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Anthony Davis’s Thumb Could Decide Whether the Lakers Start Up or Down

The superstar’s MRI came back “clean,” but the team will be spread thin if he can’t make it back for the start of his first regular season in Los Angeles

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It seems like good news always comes with a catch for the Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James bucked history and abandoned Cleveland for sunnier skies? Then he sustains the first major injury of his career, sits half the season, and the Lakers miss the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is seriously considering joining the team to complete the most fearsome Big Three in league history? Turns out it was a ruse; he was always destined to be a Clipper. Kyle Kuzma looks primed for a breakout year? He’s out indefinitely with a stress reaction in his left foot. During Los Angeles’s preseason game against the Nets on Saturday in China, they added to their list of letdowns.

Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ prized offseason acquisition and likely long-term franchise centerpiece, was initially diagnosed with a sprained right thumb after contesting a driving layup. The All-NBA big man had his hand taped and stayed in the game at first, but was later taken to the locker room, only to return to the bench with an ice pack strapped to his thumb.

Conflicting reports surfaced about the severity of the injury, with one comparing it to that of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Brees required surgery to repair torn ligaments in his thumb (Grade 2 and Grade 3 sprains are painful, and suggest either a partially or fully torn ligament), and hasn’t played football in nearly a month.

But Davis’s MRI on Monday came back “clean,” according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Davis will sit out Monday’s preseason game against the Warriors, Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes reported; no other timeline was given.

If the injury lingers past the preseason and into the regular season, it could have a major impact on the trajectory of the Lakers’ season. Landing Davis in a trade with the Pelicans was a coup, but a costly one. Los Angeles moved seven players to New Orleans and Washington for Davis, and gave up an additional handful of future first-round picks. While that swap gifted the Lakers a franchise centerpiece, it left them with an alarmingly thin roster. Summer signings Danny Green and Avery Bradley helped bolster the backcourt, and the return of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should give the Lakers some stability on the wing, but beyond them, it’s slim pickings.

The front office’s single-minded pursuit of Kawhi Leonard left the Lakers scrambling when he decided to play elsewhere. By the time he picked the Clippers, nearly every other free agent of note had signed with a different team, and so the Lakers were left fighting for scraps. DeMarcus Cousins was supposed to be the answer at center until he wasn’t. Dwight Howard is effectively playing on an at-will contract, and either Quinn Cook or a 33-year-old Rajon Rondo, who finished 67th among point guards in defensive real plus-minus, will start at the point. With Kuzma already set to miss significant time to start the season, it’s likely that Jared Dudley—who is 34 years old and was last seen terrorizing Ben Simmons in the first round of last season’s playoffs—gets serious run.

What recently looked like an intimidating starting five has been reduced to LeBron James coming off the shortest season of his career, three shooting guards of varying quality, and JaVale McGee. James, Green, Bradley, and Caldwell-Pope could still muster up enough scoring to stay afloat in a crowded Western Conference, but Davis and Kuzma’s absences will surely leave the Lakers well short of their championship aspirations.

Despite his injury-prone reputation, before last season, Davis had never played fewer than 60 games in a campaign, and played back-to-back 75-game seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18. His fragility often manifests itself in minor knocks rather than major scares. With some luck, his thumb injury will also just be a small blip, and he’ll be ready to return sooner rather than later. If not, the Lakers’ quest to contend could be over before it starts.

This piece was updated after publication on October 14 with additional details about Davis’s injury.