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Anthony Davis’ injury leaves Lakers at a crossroads

Washington Wizards v Los Angeles Lakers

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 18: LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers, Anthony Davis #3, and Patrick Beverly #21 look on during the game against the Washington Wizards on December 18, 2022 at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Inside the Lakers’ locker room Sunday night, the team’s message to Anthony Davis in the wake of his latest injury was clear: Tune out the noise and focus on getting healthy.

“The first priority is to take care of yourself — the hell with what people have to say. You just block out that noise,” coach Darvin Ham said.

“It’s definitely disappointing to see him have to go through [another injury], especially in the work that he’s put into it,” LeBron James said after the Lakers beat the Wizards. “He doesn’t cheat the game, shows up, prepares himself, goes out and obviously he’s been dominant this year and to have him to have this setback right now, I know it can be tough on him, for sure.”

However, for the Lakers’ front office, being without Davis for a month — or more — puts them at a crossroads.

The Lakers have not officially described Davis’ injury or given a timeline for his return — Ham said to expect that Monday — but Sunday night they did say other doctors (specialists) had come to look at Davis’ foot injury. History suggests when specialists are brought in it’s not a good sign, and sources hinted to NBC Sports a month may be the shorter end of the recovery window.

With Davis playing at an All-NBA level this season, the Lakers are still just 13-16 and sit 12th in the West. If the playoffs started today, the Lakers would be fishing in Cabo. They wouldn’t even make the play-in tournament. The Lakers are not a team with much margin for error. When everything is clicking, when everyone is healthy, they give off serious “I don’t want to see them in the first round” vibes. But if just one thing is off, let alone a couple of things, suddenly they are a team that can have some ugly losses.

Now things will be off for a month or more, which brings us to the crossroads for GM Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office: What do they do at the trade deadline?

The dream had been to find an available star where the Lakers could take a big swing that would land them back in contention (Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, maybe DeMar DeRozan). But with that looking like a long shot — no such stars appear available via trade, at least as of now — the Lakers focus shifted to a smaller move using the salaries of Kendrick Nunn and Patrick Beverley to bring in shooting on the wing and some extra playmaking to round out this roster and get the team solidly into the postseason (ideally Bojan Bogdanovic or a Kyle Kuzma reunion, but both of those may be longshots as well).

Now without Davis for an extended period, can the Lakers even make the playoffs? Should they spend future draft capital — specifically first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 — to bring in short-term help for a season that could be lost?

Does Davis’ injury change the Lakers’ plans at the Feb. 9 trade deadline?

“I don’t think so,” Ham said when asked about it. “I think with or without AD, you’re constantly looking… to see different ways they can improve their team, improve the roster. It’s a business of professional sports.”

“Not a question for me,” LeBron said, wanting no part of the same topic. “I have no idea. When I’m playing, I show up, prepare, go to work and get my guys ready to go win a basketball game. I play the game, I’m not in the front office, so we’ll see.”

The eventual answer may depend on what happens to the Lakers over the next month in the run-up to the deadline. Do they climb into the mix where management can see a path to the playoffs with a smaller move or two? Or do they fall off and out of the playoff picture? If Los Angeles loses ground without Davis — who has been their best player this season — the front office may choose to keep its powder dry and make bold moves next offseason. That option may be painful in the short term (and could frustrate and anger LeBron, who signed an extension with the understanding the Lakers would upgrade the roster).

The Lakers picked up a win without Davis Sunday night, but it took a fluky play in the final seconds to beat a Wizards team that had lost nine in a row coming in.

Ham talked about the coming weeks being a mix-and-match situation as he looked for lineups that would work. His closing lineup against the Wizards — LeBron, Austin Reaves, Lonnie Walker IV, Thomas Bryant and rookie Max Christie — had played two minutes together all season before that stretch. LeBron called it a “learn on the fly” situation for the Lakers.

“Our rookie [Christie] is a huge factor in what I’m about to say, it’s like next man up,” Ham said. “It’s a cliche but we throw Max out there and he plays how he plays and he’s had some big minutes for us and made some big threes… At the end of the day we still have LeBron and Russ [Westbrook], two guys that are going to command even more attention now with Anthony not being out there.”

The next month until late January will be telling for the Lakers. The best teams keep winning despite key players being out (the Bucks were without Khris Middleton, the Grizzlies still don’t have Desmond Bane back, yet both keep winning). Can the Lakers be that kind of team? Can they at least keep their heads above water? What kind of load will the absence of Davis put on LeBron James, who is in impeccable condition but turns 38 before the end of the month?

The answers to those questions may make the Lakers’ path forward clearer. For now, they are at a crossroads in their season.