LeBron James took the floor for the first time since March 20 on Friday, but the Sacramento Kings spoiled his return. Despite trailing by 10 points entering the fourth quarter and missing their two best players, De'Aaron Fox and Harrison Barnes, the Kings managed to upset the Lakers in a 110-106 comeback victory. The loss stings for a Lakers team that is fighting to avoid the play-in round of the postseason. At 36-27, they are now tied with the Dallas Mavericks in the loss column. Dallas has the tiebreaker over them, and with the Portland Trail Blazers only a game behind, the Lakers are suddenly in serious danger of falling into the play-in round.
But with nine games remaining, they are at least back to something resembling full strength. Ultimately, seeding doesn't matter much more a healthy defending champion. So with James' first game back now in the books, here are the most important takeaways for a Lakers team still trying to find its footing as the regular season draws to a close.
LeBron showed flashes, but he's still a ways off
Even physically compromised, LeBron can still torture weaker opponents. This is what happens when a reigning Finals MVP sees the right matchup in the post.
There were moments like this throughout the game. James wasn't necessary back to full strength, but the value of his otherworldly basketball IQ was on full display when the Lakers were in control of this game. An alley-oop pass to Andre Drummond. A couple of big steals. They were proof of how valuable LeBron's mere presence is. Even if he isn't quite himself athletically, he'll still outsmart pretty much everybody. A weakened James is still better than pretty much everybody else.
But after missing more than a month, his timing was clearly off. He barely notices the quick double here, and that leads to the easy steal.
This turnover is just laziness. James has earned that right, and the Lakers would rather he ease into things after all of that time off, but he really should have been more careful with the ball on a night in which he committed five big turnovers.
That's going to dissipate in the playoffs. He's going to recover physically, and he's going to adjust to the new players around him. But these turnovers were just further proof of how out of sort this team is. If even LeBron is making these careless plays, what hope does the rest of the team have? The Lakers have two weeks to find their rhythm before games start to count. The clock is ticking.
Anthony Davis, on the other hand?
Just watch this dunk on repeat, Lakers fans.
Davis hasn't exactly looked like his peak self either since returning from a calf injury that sidelined him for months. He shot 39.1 percent in his first four games back, and the Laker defense struggled mightily. But dunks like that? Those were few and far between in those early Davis games. More than half of his shot attempts since returning (39 out of 72) were either mid-range jumpers or 3-pointers, and those superhuman defensive plays that won the Lakers the title just weren't there.
But Davis had his best all-around game since coming back on Friday. He finished the night with 22 points, 11 rebounds, and most importantly, five blocks. Those were the plays that ultimately matter to the Lakers. Davis is going to find his shot, but given the severity of his calf injury and the ramp-up necessary to get him back up to speed, it just wasn't clear if he was physically going to be able to make the big plays that separate All-Stars from superstars this postseason.
We're starting to get an answer. Like James, Davis isn't quite himself yet either, but he's getting stronger and stronger with each passing game. If Friday was any indication, he'll be ready to dominate again by the postseason.
What does Marc Gasol have to do to keep his job?
Stop me if you've heard this one before. It's the Andre Drummond era in Los Angeles. The Lakers have fallen behind in a winnable game. Frank Vogel is looking for a spark, so he turns to Marc Gasol. Things like this...
... Start happening regularly. Yet Vogel pulls the plug after a short stint. The Lakers ultimately lose a close game. Against the Knicks and Mavericks, Gasol was the only Laker center with a positive plus-minus. The Lakers lost both games. On Friday, the Lakers gave Gasol only eight minutes of playing time... and they won those minutes by 12 points. They still managed to lose the game by four as both Drummond (minus-3) and Montrezl Harrell (minus-11) lost their minutes. This is, again, not a new phenomenon.
Since Drummond's arrival, The Lakers have outscored opponents by 25 points in Gasol's minutes. They've been outscored by 12 with Drummond on the floor, and more distressingly, they've lost Harrell's minutes by a staggering 75 points.
This shouldn't be rocket science. The Lakers are a team with limited spacing. They don't have Brooklyn or Utah's endless supply of shooters. The shooters they have therefore become extremely important, especially at a position like center, where most alternatives can't shoot. The Lakers signed Gasol for that exact purpose. Having him as the starting center generated space for James and Davis to attack the basket. Before Davis got hurt, the Lakers starting lineup featuring Gasol outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. The system was working exactly as planned.
Yet the Lakers still scrapped it for Drummond, seemingly preferring the bruising style that helped them win a title last season. Having that option in their back pocket wouldn't be the worst idea. It's a worthwhile alternative to Harrell specifically, as his size might have cost the Clippers their championship shot last season. But all evidence points to the Lakers playing their best basketball with Gasol as their center, yet still, they give him the fewest minutes of the three.
Vogel was extremely flexible in his rotation last season. He's willing to bench high-profile players if necessary. What's more concerning is the fact that the Lakers felt the need to engage in the Drummond experiment in the first place. They saw a problem where none existed, and they're paying the price for it on the floor every night.