LeBron James played last season with an injury that could require offseason surgery, but Dwyane Wade said he believes that was a benefit to the Los Angeles Lakers rather than something that held them back.
Shannon Sharpe asked Wade if he thought the outcome of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets would have been different had James not been injured during the season.
“I think the outcome is different between the Lakers,” Wade said at the 42:25 mark. “With him getting that time away, actually we got a chance to see them grow as a team outside of LeBron. We got to see A.D. (Anthony Davis) grow at that level. Obviously, when he on the floor, we was like, ‘Top five player in the league.’ We got a chance to see what the D-Lo (D’Angelo Russell) can bring and what Austin Reaves can bring.
“The best thing to happen to the Lakers was LeBron’s absence because it allowed them to not have to depend on him, right? Because when you got a great player, you depend on that great player. And so they have the rock, and they have something to play for in the middle of that. And so I think it was great for the Lakers.”
The Lakers were swept by the Nuggets in the conference finals, ending a surprise run into and through the playoffs. The Lakers had to close the season strong to make the postseason and then survive the play-in round to reach the playoffs. Once there, they eliminated the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors before meeting their match against Denver.
The players Wade mentioned — Davis, Russell and Reaves – weren’t the only ones who got better as the season moved along. Rui Hachimura was a vital component after arriving from the Washington Wizards in a trade in January, and Dennis Schroder also became a valuable contributor.
James started 54 regular season games last season, his fewest ever in a full 82-game season. When he returned to the lineup, he was able to use his supporting cast in a different way and needed to take over only when absolutely necessary. The 38-year-old was still capable of coming close to triple-doubles in the playoffs, but the Lakers also proved they could win when he only scored in the low 20s.
The injury and possible surgery it requires is just one thing he will be dealing with this offseason. He famously hinted at retirement in the immediate aftermath of the season-ending loss to the Nuggets, but almost no one expects him to actually follow through on that thought. It is worth noting that he hasn’t confirmed he’ll be back for a 21st NBA season as of yet.
Rumors of a reunion with Kyrie Irving may be even more unlikely than retirement, but James must certainly want the Lakers to surround him with a roster that is capable of winning a title. Keeping restricted free agents Reaves and Hachimura as well as impending unrestricted free agent Russell would go a long way to propping open that championship window, especially after the strides they made playing without James in the 2022-23 season.