When star big man Anthony Davis went down with an Achilles injury back in February, the Los Angeles Lakers were heavily relying on 36-year-old LeBron James to maintain an MVP level of play to keep the team afloat.
When James went down with an ankle injury, joining his All-Star teammate on the sidelines for a chunk of time, the defending champions needed some soul searching to figure out how they would keep this season from falling off the tracks while their duo healed.
Davis has been out since Feb. 16, missing the team's last 24 games. According to New York Times' Marc Stein, he is expected to remain out through Los Angeles' current Eastern Conference road trip, meaning he'll miss at least the next three games (versus the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets).
James has been out since March 20, missing the team's last 10 games. The Athletic's Shams Charania reported on March 25 that LeBron is expected to miss 4-to-6 more weeks, meaning the earliest he would approximately return is April 22, with the latest being approximately May 6. That puts the 17-time All-Star out for roughly another 12-to-15 games, games the Lakers cannot afford to give away if they want to avoid sliding down the Western Conference standings.
In the 10 games the team has played without James or Davis, the Lakers own a 4-6 record, going from second-place to fifth-place in the West.
With a 32-20 record, they're just 2.5 games ahead of the first Play-In Tournament slot but only 2.0 games separate them from retaining homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
So while these two stars inch slowly toward returning to the court, who has this team relied on to step up in their absence?
Reserve centre Montrezl Harrell is averaging 15.6 points and 7.5 rebounds over the 10-game span, but that isn't much of a jump from his season-long averages. Kyle Kuzma has taken on a bit more responsibility as a playmaker, up to 15.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, but his efficiency has taken a dip, particularly from 3-point range where he has shot 28.4 percent.
You would think these voids would pave the way for significant minutes for 20-year-old promising forward Talen Horton-Tucker, but he has only seen his playing time jump up roughly four minutes per game. He's posting 10.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists over the 10 games to make the most of his shifts, but it hasn't been the breakout opportunity you may have expected.
Newly signed centre Andre Drummond will have a chance to stake his claim as the team's No. 3 option, but his Laker career got out to a rough start, suffering a nagging toe injury just 12 minutes into his first contest. He has since recovered from the injury and made his presence felt in his second game, a loss to the Miami Heat, going for 15 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Now that Drummond is back in the lineup, will he be that emerging third star?
While that question is still to be determined, the closest thing there is to a defined answer of "who has been the Lakers' third star?," is point guard Dennis Schroder.
The 27-year-old has averaged the most points per game (16.2) over those 10 games while also owning the highest usage rate (24.5%). Taking over primary ballhandling duties in LeBron's absence, Schroder has gone from averaging 4.7 assists over his first 38 games of the season to 8.0 assists over the 10-game span. He is averaging roughly four turnovers per game, but you can't fault the floor general for trying to be a playmaker in filling James' shoes.
His 3-point efficiency is up to almost 40 percent and his offensive rating is the best on the team for anyone that has played over 200 minutes. However, he does own the second-worst net rating on the team during this window due to a poor defensive rating.
But even with that being said, defence has not been the issue for Los Angeles as a team. They actually own a better defensive rating (104.2) over the last 10 games than they did prior to James' injury that left the team without both of their stars (106.8).
The Lakers are struggling to produce consistent offence, with their offensive rating dropping from 112.7 to 101.3 - the second-worst offensive rating in the NBA over this stretch.
There is no denying that Schroder has been the player that has covered the most ground in the absence of James and Davis, but as a team, they truly struggled to step up and fill the gaps.
Maybe now that Drummond is back and healthy, that will be enough to keep things sailing along until the star tandem returns. But if not, and Los Angeles continues to stall when it comes to stringing together wins, this team could potentially face a much tougher playoff push than desired in trying to defend their NBA title.
It's certainly a situation to monitor closely until James and Davis are back in action.
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