The Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in a tough predicament.
As if being plagued by injuries throughout the regular season wasn't enough, their first round playoff series with the Phoenix Suns has been marred by injuries to starters Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Anthony Davis within the first four games.
Caldwell-Pope's absence shouldn't be understated, but the absence of Davis leaves an All-Star sized void that this Lakers team might not have the ability to fill, even by committee.
MORE: Without AD, do Lakers have answers for Suns?
Is Los Angeles doomed? Could its title defence be over before it even gets going?
It's been six years since a defending champion was ousted in the first round but history can't help the Lakers in this series. Instead, this team will need to find answers and find them fast as it's unclear whether or not its All-Star big man will be out for an extended period of time.
Lakers star Anthony Davis is unlikely to play in Game 5 vs. Suns on Tuesday due to strained groin, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium. There's optimism about Davis' status as series continues and as he is evaluated day-to-day.- Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) May 31, 2021
When Davis went down late in the second quarter of Game 4, the Lakers trailed by just one point before entering the halftime break down by four. With Kyle Kuzma starting in Davis' place to open the second half, Phoenix held Los Angeles to just 15 points (on 3-for-16 shooting) to take a 16-point lead into the final frame.
It … wasn't pretty.
Perhaps it was the shock of losing such a key player, as Los Angeles had opportunities to make it a two-possession game down the stretch of the fourth, but even that places more questions surrounding what this team could do without Davis.
How did the Lakers fare without Anthony Davis this season?
This isn't unfamiliar territory for the Lakers, who were without Davis for half of the team's 72 games during the 2020-21 season. It should come as no surprise that Los Angeles is much better with Davis than without, posting a 23-13 record with him in the lineup compared to a 19-17 mark with him sidelined, though it's worth noting that Davis and LeBron James were simultaneously sidelined for a total of 18 games.
If there's any cause for optimism, it's that the Lakers managed an 11-7 record in the games that LeBron suited up without Davis by his side, but a closer look might cause that optimism to dissipate as they were 10-1 against non-playoff teams and 1-6 against playoff teams.
In case you needed a reminder, the Suns are indeed a playoff team. A very good one at that.
Who have the Lakers used to fill Anthony Davis' absence?
A look back at how the Lakers played without Davis during the regular season only adds to the confusion, as they turned to a number of starting units to make up for his absence, lineups that aren't likely to be replicated because of personnel changes, namely the post-trade deadline addition of Andre Drummond.
Based on what was shown in Game 4, it's a fair assumption that an AD- and KCP-less starting unit would be comprised of Dennis Schröder, Wesley Matthews, James, Kuzma and Drummond.
During the regular season, that lineup played a total of zero minutes together. In four minutes this series, it's a unit that's posted an offensive rating of 50.0 and a defensive rating of 155.6, so it might not be the answer.
Replace Matthews with Caldwell-Pope and you've got a lineup that's played two minutes together this series, posting an offensive rating of 150.0 and a defensive rating of 133.3.
These sample sizes are extremely small, but it gives some type of idea of what might - and might not - work in Davis' absence.
Who will step up if Anthony Davis can't play in Game 5?
LA's two wins in the series are a direct result of interior dominance from Davis, who posted 34-point double-doubles in both Games 2 and 3 against the Suns. While no other Laker big is capable of numbers that dominant, a frontcourt rotation of Drummond, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell could come close, but they'll have to be dialled in.
While Drummond and Gasol have each turned in impressive performances this postseason, Harrell received two DNPs in the Lakers' two wins of the series and didn't attempt a shot in five minutes of playing time in Game 4. While it's not the greatest matchup for Harrell, he did post a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double in a March loss to the Suns in which Davis and James were absent.
Los Angeles could only hope he could replicate some of that production while holding his own defensively.
Ultimately, it will all come down to LeBron, who is having an OK series by his standards, posting averages of 21.8 points, 8.5 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game. While the 36-year-old has yet to turn in a signature performance this series, Davis' injury will undoubtedly thrust him to a bigger role and turn up the pressure.
It's a pressure that James has already acknowledged and insisted that he's ready for.
"These shoulders were built for a reason. So, if it takes for me to put some more on top of it, then so be it. Win, lose or draw, I'm ready for the challenge."
It's been nearly eight months since James' last true signature postseason performances, as he closed out the 2020 NBA Finals with a 40-point performance in a Game 5 loss followed by a 28-point triple-double in the title clincher.
In the time since, he, too has dealt with an injury that has caused him to look unlike himself at times, while at others, he's still doing LeBron-like things.
Happy with the result 🤣 pic.twitter.com/0VAkqAJ6BY- Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) May 30, 2021
pic.twitter.com/5fJYfifJtA- Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) May 30, 2021
With no AD to rally around, an aggressive LeBron can set the tone, which, in turn, can get the most out of every single player tasked with filling the monstrous void, bit by bit.
The Lakers might not be doomed without Davis, but things definitely won't be easy.
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