Even After a Troubling Loss, the Los Angeles Lakers Can Take Solace in a $9.5 Million X-Factor Capable of Salvaging Their Season

Life without LeBron James hasn’t been enjoyable for the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the King went down with an abdominal injury, the Lakers are a pedestrian 3-4, with two of those victories coming in overtime. The most recent LeBron-less outing was a 121-103 home loss to the Chicago Bulls, bringing LA’s overall record to 8-7.

Hope is not lost for the Purple and Gold, however, as Talen Horton-Tucker is proving himself as the starting-caliber player the team is desperate for.

Talen Horton-Tucker was the Lakers’ lone bright spot

From the opening tip, the Lakers looked like the second-best team on the court. LA found itself down eight points after the first quarter and never recovered. By the end of the third quarter, the deficit was at 21 points. Anthony Davis, who called out the team’s performance last week, was tossed with a couple of minutes left in the third, ending any realistic comeback hopes.

With Davis gone, THT stepped up and had a massive fourth quarter. The 20-year-old scored 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting with no turnovers. For the game, Horton-Tucker finished with a team-high 28 points in just over 37 minutes, shooting 9-of-19 from the field and burying four triples. It marked a career high for the youngster, surpassing the 24 points he scored on April 19, 2021, against the Utah Jazz.

The 6-foot-4 Horton-Tucker caught many by surprise after being activated and starting Sunday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs. The 2019 second-round pick underwent surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament just days before the start of the regular season.

The Los Angeles Lakers should be starting Talen Horton-Tucker every game

Head coach Frank Vogel has tinkered with the starting lineup ever since losing LeBron. In the first four games, Avery Bradley started for James, joining Russell Westbrook, DeAndre Jordan, Kent Bazemore, and Davis. Ahead of Friday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jordan was taken out and replaced by swingman Wayne Ellington. Then in the last two matchups, Horton-Tucker and Carmelo Anthony swapped in for Ellington and Bazemore.

The lineup will change again once LeBron comes back, but THT’s spot should be locked in.

Horton-Tucker is the second-youngest player on the league’s oldest team, providing a necessary energy boost. But beyond that, his developments as a shooter have been noticeable. Last year, THT was only attempting two 3-pointers a game and hitting 28.2% of the time. Through two games, he’s already taken 14 attempts and connected on 35.7% of them. It’s a small sample size, admittedly, but only Anthony, Bradley, and Ellington have been better.

The former Iowa State Cyclone also brings a level of defense the team has lacked since Alex Caruso departed for the Chicago Bulls. At 6-foot-4, THT’s wingspan measures at over 7-foot-1, giving him an advantage as a shot-blocker and passing lane disruptor. His defense helped him be the only Lakers starter on Tuesday to end the first half with a positive plus-minus.

Vogel is doing the right thing in mixing and matching lineups. But he shouldn’t move Horton-Tucker, the fourth-highest paid player on the roster this year at $9.5 million. Especially given how he’s the only player outside of James and Davis to suit up for the team in each of the last two seasons.

The Lakers still aren’t at full strength

Much has been made of LA’s struggles through the first month of the season. But even with THT back, the Purple and Gold still have a way to go before they receive their full arsenal.

Trevor Ariza, who was a favorite to start coming into camp, is recovering from ankle surgery. His arrival should be around early December, based on the rough estimates following his surgery. Elsewhere, Kendrick Nunn also has yet to make his Laker debut due to a bone bruise in his right knee. And Austin Reaves joined the list soon after James after suffering a hamstring strain last week.

LA will undoubtedly become a better team once everyone is healthy. By that point, Vogel will have a plethora of options for how he wants his starting five to look. But no matter how he ends up slicing it, Horton-Tucker should find himself as an integral part of the mix.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

RELATED: The Los Angeles Lakers’ 4th-Highest Paid Player Can’t Legally Buy a Drink yet, but He Could Be the Key to Their Championship Hopes