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Lakers vs. Timberwolves Preview: 3 things to watch for with Anthony Davis out

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The Lakers have a few things they need to keep an eye on with Anthony Davis missing some time.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers will be missing Anthony Davis for at least the next two or three weeks after an MRI revealed a calf strain near his Achilles, and they know they can’t replace him with any player individually.

“It’s always next man up, no matter who’s out. We’re not asking anybody to pick up what AD does. You can’t do that. It’s impossible. He’s a special player and special talent for a reason,” LeBron James told reporters after the Lakers’ loss to the Nuggets on Sunday. “Everyone individually has to pick up their play for the collective of the team in AD’s absence.

“We look forward to that challenge.”

That challenge begins on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday. Here are three things to watch for both in that game and moving forward as the Lakers adjust to life without Davis.

Rim protection concerns

Even with Davis, one of the best interior defenders in the NBA, the Lakers have been poor at defending around the rim this season. They’ve allowed teams to make 19.3 shots per game within six feet of the basket this season, the fifth-worst mark in the NBA, and a drop from last season, when their 17.7 allowed was the seventh-best mark in the NBA. Last year they allowed opponents to shoot 58.9% within five feet of the rim (fourth-best in the NBA). This year that number is 61.3%, good for 12th-worst.

If all these numbers seems like small drops to you, it’s worth remembering that tiny margins can often be the difference between wins and losses in the NBA, and that these marks came with the Lakers (mostly) having Davis in the lineup. They also make it all the more impressive that the Lakers have still managed to produce the best defense in the NBA (allowing just 105.1 points per 100 possessions) by a significant margin.

Still, it’s been enough to leave head coach Frank Vogel — normally as big a public optimist as any head coach — admitting that he was “a little bit” concerned about the Lakers’ defense in the paint, and that was before the team lost Davis.

“We’ve had some games where we just haven’t been committed enough to rim protection at any position. It’s not about the change in the roster, it’s about the commitment,” Vogel said before the Lakers took on the Nuggets on Sunday. “We just have to be better.”

That is doubly true with Davis out. Three of the Lakers’ four worst defensive performances have come in games Davis has missed all or part of, with their worst of the season coming in Sunday night’s loss to the Nuggets (allowing a defensive rating of 123.2). But before one chalks that up to just the shock of Davis going down, the Lakers also allowed a defensive rating of 117.6 to the Pistons during a Davis absence, and 117.3 to the Chicago Bulls without him, two bad teams that rank 22nd and 15th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, respectively.

Still, Vogel has found reasons to have hope.

“When we really hit our guys we’ve had some great nights,” Vogel said, citing the team’s ability to take charges as one possible solution to their lack of shot blocking. “I think teams are being smarter with how they attack us, but it’s something we want to get better at. But the totality of what we’re doing defensively so far has been pretty good, and like always we’re going to continue to try and get better.”

Figuring out a way to do so without Davis will go a long way in making sure they don’t slip too far in the standings in his absence.

LeBron James’ usage

From #WashedKing to #NapKing

LeBron James may say he’s not tired, but if he was, it would be hard to blame him. Even with Davis (mostly) in the lineup this year, the 36-year-old has carried a heavy load as he chases his fifth MVP award. James leads the Lakers in usage rate (the percentage of their possessions he ends with a shot, assist, turnover or drawn foul while on the floor) at 30.7% and minutes at 34.6 per game. He has not missed a single game, and is the only Laker whose absence from the floor leads to the team getting outscored.

With Davis out, however, the Lakers will have to be more cautious with him than ever to make sure he doesn’t get overtaxed. The good news is that so far, they’ve done a good job of that.

In the five games Davis has missed this season, James has only exceeded his season average in usage rate twice, and both of those came in the first two games Davis missed. Since then (even in two overtime games against the Thunder) James has been under his season-long usage rate even with Davis out, posting rates of 28.6% against the Pistons, and 29 and 28 in the two games against Oklahoma City.

Now, the Lakers lost that game against the Pistons on the second night of a back-to-back, and one could argue that the Lakers shouldn’t need James to go beast mode to beat the Thunder, who it still took overtime — and 10 extra minutes on James’ body — for the Lakers to top last week. Even with those caveats, though, this does demonstrate that the Lakers do seem to be finding ways to try and keep James from having to take on all of the burden of his co-star’s absence, which leads us to our final thing to watch for...

Who will fill the void with Davis out?

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Lakers
Kuz and Trezz could see their roles increase with no AD.
Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

If LeBron’s usage hasn’t increased in most of the games Davis has missed, it’s partially because reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell has been happy to pick up the slack. Of Harrell’s 10-highest usage games of the season, four have come in the five games Davis has missed, and Harrell’s usage rate has been 3.1% higher when Davis sits than when he plays, per NBA.com. If the Lakers need someone to go get some buckets in Davis’ absence, Harrell will be more than happy to oblige.

Last season that guy would have been Kyle Kuzma, but as the fourth-year forward continues to find ways to impact the game without scoring, he’s been mostly the same player whether Davis sits or plays. He knows his role now.

And for all the talk of #StarterKuz, per 36 minutes, Kuzma’s scoring average this season has been basically the same (16.4 ppg as a starter, 15.6 off the bench) no matter his role, albeit on greater efficiency as a starter, shooting 49.3% from the field and 38.7% from three vs. 43.7% and 35% off the bench, respectively. His shot attempts per 36 minutes (13.9) are also exactly the same whether he starts or sits.

Kuzma’s rebounds and assists per 36 minutes are slightly higher while coming off the bench, but it’s a small enough difference that it’s clear he’s mostly focused on just playing a role for the team vs. trying to show he’s the third star when Davis is out. The Lakers may need a pinch more of the latter quality if Davis misses extended time, but for now, it appears that these two will bear the bulk of the increased responsibility while the Lakers’ All-Star misses time.

Still, with this team’s depth and their 21-7 record (second in the West), they can afford to let Davis be patient and get all the way better rather than needing him to rush back, and the Lakers were confident on Sunday that they’ll be ready for anything. James said that the team would be more prepared with a specific, Davis-less game plan if he didn’t start the night, and Vogel is confident in the rest of the roster.

“If he’s going to miss time... we’ve got plenty of firepower to win games,” Vogel said.

We’ll get our first look at how true that is on Tuesday in Minnesota.


Notes and Updates

  • We obviously have not talked a lot about the Timberwolves in this ostensible Timberwolves preview, but that’s mostly because they are terrible. At 7-20 with bottom-10 marks in both offensive and defensive efficiency, they shouldn’t pose much of a threat to a Lakers team, even sans Davis. I don’t really feel like wasting more words than that on them. Anyway, here is their injury report:
  • Anthony Davis isn’t the only name on the injury report for the Lakers.
  • Worth noting: Tuesday is the first day the Lakers can make a larger contract extension offer to Dennis Schröder. My colleague Sabreena Merchant covered all the factors that will play into those discussions well.
  • Our own Dr. Rajpal Brar was quoted in The Athletic talking about Davis’ injury, and he will have a video coming with more analysis for our site that I will link to here when it’s live.

The Lakers and Timberwolves will tip off at 5:00 p.m. PT. The game will be televised locally on Spectrum SportsNet, the last exclusively local game before a string of seven nationally televised ones.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.