Title defenses are never easy, but few expected that the road would be this rough for the Los Angeles Lakers. Almost all of the challenges have been amplified, from the short off-season, piling of injuries, strict protocols, and the much-improved opponents.

Among the most challenging is the extended absence of their superstar big man, Anthony Davis, who’s been out with an achilles injury since February 15th.

This past Friday, however, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel dished out some encouraging news for the fans: Davis is back doing full-court activities and may play again very soon. But, of course, AD will return to action slowly, meaning he will have minute restrictions for a couple of games.

 “Whenever it is that he returns, it’s not going to be a full return to playing 30-something minutes a night … especially with the nature of practice and how shorthanded we are, he’s going to have to use some games to try to get himself back in shape. So the first two games he’s back will likely be short-minute performances.”

Frank Vogel

It’s uplifting enough for Laker fans, but when you consider everything, it’s really equal parts good and bad, because how actually in-shape is their prized bag man?

Before damaging his achilles, Davis was already dealing with a slew of injuries and the exhausting grind of coming off a 71-day rest after a hard-fought championship run. It was evident in his numbers as he’s only appeared in 23 games this season, tallying a decent at-best 22.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game – both are below his standards and his lowest averages in eight years.

Another concerning trend: Davis scored 19 or less points 11 times in his 23 appearances, and he also posted a 0 or negative plus-minus in five of his last eight games prior to getting hurt.

Keep in mind that the Lakers cannot exactly afford to cruise the last month of the season. Due to Davis and LeBron James’s injuries, who, he himself, has been sidelined over the last three weeks, the Lakers have found themselves slumping in the middle of the Western Conference standings (5th) instead of being at the very top. “Middle” is not as comfortable as it normally is, as you know, courtesy of the newly-implemented play-in tournament, which will be held for seeds 7 through 10. It’s not unlikely for them to get bamboozled by a more energized opponent and miss the playoffs if they fall to those spots.

The 35-22 Lakers are only four games above the current #7 Dallas Mavericks, a team that’s still capable of suddenly climbing the standings, and the same goes to #8 Memphis Grizzlies and #9 Golden State Warriors, who’s perhaps the most dangerous in that bunch.

The fourth, fifth and sixth spots, meanwhile, assuming they just continue to roam in those seeds, aren’t more pleasing. It’s very possible they’ll face the Denver Nuggets or the LA Clippers in the first round – the former is without key guard Jamal Murray (torn ACL), but it may not mean much if Davis and/or James are iffy. As for the vengeful and reloaded Clippers, it’s going to be really, really scary for the Lakers. Their LA neighbours are stacked and primed for revenge.

The unpredictable supporting cast

The Lake Show’s supporting cast have done their best sans their pair of superstars, which is arguably good but also concerning overall since it has put the team in a precarious situation. They have gone 7-9 in the 16 games where both Davis and James are out, and that includes alternating wins and losses in the previous 11. One day, they’re surprisingly trashing a Kevin Durant-led Brooklyn Nets for 25 points, the next day their getting expectedly trampled by the New York Knicks.

We’ll see how the Lakers – with a possibly returning Davis – fare in this current tilt. They have one more meeting with the Utah Jazz before a back-to-back against Luka and the Mavs. It may dictate a lot of the coming weeks.

The Lakers’ next game is this Tuesday at 10:00 AM. They’ll host the Jazz for the second-straight game.