Anthony Davis’ Return Ramps up the Pressure on the Los Angeles Lakers to Prove Themselves as Contenders

With one injury update on Monday afternoon, the Los Angeles Lakers sent a significant shockwave throughout the basketball world. Also, they shifted the white-hot glare of scrutiny back onto themselves now that their roster is nearly whole again.

The update read like this: Anthony Davis (left knee; MCL sprain) is probable.

That message means that, in all likelihood, the nearly 7-foot superstar forward will make his much-anticipated return to action on Tuesday night. As if basketball fans didn’t already have enough reason to watch the LA Lakers play the injury-ravaged Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, now they can tune in to see how effective the shot-swatting Davis is in his return to action. Undoubtedly, basketball fans also will be eager to see if Davis’ return can help the Lakers go from ordinary to extraordinary once again.

How effective can forward Anthony Davis be for the Los Angeles Lakers in his return?  

Los Angeles Lakers star power forward Anthony Davis warms up before a game against the Memphis Grizzlies on December 09, 2021. | Justin Ford/Getty Images

Anthony Davis will be back in action on Tuesday for the first time since Dec. 17. That night — during a 110-92 loss to Minnesota — Davis suffered a sprained MCL to his left knee. Teammate LeBron James was partly to blame for the injury as he shoved Jaden McDaniels and the Minnesota forward fell back into Davis’ leg.

That night was a microcosm of Davis’ season as he hobbled off to the locker room twice that night. The oft-injured Davis’s impact has been less than usual because he’s repeatedly been in and out of the lineup. 

In 27 games, he’s averaged 23.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.0 blocks, and 1.2 steals. While he’s shot a stellar 52.1% overall, Davis has been awful from beyond the 3-point arc (10 of 56).

Look a little closer, and you can see how Davis’ aggression and activity are barometers for the Lakers’ success. In the 13 wins he’s played in this season, he averaged 24.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.6 blocks. However, in the 14 losses he’s been in, his production has plunged to 22 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.5 blocks. In the 27 games with Davis, the Lakers have scored 109.9 points a game, but they have allowed 112.2. In the 20 games Davis has missed, the ratio is minus-0.1.

Largely because of injuries, some argue that Anthony Davis is no longer an elite player

Anthony Davis’ days as one of the NBA’s most impactful players could be waning, especially with him becoming increasingly more brittle. When Davis suffered his latest knee injury, the Lakers were a blah 16-14, and they have been a forgettable 7-10 since he went down.  

Former NBA champion and ESPN analyst Richard Jefferson wonders if Davis’ return will be impactful enough to make the Lakers relevant again. After all, the Lakers have had significant issues offensively and defensively, and their consistency has been lacking all season.

“(LA’s record is) 13-14 with Davis and 10-10 without him — is there a ton of difference?” Davis asked on ESPN’s NBA Today show on Monday. “Now, I understand before everybody starts going crazy that LeBron missed a ton of that time, and they were dealing with injuries to (Talen Tucker-Horton) and (Kendrick) Nunn, who is still struggling. 

“They’ve had some issues getting their entire lineup healthy, but is Anthony Davis going to solve it all?” Davis asked again. “It’s not like when you are looking at Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and what the team’s record is when he’s in (action).”

Jefferson then doubled down on his comments and questioned whether Davis is still in the same conversation as the best players in the NBA.

“For the last five years, we’ve talked about Anthony Davis being a top-five player, a top-five talent, and (wondered) when is he going to lift himself up to be Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate?” Davis questioned. “Well, right now he’s looking like a top-five big man; he’s not even top-five at his (power forward/center) position because I would put Giannis (Antetokounmpo) above him, I would put (Joel) Embiid above him, and I would put (Nikola) Jokic above him. So, right now — with all that ability and talent, and he’s won a championship — he’s the fourth-best big man in this league.”

Anthony Davis’s return shifts the pressure back onto a Lakers team with big expectations

LeBron James and Anthony Davis pushed GM Rob Pelinka to (foolishly) trade for mercurial point guard Russell Westbrook before the season. Many have doubted whether that combination of players would ever work at a high level — especially considering the aging talent and lack of shooting around them.

The Lakers received a pass while Davis was out, although their 37-point loss in Denver nearly cost head coach Frank Vogel his job. Then, Westbrook almost blew a gasket when Vogel benched him for the final 3:52 of a loss to the Indiana Pacers and never put him back into the game.

Now, the pressure and spotlight shift directly onto the Lakers to prove that pairing James, Davis, and Westbrook was the right thing to do. First, Davis must prove that he can stay healthy for an extended period. Then, he must bring the offensive aggression and the defensive activity that once made him one of the game’s best two-way players.

James has almost single-handedly carried the Lakers while Davis has been away, scoring at least 25 points in 17 straight games. It’s the second-best such streak of his career. But those all-out efforts have to be taking a toll on the 37-year-old James, and it will be up to Davis to help share some of the heavy lifting.

As for Westbrook, he must now share the spotlight — and the basketball — with two other high-usage players. Whether or not he will be willing to sacrifice for the team could be a key to the season.

Davis’ return put the Lakers right in the middle of the spotlight, and pressure abounds. If Davis can stay healthy and thrive alongside James and Westbrook, the Lakers might be a factor in the chase for the Western Conference crown. Fail, and there will be more calls to blow up a superstar trio that seemed like it was doomed to fail from the start.  

Richard Jefferson, for one, has his doubts.

“Ultimately, (Davis) is one of the top five big men in this league, and whoever is adding that level of talent, there’s going to be an improvement,” Jefferson said on ESPN’s NBA Today. “But (the Lakers) still have soul-searching to do once he comes back.”

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