Year 3: Injuries ravage roster as Davis and LeBron combine to miss over half the pandemic-shortened 72-game schedule. Lakers back into the playoffs through the play-in tournament. Davis goes down for good in Game 4 vs. Phoenix. Lakers lose in first round.
And here we are in Year 4, with the Lakers gimping into the All-Star break at 27-31. If the postseason started today, they'd have to win two play-in games as the No. 9 seed just for the right to most likely get ousted by the Suns again in the first round.
The Russell Westbrook experiment has gone kaboom, and now Davis is hurt again. This time it's a mid-foot sprain that will keep him in street clothes for at least the next four weeks, at which point he'll be reevaluated. By that time, the Lakers' season could very well be over.
It might be already.
In the interest of optimism, there's a sliver of hope for LeBron and company to hold the fort down in AD's absence. It won't be easy. The Lakers have the league's third-toughest remaining schedule. But they're tied in the loss column with the No. 8 Clippers. Find a way to get that No. 8 seed, and the Lakers would get a one-game playoff -- as of now vs. Minnesota -- for the No. 7 seed. Most likely, that would match them up against the Warriors or Grizzlies in the first round, hopefully with Davis back.
Obviously, the Lakers would feel good about their chances vs. Memphis. But I even think they could give Golden State, which has lost four of its past five and has its own issues starting to mount, an honest run. The Lakers just have to get there and to do so, LeBron is going to have to stay healthy and play every game over these next four weeks at an MVP level.
The good news is we've seen this team thrive in center-less lineups this season -- or with LeBron at center, however, you want to parse it. No big men in the lane open things up for LeBron's downhill attacks. LeBron can facilitate from the elbow/high-post with cutters at his disposal. Most importantly, if Westbrook has any chance of being not just a helpful player, but a true difference maker, it's without a big man on the floor.
After Davis' injury last week, the Laker rallied to beat the Jazz. They turned a 12-point deficit into a two-point lead with a 16-2 run over a four-minute stretch, almost entirely without a big on the floor. They got stops and pushed the pace. Westbrook got into the lane for a coast-to-coast finish and another time found LeBron on a little misdirection handoff for a dunk. LeBron scored 15 of his 33 points in the fourth.
It didn't hurt that Utah can't contain dribble penetration to save its life. The Jazz missed some open looks that allowed the Lakers to run. We've seen these small lineups thrive offensively but they haven't been able to get consistent stops. Dwight Howard will surely see his minutes increase, but expect these small lineups to shoulder a big burden while Davis is out.
It's a heavy load to carry for LeBron, particularly on the defensive end and on the glass. Constantly having to guard bigger players and gang battle for rebounds wears on any team, and certainly will on a 37-year-old LeBron. But we know he's up for the challenge. It remains to be seen whether his teammates are equally capable, but in a weird way, this AD injury could galvanize the Lakers over a relatively short-term stretch.
Remember, the Lakers don't play again until Feb. 25 against the Clippers, the team they're trying to pass for that all-important No. 8 seed, which would give them a shot at the 7-seed, which would probably keep them from having to play the Suns. By then, it will be over a week into Davis' return timetable. So they really only have to survive three weeks if -- and this might be a big if -- Davis is ready to go after his initial reevaluation.
The Lakers can do that. And they might even pass for a fun team in the process. This is where a team everyone is ready to leave for dead gets to play with house money. This is where Westbrook gets optimal conditions to look like the LeBron co-star he still believes he is. If he's focused, he doesn't have to take jump shots with these lineups. He'll have Malik Monk and Austin Reaves and hopefully Carmelo Anthony around him.
And LeBron, of course. He's the engine, and this is yet another opportunity for him to dazzle us with his age-defying brilliance. He's not going to pass that up. You can take it to the bank that LeBron, who will be as rested as he can be coming out of the All-Star break, is going to do his part and more.
Whether that will be enough to sustain the Lakers over a season-saving, three-week stretch will be up to everyone else. Personally, I think this is going to excite the Lakers to prove everyone wrong. I wouldn't be surprised to see them make a run without Davis. Or at least I'm hoping they do because LeBron has been too great for the Lakers to go belly up for the third time in his four L.A. seasons.