The NBA title race feels a lot more open than it did 48 hours ago. After missing two games the week before with a sore Achilles, Anthony Davis strained his calf in a loss to the Nuggets on Sunday. Early reports indicate that the Lakers star will be sidelined at least through the All-Star break in early March. Los Angeles should be cautious with its star big man. It’s hard not to think about what happened to Kevin Durant in his last season in Golden State, when he came back too early from a calf injury and tore his Achilles in the Finals. No one wants that for Davis. But it’s also a reminder of how quickly a title window can close, and how fragile a potential dynasty can be.
The Lakers have been one of the only constants in a bizarre, COVID-plagued season. They have the second-best record (21-7) despite barely getting any time off after their title run in the bubble. Their newcomers (Marc Gasol, Dennis Schröder, and Montrezl Harrell) have helped them become a more versatile offensive team while not taking anything away from their defense. With LeBron James defying age once again to play at an MVP level, Los Angeles has looked like the clear favorite up to this point.
The Lakers should be able to survive without Davis. LeBron, who is averaging 25.5 points on 49.8 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds, and 8.0 assists per game, is still the team’s engine. The expectation coming into the season was that AD, who is almost a decade younger, would carry the team and allow LeBron to pace himself for the playoffs. But the exact opposite has happened instead. Davis has played in five fewer games than LeBron while playing fewer minutes and averaging the third-fewest points (22.5) and second-fewest rebounds (8.4) in his career.
Playing without Davis for a stretch could solidify LeBron’s lead in the MVP race as he chases his fifth trophy. The Lakers will not want to put too much more on his plate, given that the playoffs will stretch into late July this season. They will just need him to maintain his statistical averages over the next few weeks while keeping them near the top of the Western Conference. The Lakers are two games behind the Jazz for the no. 1 seed, and a half-game ahead of the Clippers at no. 3. There’s a big gap between those three teams and the Suns at no. 4.
Los Angeles has plenty of depth to support LeBron while Davis is shelved. It will likely move Kyle Kuzma, who has been having an excellent season in a reserve role, into the starting lineup. Kuzma (35.9 percent from 3 on 4.7 attempts per game) will space the floor better than Davis, creating more driving lanes for LeBron and Schröder. And while the Lakers’ defense will suffer without their 6-foot-10 star, Kuzma has become a solid defender in his own right. The other player who could take a step forward in AD’s absence is Harrell, who will take on a bigger role in the offense off the bench. His scoring is down from last season (18.6 to 13.2 points per game), when he won Sixth Man of the Year with the Clippers.
But it will all just be an exercise in treading water. The Lakers have little chance of repeating without a healthy Davis. He had a historically dominant campaign last postseason, averaging 27.7 points on 57.1 percent shooting, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game. No team had an answer for him. He could play as a center and run smaller teams off the floor, or dominate as a power forward in Twin Towers lineups against bigger ones. His versatility would be just as important in playoff series against the Jazz and the Clippers this season.
The Lakers have the pieces to string multiple titles together. Not only are LeBron and Davis two of the best players in the league, they fit together extremely well on both ends of the floor. It’s a match made in heaven. There’s a clear pecking order between the two, and none of the other contenders have the personnel to defend both. The Lakers’ supporting cast is better than last season, and they will be at the front of the line in the buyout market.
Injuries were always the biggest threat to their reign. The Lakers have put a lot of miles on their bodies over the past six months. Playing to the end of the bubble and then immediately turning around for another front-running season is harder than they have made it look. The odds have been against Los Angeles staying healthy this season. LeBron, as invincible as he might seem, leads the NBA in career minutes played. And Davis has struggled with injuries throughout his career, averaging 66 games over his first eight NBA seasons.
It’s difficult to repeat even under normal circumstances. The regular season is a brutal grind. Teams are flying across the country, playing three or four times a week for six months. Nor do the defending champions get any extra nights off—they are the biggest game on every team’s schedule. Look at the Lakers over the past two weeks: They have pulled out three overtime wins against two of the worst teams in the league (the Pistons and Thunder) and come back from a 20-point deficit against the Grizzlies. The margin for error is small. And that weight takes a huge toll as time goes on.
Dynasties only look inevitable in hindsight. The Warriors, who were as talented as any team in NBA history, repeated once in five seasons. Injuries played a huge role in their losses in 2016 and 2019. Steph Curry played on a bad knee for most of the 2016 playoffs, and Andrew Bogut was knocked out of that year’s Finals. Durant missed a huge chunk of the 2019 playoffs with a strained calf before tearing his Achilles. The Raptors probably wouldn’t have beaten a fully healthy Warriors team—but they didn’t have to.
The same thing could happen this season. Davis will hopefully recover with plenty of time before the playoffs. There’s just no guarantee that something else doesn’t happen to him or LeBron over the next five months. Daryl Morey once said that a team with a 5 percent chance of winning a title owes it to themselves to go all in. That percentage chance can skyrocket if one of the teams above you gets knocked out. It works the other way, too. A long title window is never guaranteed because one of your stars can get injured at any time. Everything has to line up perfectly for a team to survive the NBA gauntlet and win a championship. Even one with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.