The Los Angeles Lakers found themselves without the services of their second and, arguably, third-best players in Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder during a stretch in which they lost four in a row and five out of six games to drop from 21-6 and nipping at the heels of the red-hot Utah Jazz (who are an astonishing 27-7 and look every bit like a Finals team) to 22-11 and at risk of falling below the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers to drop all the way into fourth place and a second-round matchup with that Jazz team.
The moral of the story, of course, is that nobody, not even LeBron James, can turn that wretched G-League team that is the Lakers roster from 4 through 15 into a genuine Western Conference force.
But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance. All it took was getting Schroder back for the Lakers to go from a hopeless death spiral to righting the ship and smacking the Portland Trail Blazers 102-93 and the Golden State Warriors 117-91, putting the Lakers at 24-11, half a game up on the Clippers, a full game up on the Suns, and just 3.5 back of Utah for that all-important top seed.
All this, it should be noted, while LeBron himself has been battling ankle soreness and starting to look like what he is—a 36-year-old whose pure unbreakable athletic dominance has yielded to the ultimate canny veteran leading a team that, oh by the way, won the NBA championship last season.
LeBron is the oldest player on a team that has Marc Gasol, Jared Dudley, and Wesley Matthews on it. The Lakers are not a batch of young, hungry up-and-comers; they are a team built for a title window that will last only as long as LeBron stays in the league.
But, of course, this isn’t about LeBron—not directly, at least.
It’s about the dropoff of a top-heavy roster without its other superstar, a guy averaging 22.5 points and 8.4 rebounds a game as the second option behind the King’s 25.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game.
Replacing Davis has been the job of Gasol, who rather than pouring in the Brow’s 24.7 points per 36 minutes, is averaging just 8.6, while committing twice as many fouls on a per-36 basis (4.2 vs. 2.0) and shooting just 40.3 percent to Davis’ 53.3.
Granted, Gasol has been a stretch 5 with a 3PAR of .634, one reason that when the calculation settles on eFG%, Gasol fares better, but it’s still a dropoff from .555 to .519.
The point, as if it weren’t obvious, is that a 36-year-old Marc Gasol is not anything close to Anthony Davis in his prime.
The advanced stats bear this out as well. Davis is posting a superstar-level .207 WS/48; Gasol is on .136.
Per 2500 minutes, Davis is posting 5.3 VORP; Gasol is posting a respectable but “not Anthony Davis” 2.1. That’s seven wins per 82 games in one stat (or about six wins in this truncated 72-game season.)
Considering the season’s about halfway done, let’s look at three wins as our benchmark; that’s the difference between the Lakers trailing by 3.5 games as they do now in the standings and the Lakers trailing by just half a game.
Or, in the opposite direction, it’s the difference between leading the Clippers and Suns by half and a full game and leading them by 3.5 or 4.
Luckily the West is top-heavy; it’s not as bad as the East, which remains utterly hopeless below the third-place Milwaukee Bucks, but there’s quite a bit of head room between the 22-11 fourth-place Suns and the 17-12 fifth-place Spurs.
Meanwhile, let’s also consider Schroder; while he’s not good (zero VORP, .097 WS/48, a horrific .479 eFG%), he is at least a competent defender, with nearly three-quarters of his Win Shares coming on that side of the ball.
The difference is that his backup, Talen Horton-Tucker, is also a competent defender—or the Lakers run a system that does a more-than-adequate job of elevating their point guards defensively; defensive stats are notorious for clouding this issue and, as a non-Lakers fan, I don’t watch every one of their games to know for sure; if you are a Lakers fan and know the defensive side of the game, I’ll happily consider a guest post slot for you to explain to my audience.
But you can look at the stats that you have, and what you’ll see is that THT is a worse shooter and similar defender to Schroder, which only further increases the load that LeBron has to bear when he doesn’t have Davis as his secondary option.
This is what happens when a top-heavy team has to reshuffle the deck. The cards it gets dealt have a nasty habit of turning out to be closer to 2-7 unsuited than pocket aces.
Davis will be out for at least another 2-3 weeks according to Basketball Reference. Chances are good that if the Lakers can right the ship and at least stay comfortably in the top four with Schroder as the second option, they’ll give Davis plenty of time to heal up rather than risk a Kevin Durant-like Bluesmobile moment in the playoffs. We may not see him until after Easter at that rate.
Because that’s ultimately what matters. The Lakers need to win 16 games as spring turns to summer, and for that, they’re going to need the big guns healthy. There’s just no way that they’re winning a title if they’re forced to play the likes of Marc Gasol and Talen Horton-Tucker (never mind whoever’s backing up LeBron in this scenario) big minutes in the playoffs.
So don’t put too much stock in the regular season. Because it’s a safe bet the Lakers aren’t, at least any more than they have to in order to put themselves in position to battle their way out of the Western Conference in a set of seven-game series.