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Opinion: Will the Lakers’ patience with Anthony Davis’ return pay off?

Mark Medina, USA TODAY
·6 min read
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When his shots clanked off the rim and he labored up the court, Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis showed his rust.

"My wind felt better than I expected," Davis said. "I got good looks I missed. That comes with time, with being able to get those game reps."

When he performed a spin move and made defensive stops, Davis showed his potential.

"I felt really good," Davis said. "I was able to do some things and give the team a little juice."

Once Davis left the floor, it became clear the Lakers could wrestle with challenges that will yield either long-lasting benefits or challenges with his return after rehabbing his strained right calf for nine weeks.

The first challenge: How will the Lakers integrate Davis back into the lineup?

Well before the Lakers’ 115-110 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday became official, Davis finished with only four points while shooting 2-of-10 from the field, missing his lone 3-point attempt and collecting four rebounds, one assist, one steal, one block and one turnover in 17 minutes. Lakers coach Frank Vogel followed through on keeping Davis to a minutes restriction and playing him only in the first half. And even though the Lakers could have used Davis’ presence in the second half, Vogel said he had "zero" temptation to ignore what the Lakers’ medical staff instructed him to do.

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Not only do the Lakers want to be careful with how they handle Davis, who missed 30 games after straining his right calf. They are mindful they have to do the same thing with LeBron James whenever he returns after missing the past 17 games with a high right ankle sprain. The Lakers (35-24) only have 13 regular-season games for Davis and James to knock off rust as well as familiarize themselves with recently acquired center Andre Drummond.

"I don’t think it’s an ideal situation by any stretch from the standpoint of those guys returning from injury and having enough time to get their conditioning, rhythm and timing where it needs to be," Vogel said. "Nor is it enough time to integrate a new piece like Andre Drummond. But it’s just going to be an imperfect season. This is the hand we’re dealt and we have to make the best of it."

The second challenge: How do the Lakers make the best of this without compromising their playoff fortunes?

Following Thursday’s win over the Lakers, the Mavericks tied the Portland Trail Blazers for sixth in the Western Conference and bettered their odds of escaping the play-in tournament that will feature the No. 7 through No. 10 seeds. The Lakers only have a 2½-game cushion on Portland and Dallas, and could see it dwindle with another game against the Mavericks on Saturday. Not only are the Lakers vulnerable to losing home-court advantage in the first round before a limited number of fans, their playoff fortunes or failure could hinge on winning one or two games in a play-in tournament.

"We know at the end of the day when we’re healthy, we’re a tough team to beat," Davis said. "No matter where we fall, we’re going to come out and we’ll be a challenge for anybody. That’s how we look at it big picture."

Anthony Davis is easing his way back into the Lakers lineup after missing 30 games.
Anthony Davis is easing his way back into the Lakers lineup after missing 30 games.

And the big picture says this: A team’s health, talent and chemistry will always play bigger factors in the team’s championship odds than home-court advantage. Internally, the Lakers want to avoid appearing in the play-in tournament because of the format’s greater unpredictability. But as far as the playoff seedings one through six? The Lakers have just rolled their eyes and yawned. As Lakers guard Dennis Schroder said, "If everybody is there in a seven-game series, I put my money on us."

The Lakers have good reason to think that way. Most defending NBA championship teams do. But think of their current circumstances.

While other Western Conference contenders have experienced injuries, including Denver’s Jamal Murray, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Dallas’ Kristaps Porzingis, the Lakers are about to have a healthy Davis and James. Not only did Davis maintain he has completely healed from a strained right calf that he initially feared was a partial tear in his Achilles tendon, he said he spent the nine past weeks mentally recharging from a compressed season that started less than two months after the Lakers won the 2020 title.

"I was able to use that time to really get away in a sense and also mentally get ready for this comeback game right here," Davis said. "It was good for me. Now it’s time to get back to work with the guys and fight for another championship."

To do that, the Lakers might experience some growing pains.

Vogel remains noncommittal on how long Davis will stay on a minutes restriction. Davis and Drummond have to figure out how they will share the frontcourt together, both without James and then with him. Schroder will have to iron out how he handles his playmaking role, first with Davis and Drummond and then later with James.

Yet, the Lakers still offered promising signs. Schroder finished with 25 points and 13 assists against the Mavericks in what Vogel called "arguably his best game as a Laker." Drummond quickly established himself as a dependable rebounder off of Davis’ initial misses. And though Davis settled mostly for mid-range jumpers as opposed to attacking the basket, Vogel already liked Davis’ defensive presence that included forcing Luka Doncic into a turnover and stopping Porzingis at the rim.

"I wasn’t nervous at all," Davis said. "My teammates were very excited for me to be back on the floor. They give you that juice and that little 'oomph' you need to be out there on the floor. So I was pretty fine. I had great energy to start the game."

That may not have been enough to change the Lakers’ bottom-line result. But consider that the Lakers also faced similar problems during last year’s season restart in the bubble and managed just fine. They went 3-5 during the seeding games as they adjusted without Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. Davis had uneven performances that included six games he shot below 50%. Once the playoffs started, the Lakers had ironed out their chemistry, consistency and health issues.

By being patient with Davis’ return and subsequent workload, the Lakers could pave the same path toward another NBA title.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Lakers' patience with Anthony Davis' return pay off?