The play was one Lakers’ fans had seen countless times before. Although in this instant, it didn't feel quite the same. What was once a microcosm of basketball nirvana had since been soured by compounding injuries and underperformance. Nostalgia for what was had blotted out most of the celebration of what is.
It was April Fools’ Day, and with the strong-side corner of the court emptied, LeBron James and Anthony Davis yet again began the pick and roll tango they had tirelessly perfected during their three-year partnership.
James dribbled to the right baseline, hotly pursued by his defender, darting over Davis’ incoming screen. And in the instant a second deterrent obscured his path to the rim, James seamlessly fired a behind-the-back pass towards his big-man. The play’s final act was now Davis’ sole responsibility to perform.
The 29-year-old — finally making his return from injury — caught, pivoted, and attacked the rack against the very New Orleans team he shunned in favor of Los Angeles. His lay-up attempt barely made it over the rim, then orbited the cylinder a couple of times before finally tickling twine. The action that helped win the Lakers their most recent championship still worked.
Old-reliable remained, at the very least, viable.
It’s been over two months since that moment, which marked the last time James assisted on a Davis bucket — an occurrence that happened only 31 times this past season. Comparatively, James dropped 184 dimes to Davis during the 2019 campaign that culminated with the team’s 17th banner.
The sudden degradation of the game’s most dynamic duo was perhaps the biggest disappointment from a season filled with many for the Lakers. And now, for the first time, there is a growing, unshakable, feeling of fleetingness that has begun to cloud the long-term appeal of the James-and-Davis partnership.
A star pairing whose peak chemistry and on-court fit stood toe-to-toe with any other before them has since become the league’s equivalent of Halley’s Comet — it feels like it’s been 75 basketball years since we’ve seen them soar in tandem.
Although numerous variables have factored into how the Lakers went from champions to out of the playoffs altogether in the span of two years, none have been more significant than the drastic drop-off in minutes James and Davis have logged together.
Like two ships passing in the night, injuries — and the unfortunate timing in which they have occurred — have derailed the duo’s ability to drive winning basketball by way of their simultaneous superstardom. James has missed 61 combined games across the past two seasons, while Davis has missed a whopping 88.
Hopefully reaching a nadir this past season, the tandem logged a mere 576 minutes together this year. That’s a far cry from the 1455 mark they accrued in 2019.
It is no coincidence that the unavailability of James and Davis has had a negative correlation to the Lakers’ chances in recent seasons, while other, healthier teams around the league have benefitted from their key combinations sharing the floor far more frequently.
With the Lakers having invested as much as they have in their two foundational pillars, being without them for any significant amount of time makes everything else moot.
Obviously, superior roster construction, game-planning, and organizational oversight can soften the blow of their eventual absences, but the reality is the Lakers have gone all-in on James and Davis. And in order to get back to contention, they need them both to be available on a nearly nightly basis.
Despite the legitimacy of much of the handwringing regarding the franchise’s recent decision-making, it is also worth acknowledging that attempting to win without the likes of James and Davis is similar to that of a Daytona 500 driver trying to blow past his competition without their car’s engine.
The team is entering yet another summer of retooling. They have already hired a new head coach in Darvin Ham. Next, they will search for a potential back-door into the draft before scouring the free-agent market for players willing to sign, and capable of outplaying minimum deals, all while navigating the Russell Westbrook-sized elephant in the room.
And in the eye of the Lakers’ offseason hurricane, James and Davis remain.
Although they’ve already once claimed the sport’s grandest prize, the James-Davis union unfortunately still feels like it’s in search of a worthy arc. If 2019 showed us the duo’s ceiling, the past two seasons have shown us the basement.
Because of the uncertainty that underscores James’ longevity and locus following the conclusion of this season, this may be our last chance to see the pair take flight together again.
And hopefully, they’ll get there by serving up dimes and dunks via their tried and true pick and roll, reminding us all of their bulldozing beauty.