LeBron James' MVP Play Carrying Los Angeles Lakers in Anthony Davis' Absence

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2020

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 18: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers takes a moment during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on January 18, 2020 in Houston, Texas.  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.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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Anthony Davis has been stellar this season. He's reasserted his position as a top-15 player (maybe even top-10) and is making a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year. But his absence is making something else clear: LeBron James is the Los Angeles Lakers' MVP.

On Saturday, AD missed his fifth straight game with an injury. The Lakers were on the road against a playoff lock in the Houston Rockets. LeBron and his 31 points, 12 assists and five rebounds helped the Lakers cruise to a 124-115 victory.

L.A. is now 4-1 during this stretch without Davis. It's 5-2 in all games missed by the big man. And LeBron's individual numbers when he's the lone superstar are absurd.

  • LeBron with AD: 22.7 points, 11.9 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 threes per 75 possessions, 55.5 true shooting percentage
  • LeBron without AD: 31.5 points, 9.5 assists, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 threes per 75 possessions, 59.3 true shooting percentage

"This is the best LeBron James has been in the regular season since Miami," DAZN's Micah Adams wrote after Saturday's game. "A top 3 player of all-time is playing as well as he has at any point of his career and sprinting away with the west."

That individual dominance was on vivid display against Houston. The Rockets led by six at halftime, but LeBron took complete control in the third quarter, leading his team to a 32-17 frame that essentially put the game away.

Less than three minutes into the third, he hit Danny Green with a dime for a three that cut Houston's lead to one. He then scored the Lakers' next two buckets himself. Finally, at the 7:12 mark, he fed JaVale McGee for the go-ahead bucket. L.A. never gave the lead back.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and James Harden deserve all the love they're getting in this season's MVP conversation. But this run from LeBron is serving as a reminder that few can seize complete control of a game the way he can.

And his ability to do that against anyone makes this team a terrifying opponent.

"It doesn't matter who we're playing," LeBron said after the game, per Silver Screen and Roll's Harrison Faigen. "It doesn't matter if it's a playoff team, not a playoff team. It's just about that moment right then and there."

Coming into this season, there was concern that the Lakers couldn't survive extended absences from either LeBron or Davis. It was fair to feel that way. Other than Green, much of the supporting cast was either unproven or seemingly years past their prime.

LeBron has elevated everyone:

Of course, each of the individual players listed above deserve credit for what they're doing this season. Dwight Howard has willingly accepted his ancillary role off the bench. Alex Caruso is defending and finishing with ferocity. McGee's rim running and protection have been solid. Rajon Rondo looks rejuvenated. Kyle Kuzma's showing flashes, including in this game against Houston, of being a legitimate third option for a title contender.

"That was a grown up performance by Kyle Kuzma tonight," The Athletic's Pete Zayas wrote after the power forward's 23-point, eight-rebound outing against the Rockets. "One of the first times in his career where he didn't let his jumper stop [him] from contributing in other aspects of the game, and then had that carry through to when his offense started going."

If Kuzma can play like this more consistently—and perhaps this AD absence can serve as a time for him to be empowered—L.A.'s already strong title prospects start to shift to them being a clear favorite (at least to come out of the West).

But make no mistake: The Lakers playing this well has more to do with LeBron than anyone.

L.A.'s net rating (net points per 100 possessions) is 12.5 points better when he's on the floor, a swing that ranks in the 96th percentile. Its defense is allowing 9.2 fewer points per 100 possessions (97th percentile) when he's on the floor. The team's effective field-goal percentage is a whopping 5.5 points better (98th percentile) when the King is out there.

As if we needed any more of an emphasis on this point, the Lakers are plus-9.7 points per 100 possessions when LeBron is on the floor without AD. They're minus-2.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is on the floor without LeBron.

Now, don't misread any of this as some kind of anti-Davis campaign. L.A.'s ceiling is obviously higher when both MVP-caliber talents are healthy. There's a reason he's LeBron's favorite assist target. The two make up the league's most prolific assist combination. And AD is an anchor for the Lakers' top-three defense, sporting the fifth-best defensive RAPTOR rating in the NBA.

That L.A. is cruising without him is just another testament to LeBron's greatness and longevity.

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