After suffering a foot injury in the first half against the Nuggets, Anthony Davis was ruled out for the remainder of the game and consequentially hasn't hit the floor for the Lakers since.
That was December 16th. And although they didn't know it at the time, the team would have to brace themselves for what likely would be their season’s inflection point. How well they coped with life without their star big man would not just curve their contention odds, but drown them if they sunk without their 7-foot preserver.
Since then, the Lakers have arguably exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations. Including that contest against Denver which Davis only played 17 minutes, the team is 6-5 in their 11 games. It’s worth pointing out that two of those 11 games have also come without LeBron James, including their most recent win over the Miami Heat on Wednesday night.
The team could have easily fractured the moment Davis was shelved, and the potential of that happening is still there with no firm timetable of a return. But for the time being, it has been a true group effort in helping shore up the massive hole left in the middle.
What follows are a few examples of where and how those contributions have emerged.
Austin Reaves’ eye-manipulation
Austin Reaves would probably be the first person to admit he’s not the strongest, fastest, or most talented player on the court at even given time. But when it comes to sheer guile, Reaves is often a step, or more accurately, a blink ahead of the competition.
Take this possession below for an example. The arrow indicates where Reaves’ eyes and suspected target are on the floor. Whereas the circle is where the pass actually goes.
Tony Montana once famously professed: “The eyes, Chico. They never lie.” Although there may be some truth to that, Scarface never had to check Austin Reaves.
As seen in two different occasions in this half-court sequence alone, Reaves’ eyes are often a fabrication of the truth.
Looking one way only to kick it out somewhere else isn't a revelatory concept in basketball. But still only in sophomore season, Reaves is quickly becoming a master in freeing up space and getting the defense to shift simply via optical illusion.
Unlike a “no-look” pass which could often be chalked up as flash for the sake of flash, Reaves uses his eyes instead as a means of floor manipulation. It is a tool that can both help compensate for his athletic disadvantages, and also, spotlight his craftiness.
Count the number of Heat players that dart over to the corner simply because of Reaves’ eyes as the roller on this play. At least two defenders are emptied, the low-man is a second off from offering a real contest and a layup is the result.
This is not due to otherworldly ability, but instead, because Reaves’ eyes, Chico, they sometimes lie.
Finding the corners, one short-roll pass at a time
After being trapped in the basement for the first two months of the season, as of this article the Lakers are currently tied for the 9th best offensive rating in the league since the start of December.
Although there are multiple factors as to why the improvement has occurred, there may be no bigger contributor to the scoring uptick than the team’s drastic revival of their 3-point shooting from the corners.
Prior to December, not only were a mere 8.5% of the Lakers’ shot-attempts coming from the corners, but the team made just a dismal 29.8% of their chances (the worst in the league).
Since then however, the Lakers have seen a surge in both volume and efficiency as their corner frequency has shot up to 10.7% (6th highest) and their conversion rate of 45.3% is the second best mark in the NBA during this span according to Cleaning the Glass.
Outside of simply making more shots, the team’s corner resurgence has also been birthed and benefited from their short-roll passing.
Most readily available due to aggressive schemes sending/showing two to the ball on LeBron James’ pick and rolls, the team has found a lot of success after their screeners’ have slipped to the middle of the floor and then made the correct read.
The pass after the pass has often found its way to the corners following a compromised defense that needed to crash from the outside in to tag the paint entry.
Although the roster has holes in terms of specific skills and player archetypes, the team does employ many quality secondary passers. Like having shooters is important, so is having players who are able to exploit the initial exploitation that the likes of James constantly creates.
You can't make the shot if the pass isn’t thrown your way.
Thomas Bryant, the glass-cleaner
Even though Thomas Bryant has big feet, it’s still a mighty big ask of him to fill Anthony Davis’ sneakers.
However, that’s what has been tasked of him since the latter went down with an injury. And since being inserted into the starting lineup, Bryant has essentially done as much as the Lakers could have ever asked for and maybe even more.
Beyond still scoring at an absurdly high rate, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the 25-year-old’s strong play of late has been his work on the glass.
While always proving solid on the boards in his early career, Bryant has stepped up in helping end possessions and keeping them alive for the Lakers since Davis went down.
Since Davis’ injury, Bryant is posting a defREB% — what percentage of the opponents misses did a player rebound — of 25.8% (90th percentile among bigs) Which is up from his already career high rate of 23.3%
The center’s 106 rebounds during this span which is the 11th most among all players, is a result of the intersection of opportunity and his inherent strengths.
Despite being on the shorter end of most of the bigs he has faced off against during this stretch, Bryant has made up both ground and sky thanks to his red-hot motor and DraftExpress shattering anthropometric measurements, which include his 7’6” wingspan and 9’4.5” standing reach.
The peanut butter and jelly combination of energy and length has allowed Bryant to beat opposing centers down the floor to tip-in transition misses, and simply outstretch over them to secure the board on the other end. The latter is a big reason why he has logged the 7th most contested rebounds since Davis’ injury.
Bryant has also done an improved job in the softer aspects of rebounding, specifically, fine-tuning his fundamentals. The best example of this is his more concerted effort to box-out (tied for 10th most since December 16th) and seal opposing centers out of the play so he or a teammate can corral the miss.
While there is an element of Bryant simply being in the right place at the right time for rebounds during this opportunistic stretch, he’s making the absolute most of his chances. And given whose shoes he’s wearing, it's even more impressive.
The old adage of “taking it one day at a time” is one the Lakers are wise to take while Davis remains out. If this first interval of games was the first test thrown their way, the team inarguably passed it with their winning record on the other side.
If they hope to keep their momentum and success during their next string of contests however, they're going to need continued contributions across the board.
Whether it’s in the form of a player leveraging their cunningness, improvements in previous weak areas or snatching a critical rebound, it’s these types of incremental wins that can help patch up the the boat and keep it moving forward.