We’ve all got to take our moments of joy where we can find them right now, and folk-hero-in-the-making Austin Reaves draining a game-winning 3 to beat the Mavericks on December 15 sure felt like one for the Lakers and their fans. Sure, Luka Doncic wasn’t playing in that game, and yes, the performance still fell far shy of the type of dominance that Los Angeles supporters had hoped to see from the superstar troika of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook. But with the chips down on the road in Dallas, the Lakers found a lineup that worked—a small-ball group with the newcomer Reaves and veteran Wayne Ellington flanking the big three—and rode it to a rare feel-good W that put the team a season-best three games over .500.
It seemed like a spark: the kind of moment the Lakers might look back on as the catalyst of a run that lifted them out of the injury- and illness-marked morass in which they’ve been mired for much of the season. Instead, it was just a brief respite before even more illnesses—seven Lakers (Reaves, Talen Horton-Tucker, Dwight Howard, Avery Bradley, Malik Monk, Kent Bazemore, and injured guard Kendrick Nunn, who has since tested out) and head coach Frank Vogel landed in the NBA’s health and safety protocols last week—and a massive injury. A frightening collision during Friday’s loss to the Timberwolves has put Davis on the shelf for at least the next four to six weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
It’s hard to find silver linings in the Lakers losing Davis—an eight-time All-Star who ranks second on the team in minutes played and points per game, and who leads it in rebounding and shot blocking—for what could be 15 to 20 games. (And potentially longer, depending on what the scans turn up when AD gets reevaluated.) That any return this season is possible seems like a pretty good one, considering Davis said he “heard something pop” when Minnesota forward Jaden McDaniels fell into his leg. And maybe having some time off to rehab and rejuvenate will ultimately benefit Davis, who was averaging more minutes per game than he has since 2017-18 and just under 38 minutes per contest in his last 10 appearances before going down, allowing him to come back fresh for the stretch run as the Lakers look to peak heading into the postseason.
They’ll have to get there first, though. And given both Davis’s absence and what we’ve seen from L.A. so far this season—a 16-15 record heading into Tuesday’s game against the West-leading Suns, a bottom-10 efficiency differential, and the NBA’s sixth-worst offense—that proposition is getting dicier by the day.
As much respect as the LeBron-AD combo deserves and gets, and as much as the Lakers have shown glimpses of being a good team when healthy, they haven’t really been good or healthy for most of this season. The lack of margin for error created by that underwhelming early start might catch up to them: The predictive models at FiveThirtyEight, Basketball-Reference, and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index all now project them to finish below .500, making the playoffs in fewer than 50 percent of their simulations. Inpredictable and PlayoffStatus are more bullish, giving L.A. better than 75 percent odds of reaching the postseason. But even they see it as far less likely that LeBron and Co. finish in the top six than as a seventh, eighth, ninth, or 10th seed, needing to scrap it out in the play-in tournament.
That’s the same road the Lakers had to take last season, after injuries to James and Davis submarined their title defense. The result? A first-round loss at the hands of the Suns, who carved up L.A. after Davis was hobbled by a hyperextended left knee and a groin strain. While a Lakers team led by a healthy LeBron and AD can take down anybody, a version without its superstars at full strength, or with its superstars absent entirely, doesn’t have enough talent or firepower to go toe-to-toe with the best of the best.
That’s the challenge now facing LeBron, Vogel, and the rest of the Lakers’ brain trust, who have to find workable lineups that don’t feature Davis—a two-way focal point who leads the roster in frontcourt touches per game and serves as the rim-protecting linchpin of a defense that’s ranked sixth in the NBA in points allowed per possession over the past month. L.A. has only one lineup without Davis that has logged more than 25 minutes this season; for a team that’s cycled through 16 different starting lineups in 31 games, and has struggled mightily to mix and match its way out of mediocrity, even more experimentation is on the way.
