It’s far too early for panic in Lakerland, but never too early for concern.
Never mind the irony in the statistically aware Russell Westbrook taking umbrage with Darius Bazley playing to the final buzzer in true Westbrook fashion, prompting an ejection from Westbrook after his outburst.
But the answer should be simple and indisputable, even with a healthy James — play through Anthony Davis.
It’s certainly not a new concept, no one’s breaking ground here, but it’s apparently easy to forget how dominant he can be when he’s healthy and showcased. Health is always relative. His legs often seem too long for his body when he awkwardly falls more than any coordinated big man in recent memory. He also can have such a profound effect on games even when he’s a secondary figure.
And playing with James and now Westbrook makes it harder for him to assert himself if he wanted to, due to the dominant personalities and styles James and Westbrook exert.
It’s a catch-22, every potential answer presents another problem for a talented yet seemingly fundamentally flawed team. Playing Davis at center more is likely the best chance at maximizing this roster, but also exposes a player who gets hurt ... to getting hurt.
Maximizing Westbrook in the effort to preserve Davis for the long haul means lots of counting stats for the triple-double king, but the decision-making leaves so much to be desired. Plus the roster isn’t designed for Westbrook to go Road Runner when his choices often reflect the thinking of Wile E. Coyote.
Of course, James is the ultimate decision-maker, perhaps the NBA’s best supercomputer. He can orchestrate just about any offense and generally figures things out as time goes on. But, James-led offenses are often conceived to have one person drive it — James himself.
You can ride in this Porsche, but you can’t drive it. So when James is out of games, or injured, his teams look rudderless. Of course, it adds to the James lore but subsequently places so much pressure on him to do everything and be everything as opposed to existing and operating in a functional system built for June, not January.
Wednesday night was a study in Laker issues. Westbrook had a triple-double on his old stomping ground — but committed 10 cringeworthy, unnecessary turnovers. After the lead ballooned to 26 and the Thunder began their comeback by simply competing, the Lakers couldn’t rev it back up — the discipline was nonexistent.
Too many guys trying to make plays who shouldn’t. Too many Lakers not realizing the ball should go through Davis first — and that James being away shouldn’t signal a free-for-all with the extra possessions.
If Davis doesn’t call for the ball or the coaching staff doesn’t make a note to run things through him, there are plenty of Lakers willing to pick up the slack, even if they shouldn’t.
It’s a lifesaver when Carmelo Anthony can summon old glory against the Memphis Grizzlies like he did Sunday night, scoring 28 and hitting six triples in 27 minutes, but that’s no nutritious diet. He’s hit six threes in a game all of six times since 2017. Even Westbrook will have a night or three that will make one squint and empower him to believe in the stat sheet.
He was acquired, seemingly, to pace the Lakers when James was either unavailable or playing the long game. His energy is boundless and sometimes by force of will, you’ll run with him. Sometimes, it’s into a ditch.
He’s turning the ball over six times a game, shooting 47% from the line (!) and 17% from 3-point range. Inevitably those numbers should creep up but by only so much.
With Davis, it’s hard to tell if he naturally defers to more experienced players or if he’s comfortable working the crevices. Before the trade for Westbrook was consummated, the three met up, tampering free, and talked about sacrifice.
It sounds counter, but perhaps Davis’ sacrifice should come in being more forceful. He’s respected enough by James that he was a catalyst in getting James to be more intentional defensively in the 2019-20 season for the first time in years, and it led to the title in the Orlando bubble.
In that bubble, Davis shot 38% from 3 — the best stretch from deep in his career — so it’s hard to expect duplication. But it’s fair to expect dominance.
If he’s the sun everything revolves around, one would think it minimizes the likelihood for mistakes and those high-turnover games — and here’s assuming an offensively engaged Davis will lead to a Deebo-like awareness on defense.
He’s capable of taking your bike and your chain.
Much has been made of the Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett comparisons, and they were validated by his somewhat surprising inclusion in the 75 greatest players list (actually 76). But for all of Duncan’s quiet demeanor, his affect was always loud. He got immersed in the game but never lost.
Davis needs to be louder, even more so than the raw numbers of averaging 28.4 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. Not saying he has to go into Chamberlain territory or even Jabbar-land, but if this team is in desperate need of an identity and a signature, it would be best if it were guided by Davis’ hands, if he should want it.
Of course, every team James plays on is his. But the nagging injuries that could easily be shaken off now result in more wardrobe displays on the sidelines, and his long-term health must be in focus even as he pursues Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA's all-time leading scorer.
There’s no perfect solution for this roster, it seems. But the best could be fully deploying their unique and prime 7-foot nuclear weapon and letting everyone else work around him.