Moore: What LeBron James’ Injury Means for Betting, DFS Markets

Moore: What LeBron James’ Injury Means for Betting, DFS Markets article feature image
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Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: LeBron James

  • Lakers forward LeBron James is out tonight vs. the Clippers and could miss the next few games.
  • From 2014-2017, the Cavs in games without LeBron went 4-23 straight-up and 3-24 against-the-spread.
  • Will the Lakers also struggle to cover without LeBron? Or are they more equipped to handle his absence?

LeBron James and the Lakers dodged a pretty big bullet when the MRI on his groin came back clean. James left the Christmas Day game vs. the Warriors and did not return. While James managed to avoid serious injury despite “hearing a pop,” James is still expected to miss several games.

So what does that mean for the Lakers (and the betting lines)?

The Lakers were 4.5-point underdogs to the Kings Thursday, and while they lost, they covered, led for much of the contest and it took an incredible Bogdan Bogdanovic fadeaway for the Kings to take it. The young Lakers played at a higher tempo than normal, which is predictable both without James and against the run-and-gun Kings.

The easy way to look at this would be to start with how the Lakers perform with James off the court. With James on the bench, the Lakers offense has been 2.9 points per 100 possessions worse; the defense has been 2.2 points worse.

Now, historically, LeBron’s recent teams have not fared well without him, as our own John Ewing noted:

3-24! That’s nuts!

But it’s also a testament to how bad the Cavs were around James. Forgive me while I go on a brief tangent.

I will never, ever understand why people continue to laud that Cavs team as great.

The 2016 team was great… eventually. From after the All-Star break through their miraculous title, they were a balanced team with shooting, defense, LeBron, Kyrie Irving’s bail-out potential and some toughness. The 2015 team didn’t have the firepower, and the 2017 and 2018 teams were the worst defensive teams we’ve seen in the Finals, maybe of all time.

So it’s not surprising those teams fell completely apart without him. Those teams were reconfigured and rebuilt specifically around James: one rebounder/shot-blocker in Tristan Thompson, one star in Kyrie Irving and spot-up shooters. (The fact that Kevin Love was reduced to this remains depressing even if he got a ring and a bunch of Finals appearances out of it.)

What LeBron’s Absence Means for the Lakers

Now, the reason I don’t think we can take that ATS number on faith with this Lakers team, and why we need some sample first, is how differently the Lakers are constructed.

Much of that is just circumstance. This is the first year with LeBron, and because they had a young core to begin, there’s been no shift.

They didn’t reconfigure wildly around James. They added specific veterans like Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee, but the team isn’t built to optimize LeBron the way those Cavs were.

That means the Lakers are better equipped to operate as a team when James is not out there. He’s the engine, but they have other players like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball who can function as kind of auxiliary, backup generators.

We saw this in the Kings game. Sure, single-game plus-minus is riddled with issues and isn’t the end-all-be-all, but hang with me. Ingram was a +7, Ball a +3. Those are two players who, throughout the season, haven’t fit in well in their minutes with James.

The two players who fit best with James? Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, who were both -13 in a one-point loss to the Kings. Again, it’s just one game, so a lot of context necessary, but it makes surface-level sense that Ball and Ingram would benefit from more freedom not having to fit around LeBron, and the two players who fit most cleanly next to him would struggle with James sidelined.

This could have big impacts on the DFS side. Ball had one of his best games of the season with a 20-9-12 line. Kuzma still put up a great scoring night. Hart scored just 10 points.

The most interesting angle will be when JaVale McGee returns to the lineup. That’s an unknown. McGee has feasted on lobs and putbacks with the attention drawn by James. How does that shift with the young guys operating the offense? Execution is not the strong suit of any of those players.

Finally, let’s look at the total.

The under went 18-8-1 in Cleveland when James sat.

That shouldn’t surprise, given that James wasn’t a plus-defender in Cleveland and accounted for so much of their offense.

The reverse might be true with L.A.; the over hit comfortably vs. the Kings. James has been better defensively this season than the past two, even if his effort remains hit-or-miss.

Without him, and especially with Kuzma getting more run at center, the defense might melt a little bit.

In other words, the Cavaliers, an offensive team, hit the under consistently without James. The Lakers, a defensive team, might routinely hit the over without James to help anchor things.

James isn’t expected to miss much time. There’s a lot to figure out, which makes me lean towards staying away from Lakers games until we figure out where they are. However, this Lakers team is better equipped to hang — in the right spots — than the Cavaliers were without the best player in the game.

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