Column: Lakers’ big problem with first win: Anthony Davis’ aching back

Lakers forward Anthony Davis winces as he grabs his back while running up the court.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis, who was in obvious pain because of his sore back, finished a win over the Nuggets on Sunday with 23 points, 15 rebounds, one blocked shot and one steal.
(Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press)

Who could have imagined this, Russell Westbrook checking back into the game in the fourth quarter and the Arena crowd breaking out in delirious cheers?

The Lakers won their first game of the season on Sunday night, but their 121-110 triumph over the Denver Nuggets was one of those wins that felt like more than a win.

The arena was rocking as the Lakers started to take on the blue-collared identity envisioned by first-year coach Darvin Ham. There were “Let’s go Lakers” chants for the team, “M-V-P” chants for LeBron James and a ceremonial dumping of water on Ham.

The euphoria of a previously winless team improving to 1-5 offered a temporary distraction from the enormous problem in plain sight.

Anthony Davis was limping.

Anthony Davis was grimacing.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook lead the way as the Lakers pick up their first win of the season in a 121-110 victory over the Nuggets.

Oct. 30, 2022


Later, when Davis was asked about the level of pain with which he played, he replied, “A pretty good amount.”


Here he goes again.

The Lakers are just six games into their season and their most important player already has back problems.

They can remain devoted to Ham’s defensive principles and continue making as many threes as they did on Sunday, Westbrook can keep on thriving as a sixth man, James can maintain his level of play — none of that will matter if Davis can’t stay on the court.

Davis is a player who holds together what Ham is trying to build.

Less than two weeks into the season, however, Davis’ publicly stated goal of playing 82 games has already gone poof, the 29-year-old missing the Lakers’ game in Minnesota last week because of his back.

Davis was a game-time decision against the Nuggets.

“The back is a tricky thing,” said Ham, who experienced similar discomfort when he was a player.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis falls to the court after getting fouled by Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis falls to the court after getting fouled by Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. during the first half Sunday at Arena.
(Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press)

Asked about managing his back problem, Davis scratched his head and basically admitted he didn’t really know what to expect.


“It kind of just comes and goes,” he said.

The Lakers can’t afford to trade him, his performance against the Nuggets a reminder of his potential value to the team.

Davis more or less canceled out two-time reigning league MVP Nikola Jokic, both players scoring 23 points with Davis collecting 15 rebounds to Jokic’s 14.

“AD’s impact is not only huge defensively, but also very efficient offensively, giving us possessions at the rim, knocking down the jumper, just all around very efficient tonight,” James said.

Davis has averaged 23.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and two blocked shots in five games. He’s made 53.3% of his shots.

The Lakers can’t win without him. Yet as their last two seasons have proved, they can’t win with him if he’s broken down.

They knew this could happen when they traded for him, Davis playing 75 games in back-to-back seasons and never more than 68 in any other season. Davis played in just 40 games last season.

The Lakers finally get their first win of the season under first-year coach Darvin Ham. Here are three takeaways from the victory Sunday night.

Oct. 31, 2022

The history explains why James and Westbrook recently said they were concerned about Davis’ state of mind.

“If his mind is gone, then everything else will fall to the wayside,” James told reporters last week.

Davis pushed back when asked about their concerns.

“I’m in a great space mentally,” Davis said. “I mean, it is what it is. I didn’t get to play in Minnesota. I did take Minnesota’s game [off] and the next day to kind of do everything I can to make sure I was able to play tonight.

“I had a great summer, so I’m not letting this kind of stop me.”

The question isn’t whether Davis will experience discomfort. He will. The question is how much discomfort he can endure.

“There’s going to be a time where once you find out that you can’t injure yourself any further,” Ham said. “Then there’s a level of pain tolerance that you got to expect you’re going to have to deal with.”

Davis sounded resigned to this reality.

“Just try to see what happens, try to manage it and keep getting treatment and relaxing and do everything that the trainers and the doctors told me to do to kind of be tolerable to go out there and play,” said Davis, who was confident he could play Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans.

With two-plus minutes remaining in the fourth quarter on Sunday, James missed a three-pointer.

Davis went up and tipped the ball. The shot missed. He went up again, this time converting a basket that extended the Lakers’ lead to nine points.

The way Davis jogged and contorted his face after that play made clear that his back was bothering him. No matter. He finished the game.

The Lakers need him to finish the season. Seventy-six more games remain on the schedule.