Elevated to the head of the bench with Vogel in the protocols, assistant coach David Fizdale opened Sunday’s matchup against the Bulls—the Lakers’ first game without Davis—with a traditional look. DeAndre Jordan, who’d played his way out of the starting lineup and to the fringes of the rotation, moved back into the first five alongside James, Ellington on the wing, and Westbrook and Isaiah Thomas in a two-point-guard backcourt. But after that look produced just 15 points on 16 shots before Jordan checked out with 3:31 to go in the first quarter—a continuation of the persistent offensive woes that have plagued the Lakers when Jordan has been on the floor this season, and especially when he’s played with Westbrook—Fizdale never went back to it.
Instead, he moved to small-ball alignments featuring shooters like Thomas, Carmelo Anthony, and the just-returned Trevor Ariza to stretch the defense, giving LeBron more room to attack and create:
Removing the slow-footed Jordan and sliding LeBron to center also helped bolster the Lakers defense. L.A. gave up 98.1 points per 100 possessions in LeBron’s no-DeAndre minutes against Chicago, with James lurking along the back line, diagnosing and defusing the offense with timely rotations, closeouts, and swipes:
The downshift helped the Lakers make a spirited second-half push spearheaded by James, who scored 21 points after intermission. It wasn’t enough to topple the Bulls, thanks largely to another killer fourth quarter from crunch-time assassin DeMar DeRozan. But it did provide additional support for the theory that leaning harder on LeBron at the 5 might be the Lakers’ best option right now.
That’s relative, though; without Davis to provide both legit center size and guard-level offensive skills, downsizing has its downsides. Moving LeBron to the middle pulls another perimeter player into the lineup, but given the paucity of two-way wings on the Lakers’ roster, it also invites opponents to target defensive liabilities like Thomas, Anthony, and Ellington. The move exacerbates L.A.’s season-long rebounding concerns, too: The Lakers, who rank 23rd in defensive rebounding rate, gave up five offensive boards in the final four minutes against Chicago, helping the Bulls get the extra possessions they needed to salt the game away.
The Lakers have outscored opponents by a healthy 5.1 points per 100 possessions when James has played without Davis this season, according to Cleaning the Glass, but they’ve been outscored by an ugly 9.2 points per 100 without either on the court—a scenario that will happen more frequently over the next month, because L.A. can’t keep riding LeBron this much. The number to watch isn’t the defensive rebounding rate, or the 31 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, and two blocks that LeBron put up against the Bulls. It’s 39—the number of minutes he played in trying to get the Lakers over the hump Sunday, and the number of minutes he has averaged over his past 11 games.
That’d be a lot for anyone, let alone a 36-year-old who has now officially spent half of his life putting hard-driven NBA miles on his odometer. How long can relying on LeBron to be the no. 1 scorer, playmaker, and defender, and to do so without getting more than 10 minutes off a night, be a viable path to victory for this iteration of the Lakers? That’s especially relevant given that he’s missed significant time to injury in two of the past three seasons and has already suffered an abdominal injury that sidelined him for eight games, and that the Lakers face perhaps the toughest remaining schedule in the league.
For now, though—with Davis sidelined, Westbrook the boom-or-bust proposition he’s been for several years, and a wobbly-at-best group of role players surrounding them—the Lakers don’t really have any choice but to keep riding LeBron. If nothing else, they can take some solace in the fact that they’re far from alone these days in having to navigate massive disruptions and sweeping upheaval.
“You just adapt,” Fizdale told reporters on Sunday. “You don’t get into the complaining and the moaning and groaning of it. It is what it is. This is our world right now.”
Given that state of affairs—and the reality that, even as they continue to flirt with .500, the Lakers remain within striking distance of the fourth-seeded Grizzlies in the West—it’s pretty nice to be able to turn to arguably the most adaptable superstar in NBA history.
In a dysfunctional, disconcerting, and disappointing season that’s seen every would-be turning point turn into just another skid back toward the gutter, there are worse fallback plans than doubling down on the operating principle that has animated the NBA for most of the past two decades: that through LeBron, all things are possible. At some point, that will stop being true. The Lakers just have to hope that point doesn’t come before the reinforcements can arrive and Davis can get healthy, but rather while there’s still a chance to put the pieces together for a deep playoff run—and maybe find a few more moments of joy along the way.