This past season for the Los Angeles Lakers was a tough one filled with questionable decisions, unrelenting injuries, and ugly basketball. While the eventual payoff for such misery was the number 2 pick in the 2015 draft, fans still suffered through the worst year in franchise history.
Fortunately, in the midst of all the turmoil there were a few bright spots, a few energizing players who kept fans tuning in and hoping to see something positive on the court. One such player was Ed Davis, a man who, at just 25 years old, had found his career at a crossroads and decided to risk everything by betting on himself.
Davis was selected with the 13th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Toronto Raptors, who were hoping the springy North Carolina forward could slot in next to Chris Bosh in the front court. Unfortunately, that pairing never happened, as Bosh decided to take his talents to South Beach to join Dwyane Wade and the self-proclaimed "King", LeBron James.
Over the first three seasons of his career Davis saw steady minutes with the Raptors in a reserve role and occasionally as a starter. Every now and then he would show flashes of athletic brilliance with a well-timed block or a put-back dunk, but his time in Canada was otherwise relatively underwhelming. In particular, his complete lack of a jump shot was a disappointment. Ed couldn't be labeled a bust, but he wasn't quite good enough to live up to being selected 13th overall either.
With three years of solid-but-unspectacular improvement under his belt, the Raptors ultimately decided to move on from Davis, trading him to the Memphis Grizzlies in a three-team deal that brought Rudy Gay to the Raptors.
It seemed as though Memphis would be an ideal fit for the left-handed big man, as he could act as an understudy to skilled center Marc Gasol and fellow lefty Zach Randolph. It also didn't hurt that Memphis was one of the few franchises not following the trend of utilizing "stretch" power forwards, who had the ability to step out to the three-point line. While Davis has been blessed with many gifts, the ability to hit the corner three is not one of them.
In spite of how fantastic a fit Davis and the Grizzlies seemed to be on paper, he surprisingly found himself the odd man out when center Kosta Koufas outplayed him for the right to be the first big off the bench. With Gasol, Randolph, and Koufas soaking up most of the minutes at the power positions, Ed found himself playing a career-low 15.1 minutes per game.
In the summer of 2014 the Grizzlies elected not to present Davis with a qualifying offer, ultimately deciding that his services were not worth the $4.36 million it would take to keep him around. Without the qualifying offer needed to be a restricted free agent, Ed went into the free agent frenzy last summer unrestricted and unsure of where he'd land or how much he would make. The season-and-a-half with Memphis had decreased his value around the league, and while he knew he would likely be an NBA player somewhere, the long-term offers available to him were far from ideal.
Meanwhile, Nick Young, more well-known around the league for his personality than his play on the court (Shaqtin A Fool excluded), was cashing in on a career year with the Los Angeles Lakers. Young, like Davis, had seen his stock dip to an all-time low in a contract year while he was with the Philadelphia 76ers. Rather than sign a long-term deal somewhere at below-market value, Young took the somewhat unusual approach of inking a 2-year, minimum deal (player option after year 1) with the Lakers, who could provide plenty of minutes and a national spotlight under which Young would have the opportunity to rebuild his reputation and increase the value of his next deal.
For Swaggy P the gamble was a huge success, as he opted out after a fantastic 2013-2014 season with the Lakers and was rewarded with a 4-year, $21.5 million deal to stay in L.A that summer.
With the success of Young in mind, Davis decided to follow suit and signed a similar 2-year deal with the Lakers for just under $1 million per, with a player option after the first year. Fans around the league bemoaned the good fortune of the Lakers, who landed a rotation player at well below market value.
While the deal was considered a boon for the Lakers, for Davis himself it was a major risk, as an injury or a sub-par year would cost him millions of dollars on his next deal. Still, it was a chance for him to be a major part of the rotation for the first time since his days in Toronto and it allowed him to showcase his talents before hitting free agency again in the summer of 2015.
Davis had one year to prove to the league that not only was he worth the $4.36 million that Memphis decided not to offer him, but he was worth even more. To his credit, with everything on the line and his back against the wall, Ed Davis stepped up and had a career year while wearing the purple and gold. It looks like the risk he took last summer is going to pay off.
