September 26, 2023

LeBron James has spent years trying to hand the reigns over to a younger sidekick. It might’ve happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers had Kyrie Irving not requested the trade. Anthony Davis proved a worthy sidekick in Los Angeles, but struggled without James by his side. The two of them were stellar together, but Davis frequently missed time, and when James got hurt, Davis struggled to keep the Lakers afloat. 

In his first three seasons in Los Angeles, Davis went 11-19 in games he played without James. He averaged 24.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in those outings, a fine output for most players, but hardly enough to lead a top-heavy Lakers roster missing James. With LeBron nearing his 40s, those absences are going to become frequent. Davis needed to step up with James out, especially now, with the Laker season on the line.

So far, Davis is delivering. On Sunday, Davis dragged the Lakers across the finish line against a suddenly healthy Golden State Warriors team also fighting for playoff positioning. In the end, he totaled 39 points, eight rebounds and six assists in the victory, including 12 critical points in a fourth quarter that was tied with under six minutes to play.

For the season now, the Lakers are 5-7 when Davis plays without James. That’s not ideal, but it’s been enough to keep the 31-34 Lakers in the play-in race. Each and every one of those victories boiled down to Davis’ individual performance. He is now averaging 29.6 points and 14.3 rebounds per game when he plays without James. It’s a small sample, but he’s up to 35 points per game in his past three games without James, which have all come after the All-Star break and the acclimation of his new teammates acquired at the trade deadline.

The Lakers have the third-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA by opponent winning percentage. They got a bit of good luck when Ja Morant was suspended over the weekend, taking him out of Tuesday’s game against the Grizzlies. They have 17 remaining games, and 10 of them are home games. An 11th, a “road” game against the Clippers, will take place in their own building. 

The stars are aligning for the Lakers even with James sidelined. If Davis can keep playing like this, the Lakers can keep their heads above water long enough for LeBron to recover and for them as a team to become one of the more dangerous teams the play-in round will ever produce. The version of Davis we got in prior seasons wasn’t up to this task. But right now? He’s every bit the partner James needed to take over his team while he recovers.

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