Anthony Davis’ injury could change the playoff picture in the West

Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images
Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images /

The defending champs should be able to tread water without Anthony Davis, but their playoff upside is contingent upon him returning to his peak.

The Lakers avoided a worst-case scenario on Monday when an MRI revealed that Anthony Davis’ right Achilles’ tendon was still intact. Yet the news still presented the defending NBA champions with a hurdle in their pursuit of a second consecutive title. A right calf strain and Achilles tendinosis will likely keep Davis out of the L.A. lineup through at least the All-Star break, which will ask a relatively limited roster to compensate for the loss of an All-Star.

The bigger concern, however, is the uncertainty of Davis’ long-term prognosis, which has significant bearing on his team’s championship viability. This is the kind of injury a team with multiple ball-handlers and sound defensive parts around LeBron James can afford to slow-play in the regular season, but Davis’ availability and effectiveness in the playoffs have now become the biggest variables in the NBA title race.

The silver lining here, if there is one, is that the Lakers’ floor is much more closely tied to James’ production than Davis’, so even a prolonged absence shouldn’t completely sink them in the Western Conference standings. James is once again carrying one of the heaviest offensive loads in the NBA, and once again delivering an MVP-caliber season (how his team fares in the coming weeks without Davis will almost certainly have significant influence over whether LeBron actually wins the award). The Lakers are outscoring opponents by 5.3 points per 100 possessions when James plays without Davis and have actually been better defensively with Davis off the floor for the second straight regular season (though they’re still quite good with him on). Losing a second All-Star makes L.A. more vulnerable, especially defensively, when James goes to the bench, but the Lakers should be able to weather that dropoff by committee — or else by the sheer brilliance of LeBron.

How can the Lakers replace Anthony Davis in the short term?

The 33-minute-a-game hole he leaves in the lineup can double as a proving ground for players like Kyle Kuzma, Talen-Horton Tucker, Markeiff Morris and Wes Matthews, all of whom will likely soak up some of Davis’ scoring volume and at least one of whom must establish himself as a reliable piece of Frank Vogel’s playoff rotation. LeBron, meanwhile, has ramped up to 38 points per 100 possessions on 59 percent true shooting with Davis off the floor this season while assisting on over 43 percent of the team’s makes.

Dial up James’ usage a touch, lean the second-unit offense into Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell’s two-man game, and reallocate shots to other capable, if flawed, scorers, and there’s a way to approximate — though not totally replace — most of Davis’ offensive value in the short term. Davis, meanwhile, has played more of a complementary role this season, and — perhaps due to health-related reasons — wasn’t having a dominant season, to begin with. He’s posting his lowest scoring rate since 2014 on career-low efficiency, largely as a product of a more difficult shot diet and inconsistent 3-point shooting. He hasn’t been the same superhuman defensive force or lethal mid-range weapon he was in the Bubble last summer.

Still, Davis is irreplaceable for the Lakers due to his malleability at the highest levels of basketball. Even if L.A. squeezes 90 percent of his production out of the rest of its roster, it’s that last, most crucial 10 percent that separates the Lakers from the rest of the league in the postseason. There’s just no other weapon quite like Davis in the NBA, and certainly not one that also has the luxury of being a secondary offensive option. He happens to be the best roll man in the league, yet also requires defenses to mind the threat of his jumper. He’s a versatile one-on-one scorer who has improved his passing to the point of consistently punishing the help he attracts.

And he’s one of the most flexible defensive anchors in NBA history, capable of dropping back and taking away the rim, stepping out onto ball-handlers, and covering massive amounts of ground to erase teammates’ mistakes. Those qualities not only augment Davis’ value as the postseason progresses but make the game simpler for his teammates. Any slight decrease in speed or explosiveness caused by a hampered Achilles makes the Lakers that much less dynamic, and that much more vulnerable to increasingly dangerous Western Conference rivals.

We have reason to hope that Davis will be himself by the time the playoffs begin; three months of rest, rehab, and ramping up is usually more than enough time for a player to get back up to speed. But this isn’t Davis’ first injury-related absence, nor will it be the last time he misses games due to injury maintenance. An ill-timed re-aggravation of that Achilles or any other nagging ailment will pose a serious threat to his and his team’s long-term success. The Lakers can weather that for the next three months. Beyond that point, the foundation might start to give.

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