Check out his per-36 minute stats compared to other seasons (courtesy of basketball-reference.com):
It's clear that Davis grew year after year, but his stats show just how stifled he was in Memphis. Not only did his rebounding numbers improve in Los Angeles, so did his field goal percentage, which skyrocketed to over 60%, which was 13th-best in the league. His stellar finishing at the basket and low turnovers made him an incredibly efficient player, posting an impressive PER of 20 in spite of his horrific free throw shooting.
Stats aside, Davis gave fans something to cheer for with his ferocious dunks and habit of flying in to swat away shots from the weak side. He also showed soft hands and the ability to finish around the basket, particularly out of the pick-and-roll.
While Ed doesn't project to be an All-Star, it's safe to say that the Lakers got a phenomenal return on their low investment, for one season anyway. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and Davis has confirmed that he will be opting out of his contract in order to cash in on his successful 2014-2015 season. While he unquestionably rose to the challenge and earned himself a massive pay raise, his success may prevent him from returning to the Lakers next season.
This summer Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers front office staff is facing the daunting task of rebuilding the most popular team in the league. To accomplish this they have the 2nd, 27th, and 34th picks in the draft, along with roughly $22 million in cap space. However, there is something they don't have: starting-level talent.
While Kobe Bryant and Jordan Clarkson both seem to be locks to be in the starting 5 next season, the team also has a number of players who would be best suited to a backup role, including Julius Randle (at least while he gets his feet wet), Tarik Black, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, and Jabari Brown.
While Ed Davis certainly proved himself as an NBA player last year, he also showed that asking him to be a starter is neither good for him nor the team. Not only did his field goal percentage and rebounds drop when given a starting role, he also presents some serious challenges to fielding a competitive lineup around him.
For everything that Ed does well, he does have some fatal flaws, namely his lack of size and a jump shot. Due to his somewhat slight build Davis often gets bullied in the post, and asking him to defend opposing centers typically leads to him being overmatched, although he does have success defending power forwards and then rotating over as a weak-side shot blocker. On offense the problem is flipped, as Ed's horrific jumper creates major spacing issues when he is playing power forward, but he excels at finishing around the rim as a center.
To illustrate, take a look at his heat map:
Davis rarely shoots outside of 5 feet ( and took the vast majority of his shots on the left side of the basket), making him a spacing killer that can be tough to compensate for. In order to maximize his impact, a team would need to find a big to play alongside him that has the bulk to defend the stoutest centers in the league, but also the shooting touch to step outside to at least 20 feet on offense.
Those types of players don't grow on trees nor do they come cheap, and frankly, Davis isn't good enough to justify paying the price to build around him. As a 6th man, however, most of Davis' flaws are able to be hidden in hodge-podge lineups and against inferior opponents.
That's not a knock on Davis, as he is a fantastic reserve that many teams would love to have coming off the bench, but his salary is going to skyrocket this summer from the paltry $981,084 that he made this year to likely somewhere in the $6 million or more range. With only $22 million in cap space and at least a few starters needing to be added to the lineup this summer it's likely the Lakers will find themselves priced out of the Ed Davis sweepstakes.
Making things even worse for the "bring back Ed" campaign is the fact that the Lakers already have four cheap backup bigs on the roster in Black, Kelly, Randle, and Sacre, and are likely to add another in either Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft. Using cap space on starters is an absolute must for the Lakers, and as much as fans love Ed Davis, he just doesn't fit that role.
While it's always possible that the Lakers (mistakenly) decide that Ed Davis is a foundation piece and break the bank to bring him back, it's more likely that he has played too well to stay in Los Angeles. He has said all the right things about wanting to return to the purple and gold, but the writing is on the wall: for both the Lakers and Ed to get what they need, they have to part ways.
For one season Ed Davis put everything on the line and played his heart out, whether it was off the bench or as a starter. Regardless of how many minutes he got, Davis played like a man with something to prove and gave Lakers fans someone to root for during a dark and dreary year. It might be the end of Ed's short journey in the Golden Armor, but none can deny that he lived up to the high expectations that come with putting on a Lakers jersey.
Follow Trevor Lane on Twitter @16ringsNBA