Skip to main content

Anthony Davis Isn’t Going to Save the Lakers

L.A.’s superstar is expected to miss four weeks with a knee injury, but his problems go deeper than that.

The Lakers avoided an absolute worst-case scenario when Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels fell into Anthony Davis’s left knee Friday night. But that doesn’t mean they’ve steered clear of a crisis.

Davis is expected to miss about a month with a sprained MCL. If Los Angeles is lucky, Davis will be sidelined for about only 15 games, leaving 37 more for him to play. But the eight-time All-Star’s eventual presence back in the lineup shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all solution to whatever problems they’ll surely stumble upon while he’s out. When he went down, the Lakers were 16–14, a six seed with the league’s easiest schedule and only four games away from 11th place. They ranked 20th in net rating, 10th in defensive rating and 24th in offensive rating.

Injuries suffered by LeBron James, Kendrick Nunn and Trevor Ariza allowed some optimism about what this roster can accomplish with everybody healthy. But in the 405 minutes Davis has shared the floor with LeBron, the Lakers are only +4. That’s a humongous red flag. And even though they’re far superior with AD at the five and DeAndre Jordan/Dwight Howard on the bench, overall those units haven’t exactly set the world on fire.

Davis’s points per 36 minutes (23.7) are lower than any season since he turned 20, and projection systems at FiveThirtyEight and Basketball-Reference already had the Lakers’ playoff probability below 40%. Those numbers should dip even further, given how wretched Los Angeles looks when Davis and LeBron are both on the sidelines.

Remove Davis from the equation and Frank Vogel now must decide whether Jordan and Howard will both enter his rotation, or whether LeBron will log more minutes at center than ever before. (James is already averaging 37.1 minutes per game, his most since 2017. Right now only Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet logs more. LeBron led the league in ’18 at 36.9 minutes per game.)

A dramatic all-in-on-offense downsize would be fascinating and potentially beneficial to Russell Westbrook (though he’ll still miss the best pick-and-roll partner he’s ever had) and L.A.’s stale offense. Ariza’s return gives them more flexibility alongside Austin Reaves, Carmelo Anthony and Kent Bazemore. But even if their three-point rate (which ranks 23rd) spikes, what they won’t have are all the shots around the basket Davis creates and finishes. On the other end, they allow too many shots at the hoop even when Davis plays. If those numbers rise, things could get pretty ugly.

Davis has once again been a relative disappointment this season. The bar coming off last year’s post-bubble, exhaustion-induced debacle was set at “strong MVP candidate” if the Lakers wanted to contend. Instead he isn’t even a lock for All-Star weekend, even though he’s the Lakers’ top defender and has taken more shots at the rim after last season’s self-defeating reliance on spotty midrange shooting. (Still: Out of 64 players who’ve attempted at least 50 midrange attempts, Davis is 54th in accuracy. There are also 53 players who’ve taken at least 70 pull-up twos. Davis’s 34% is below everyone except Julius Randle.)

And even though he’s shooting a career-high 56.6% of his two-point shots, Davis’s numbers (like free throw rate and three-point percentage) have not bounced back from last season’s nightmarish campaign. They’ve continued to free-fall instead. Recently, Davis was also stuffed at the summit by two ground-bound forwards—Grant Williams and Kyle Anderson—that he would have obliterated two or three years ago.

Some of this broad drop in effectiveness is on Davis himself and extends to the defensive end, where he doesn’t quite strike the same amount of fear protecting the rim as he once did. Davis still blocks 2.0 shots per game but isn’t much of a deterrent.

But context always matters. And a mountain of blame must be placed on his surroundings and the illogical supporting cast Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka thought was best to complement the second-youngest player to crack the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. When Davis shares the floor with Westbrook, his true shooting percentage is roughly nine points lower than it is without him. That’s not much of a coincidence. Even in small lineups, isolating isn’t easy when one teammate who doesn’t begin the play with a ton of gravity is a statue off the ball. Too many of L.A.’s offensive possessions end like this one:

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

Davis can typically be found on the left wing, where he loves to face up and go to work. But all year defenses haven’t had much respect for most of his teammates (even when LeBron is one pass away), which makes everything harder than it needs to be.

There’s no room to operate!

Put Westbrook in the weakside corner while Davis is trying to dive through the paint on a pick-and-roll and expect a mess. They might as well punt the ball into the 37th row and set up their half-court defense.

Some of Davis’s defensive numbers also aren’t great (opponents are shooting 62% at the rim when he’s nearby) but, again, this is an indictment of the roster as much as it is Davis’s inability to cover for everyone else’s mistakes. Watch Anthony and Jordan on the following two plays. Their overeagerness is why the Hornets score.

It’s a bad situation all around, and there’s no one culprit.

But if you’re of the mind that truly great players who are smack-dab in the middle of their prime should still drag whoever’s on their side to—at least—the brink of competitive relevance, then what does that make the 28-year-old Davis? The Lakers are better on both ends when he’s on the bench and outscored when he’s on the floor. Did he peak in the bubble? Just how worried should the Lakers be when LeBron moves on, either by choice or Father Time’s hand?

Davis is talented enough to qualify as one of the NBA’s preeminent faces. His name could be uttered in the same breath as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokić and Steph Curry. But that top-shelf status has eluded him in part due to poor health and an unfortunate need to complicate L.A.’s rotation by insisting he’s a power forward and not a center. It’s not that Davis is inconsistent. The man can sleepwalk through four quarters and still finish with 24 points and eight rebounds. But he doesn’t erupt with the same unanswerable impact that was long promised and seen before he ever demanded a trade to the West Coast.

While Davis’s knee injury may officially sink a Lakers season that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anyway, it also provides a moment to reflect on where things have gone wrong for a generational talent, and whether there’s any chance he and the Lakers can make things right. As of now, concern outweighs hope by a very long mile.

More NBA Coverage:
Inside LaMelo Ball's Breakout Year
NBA Power Rankings: Where All Teams Stand Ahead of Christmas
NBA Trade Season: Five Trade Candidates to Watch
• Inside Stephen Curry's Record-Breaking Night