With Anthony Davis out, the Lakers need a version of LeBron James that isn’t realistic

Even before more ominous news about Anthony Davis was revealed, the Lakers’ biggest question revolved around the weight LeBron James is carrying and if it is fair to ask more of him.

Now that Davis’ long-term status has gotten murkier because of the stress injury in his foot that may cost him more time than the initial prognosis determined, the Lakers and James are nearing a crossroads of sorts.

James, predictably, wants help. Even when Davis was playing some of the best basketball of his career, it barely helped the Lakers to mediocre status in the West.

So much of the best-case scenario has unfolded for the Lakers: Davis has seemingly taken the mantle of the Lakers’ best player, a two-way force that is consistent and dominant. Darvin Ham has shown the chops to be a good head coach, steady and inspiring. Russell Westbrook has embraced his role off the bench, without complaint and being the best version of himself one can reasonably expect.

And even with the best-case scenario, it means nothing.

That has to be beyond sobering for Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka, it has to be horrifying.

Now that Davis is out for the foreseeable future and even longer, it’ll place more of the onus on James to keep things afloat — if that’s the term one can use when talking about a team that’s 13th in the West and behind the Oklahoma City Thunder in the standings.

James used to be a one-man stimulus package. There was a time when you could put James on the floor and align him with the used parts from Fred and Lamont Sanford’s garage and feel like he’d made the best of it.

When referencing another prominent player, an NBA executive told Yahoo Sports, “[Player] influences winning but doesn’t drive it.”

That last part could best describe James at his apex or anywhere near it. James was perhaps the single greatest driver of winning of anyone in modern NBA history. It doesn’t mean he’s the best or greatest player; it simply implies a team’s floor is raised to its highest point by having him around.

With Anthony Davis out for the foreseeable future, the onus is on Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James to keep the team afloat. (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas)

The greatest drivers of winning now appear to be Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Kevin Durant. Merely having them gives you a chance to go over the top.

James, as recently as 2019-20, used to head that table.

Now, he influences winning, and can be exceptional at that.

Making teams competent and functional is a talent, but we’re starting to see it wane as James nears age 38 a few days after Christmas. For the second straight season, and for most of his time as a Laker, it doesn’t appear James will have the Lakers ascending to competitive status.

It’s usually something that has gotten in the way of the grand dreams James and the franchise possessed in the preseason: an injury to James, combined with a team-altering controversy, or an injury to Davis. Before James arrived in Los Angeles, the last time his team was truly out of the championship discussion was 2006 — his third year in the league and the first time he got a taste of the postseason.

He was 21 then, and put together a sterling two-run showing that would foreshadow the next 15 years or so: An entertaining first-round series against Gilbert Arenas and the Washington Wizards, followed by taking the then-two-time East champ Detroit Pistons to the brink with a 3-2 lead before losing in seven.

Remember that?

Twenty-one was a long time ago.

It bears out now, at times on the floor when he can’t imprint his sheer will onto a game that seems desperate for ownership. He’s taking the second-most shots of his career (21.0 attempts) while his efficiency is down (49.3% would tie his lowest following 2015). His free throws continue to dip while the 3-point shots continue to increase — his seven attempts per night is the second-highest mark of his career and shooting 31.4% is third to only his rookie year and 2015-16, in terms of career low.

It’s hard to recall a 38-year-old looking this good, despite the numbers heading downhill, but the fact remains that the Lakers aren’t good enough to have a version of James that’s less than his historic standard.

The roster isn’t built for him to be an exceptional 38-year-old; it’s calling for him to be an exceptional player for any age, and that doesn’t seem realistic at this point.

He can certainly rev it up for a few weeks, turn into the Tasmanian Devil for a stretch during the upcoming doldrums of the season to pull the Lakers into a play-in spot, maybe. But with his health at a premium, the miles on his body and the hits he has taken, it doesn’t seem feasible to push himself beyond his limits for something that doesn’t feel like a worthwhile return.

To boot, James averaged a league-high 36.9 minutes per game in his last season in Cleveland. In the last two seasons thus far, he’s averaged 36.7 minutes — which feels like a recipe for an injury if folks aren’t careful.

And unfortunately for the Lakers, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which they sacrifice a future that’s already unknown for a thin slice of possibility that the present can look better than it does now.

It doesn’t feel like there’s a move they can make to elevate themselves in the meantime, and it’s probably best if they sit in reality.

It’s not a death knell, the Lakers have been in unsavory positions before, as have plenty of other franchises.

It’s just their turn.

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