two is far smaller than the drop from two to one.
That’s the decline that Lakers are facing now, and it’s one they tried to prepare for in the offseason. The 2020 Lakers were 10.4 points worse per 100 possessions when James sat, so they added Schroder and Harrell to give themselves some sorely needed shot-creation on their bench units. It didn’t work. That plan failed. Even before his injury, the Lakers were 13.1 points per 100 possessions worse when James sat this season. Even if you dial the clock back to the moment Davis got injured, that figure is still 13 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers were overly reliant on James before injuries even forced them to be. They knew that going into the deadline. They still chose not to pull the trigger.
That’s a choice that might haunt them this postseason and beyond. Whether it was the primary motivator or not, the Lakers prioritized a long-term piece over a short-term boost. For most teams, that’s a wise decision. For teams that employ a 36-year-old James, it’s a dangerous one. He’s not going to be the best player on Earth forever. For all we know, he isn’t going to be the best player on Earth for the next three games, and as the Lakers learned towards the end of the Kobe Bryant era, windows like his should be cherished because you never know how long they’ll stay closed.
That window was open on Sunday morning. It might not be now, and if it isn’t, Lowry might have been the difference in keeping it ajar just long enough for Davis to sneak back through it. Horton-Tucker is eventually going to be able to contribute in the postseason. He’s too talented not to. But nobody knows whether or not that window will be open by then. If it isn’t, it might be years before a player as talented as James arrives to open it again.