The Los Angeles Lakers appeared to finally have things figured out entering the stretch run of the NBA season. L.A. was 4-1 since their major NBA Trade Deadline acquisitions, bringing D’Angelo Russell back in to the fold alongside Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Mo Bamba to help bolster a roster that was fairly mundane around superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Their sub-.500 regular season reflected that reality - as well as the intermittent availability of both James and Davis as a duo.
The Lakers have played 62 games so far this season. LeBron and AD have shared the floor in 28 of them. That is, most certainly, not a recipe for L.A. championship aspirations. Davis is now set to miss the Lakers’ next game, on Wednesday night vs. the Thunder, according to Shams Charania.
But things were turning around! That is, until, LeBron heard a pop. And now he will miss at least two weeks, once again putting the Lakers without at least one of their two best players.
But against the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday night, at least for a short time, it appeared the Lakers would be able to weather the storm. Davis was dominant, taking advantage of an undersized Xavier Tillman Sr. and being a menace on the glass and around the rim. Players the likes of Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker IV were providing scoring punch with both James and D’Angelo Russell out, and the aforementioned Beasley and Vanderbilt were supplying their own sparks of offensive production and defensive/rebounding tenacity, respectively.
But a funny thing happened after the first half ended and as the second half began. Anthony Davis continued to be a force, finishing the game with 28 points (on 19 shots), 19 rebounds, and 5 blocks. But those that provided first-half support weren’t able to match what the Memphis Grizzlies had in the greatness of Ja Morant...
Ja Morant. 28 points in the 3rd quarter. Was just AWESOME to watch. pic.twitter.com/giozdk4ALB— Rob Edwards (@RobertDEdwards) March 1, 2023
...or the physical dominance of Jaren Jackson Jr...
Jaren Jackson Jr's putback dunk over AD!— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) March 1, 2023
16 PTS | 7 REB | 4 BLK | W pic.twitter.com/mLUYRnQHcz
The Lakers outshot the Grizzlies from three by almost 20 percent, making 13 shots beyond the arc to just 6 for Memphis. L.A. outrebounded the Grizzlies 56-47. And yet, despite those advantages and a monster night from Anthony Davis, the Lakers lost by double-digits.
There goes figuring things out. Once the answers were apparently discovered, the questions once again changed.
The Lakers committed 25 turnovers in the Grizzlies game - certainly not helpful when scoring attempts give way to Memphis possessions, especially in transition where the Grizzlies thrive. But AD committed only 5 of those turnovers, and considering his usage in the game and the importance of his presence that is more understandable than, say, the following -
- Dennis Schroder - 6 turnovers
- Austin Reaves - 4 turnovers
- Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Lonnie Walker IV - 3 turnovers
That level of carelessness from arguably the guys L.A. needs most with LeBron James out that aren’t named D’Angelo Russell amplifies the problem for the Lakers. They simply need Anthony Davis to be other-worldly in order for them to get back in the playoff conversation in a parity-riddled Western Conference. Or for the “other guys” to be better than they were in the second half against Memphis.
And in fairness, to an extent that isn’t possible - and also part of the Lakers problem. Ja Morant is a superstar in this league. Jaren Jackson Jr. is an NBA All-Star, and to this point Desmond Bane (16 points/5 rebounds/4 steals/3 assists) and Xavier Tillman Sr. (made life difficult for Davis, who was clearly winded in the 2nd half, while posting a double-double of his own) haven’t even been mentioned. Having improved depth is great.
But when the stars for an opposing team, like Morant and Jackson Jr., go off - compared to just a STAR in Davis, without James - it will be an uphill battle on most nights for the Lakers.
Anthony Davis was a beast last night— NBA Fantasy (@NBAFantasy) March 1, 2023
60.8 FPTS#LakeShow pic.twitter.com/7dVMFbXhsG
That level of play was not enough to enable the Lakers to survive the Memphis All-Stars’ onslaught. And while the Grizzlies are indeed one of the league’s best teams, things do not get easier from here with LeBron James out.
D’Angelo Russell will return before LeBron does, and that will certainly help to an extent. Getting players like Beasley and Schroder back closer to ideal roles will allow for them to not over-extend beyond their capabilities. But Russell, while a very good NBA player, does not fill the void fully that LeBron James leaves behind.
So much of what the Lakers have been built to be is around the idea of what LeBron and Anthony Davis are together. In tandem, their work should be the stuff of basketball lore, even at this advanced stage of LeBron’s career. The NBA’s all-time leading scorer, James has shown he is still among the league’s elite. And Davis is more than capable of being on that list as well.
But without LeBron - which Davis will be eventually, one way or another - AD is forced to be the bearer of all that Lakers championship-or-bust burden weight. Trade deadline deals for anyone other than Kevin Durant don’t pass that load on in-season. As time has progressed, it is supposed to be Davis’ Lakers team with LeBron as one of the league’s best right-hand men.
That has not materialized consistently this season, for reasons largely outside of Davis’ control. And when it comes to the ones that are - his own efforts and play - it simply may not be enough to save the Lakers season.
To be both that important, and yet that unable to alter the course of events for those that depend so much on you, must foster a frustrating feeling.
And a lonely one, at that.