When Anthony Davis showed up on the Lakers nearly two years ago, he arrived with a promise.
“Right now, my focus is … trying to figure out how I can help this team, and help the organization, become a championship team,” he said.
After one title, he’s seemingly lost that focus.
When Davis hit the three-point Mamba Shot at the buzzer to beat the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals last fall, he reiterated the promise.
“The job is definitely not over until we’re able to win the ring,” he said. “I mean, that’s when it’s over, and that’s when the test is completed.”
After one ring, he seemingly considers his job completed.
As the heavily bandaged Lakers stumble down the stretch of their teetering title defense, with LeBron James back on the trainer’s table and confusion again rampant on the court, they desperately need their second star to carry them into the playoffs.
Yet for Davis, the weight seems to be too much.
His body can’t take it. His game can’t take it. His personality can’t take it?
Mere months after signing a five-year contract extension worth potentially $190 million, the hope for the Lakers future is substantially less than a $190-million cornerstone.
On a Thursday night with the Lakers dangling precariously above the dreaded play-in tournament, Davis couldn’t hold on.
In a game in which they needed to take the fight to the surging Clippers and steel themselves for a furious final 10 days, Davis ate the canvas.
He lasted nine minutes before leaving with back spasms. He made two of nine shots. He grabbed one rebound. He had no steals or blocked shots.
With Davis unable to fill the void created by the sprain-struggling James and the absence of ballhandlers Dennis Schroder and Talen Horton-Tucker, the Lakers never had a chance, losing 118-94.
To which Davis observers queasily say, what else is new?
Since Davis’ triumphant return from a 30-game absence because of a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis, he has been mostly timid, rarely aggressive, and generally absent. At a time when the Lakers need him to be a giant, he’s mostly come up small.
The numbers are surreal. The Lakers are 2-6 since Davis returned and have been outscored by 63 points when Davis has been on the court. Yeah, a minus-63. He is averaging 16 points and six rebounds, and none of it is nearly enough.
Granted, everyone knows the Lakers have no chance if James is not healthy. Certainly, there is no expectation that Davis could lead this team to a title on his own.
But is it too much to ask Davis to handle things until James gets back? Is it too much to hope that when James does get back, Davis will be ready to resume his role as the second jab in what should be the league’s best one-two punch?
Wait a minute, wasn’t Davis once considered one of the best five players in the NBA?
During his nine minutes Thursday he fell twice, the last time after he backed into courtside signage following a missed jump shot with 8:49 left in the first quarter. He appeared to twist his ankle on the play. He left the game several minutes later because of back issues and never returned. Every time Davis goes down, it seems, there are fears he’ll leave the game and never return.
The Lakers trailed by four when Davis backed into the sign. They trailed by 10 when he left the game. The Clippers soon went on a 19-3 run to end the debate before it started.
Davis said his back “locked up pretty bad” but predicted he “should be good to go” Friday in a giant game in Portland.
“We’re still fighting, and guys’ spirits are still high,” said Davis afterward.
But you know who’s really fighting? You know whose spirits are really soaring? This column could easily have been about those Clippers, who — talk about a surreal stat — beat the Lakers for the 28th time in 35 games since 2012.
Right now, the Clippers are everything the Lakers are not, healthy and connected and competitive. They’re one of four teams that rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense. They are unmatched from beyond the arc, and forever battling under the basket, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are now held together by last year’s Lakers secret weapon. In 17 minutes Thursday, Rajon Rondo had 11 points and five assists and is already in his trademark playoff form.
“It’s just great when we’re having fun,” George said. “Everyone is in great spirits here. And it’s contagious. It’s contagious.”
But the Clippers are going to have to get past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history before those high spirits will be shared by anyone in town except the diehard Clippers Nation. They’ve burned this city too much. The attention will have to wait.
The raggedy Lakers are still the story, if only because they still have the highest ceiling.
“When we’re 100% healthy, we know we are the top team in the league,” said Davis.
But is anybody 100% healthy this time of year? Didn’t James just say he would never be 100% healthy again in his career? This latest chapter in the Lakers legacy of Anthony Davis will be written about how strongly he can carry a team that is far from full strength.
They now head to playoff-pushing Portland on Friday night in what Davis said was the most important game of the season, the teams owning identical records with the regular-season series, and playoff tiebreaker, on the line.
“If A.D. plays, I think we’ll be all right,” said Kyle Kuzma.
But if A.D. plays … will he play?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.