It’s opening night, and the Lakers are going to lose to the Clippers. They’re down 10 points with a little over four minutes to go in a game that was mostly hard fought, but one where they just couldn’t get their offense to click while Kawhi Leonard torched their defense on the other end, most notably abusing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope whenever they were matched up. The Lakers will fall to 0-1 and the handwringing will start shortly after the game ends... if not sooner.
On this late-game possession, however, something interesting happens. Frank Vogel deploys Anthony Davis onto Kawhi defensively. After receiving a screen at the 3-point line near the top of the key, Kawhi drives to his right hand in a similar manner he had all night, getting into the body of his defender to create some space, and elevates for a short jumper right at the edge of the lane line. Unlike so many of his other shot attempts that night, however, this one didn’t go in. In fact, it barely got out of Leonard’s massive hands before Davis rejected it, sending it right back over Leonard’s head and into the waiting hands of Kyle Kuzma.
It was right then — as he was blocking the reigning Finals MVP who just tore through the Eastern Conference like tissue paper — that we should have known that Davis was going to bring a special level of play defensively this season. And boy has he.
When Anthony Davis first joined the Lakers, one of his first public comments made it clear where he was planning to change things for the team.
“I want to be Defensive Player of the Year,” Davis told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.
Through 24 games, Davis’ goal is looking more realistic by the day, and it’s come with team success on that end of the floor as well.
It’s also been notable that it isn’t just Davis who sees his goal as not only possible, but likely. LeBron James? Check. Rajon Rondo? Yessir. Alex Caruso? Dwight Howard? Frank Vogel? You betcha. The whole team is rallying behind him, starting the campaign for Davis as Defensive Player of the Year.
Getting your teammates and head coach on board, though, is different than convincing the body of media members who vote on the award. I mean, those in your own organization see you every day, and know inherently what you bring to the table. A voter who may see you only a dozen times a year in person and is relying on clips, highlights, and portions of other games to get a full view of what you bring to the table? That’s more complicated.
Forget all of them for a moment, though. We can even forget what Davis wants. What matters here is his case. And I’m here to make it.
I believe any league-wide award comes down to three key factors, all of them intertwined, but powerful on their own. Those factors are stats, narrative and memorable moments.
Think back to Russell Westbrook’s 2017 MVP award for a great example. Westbrook averaged a triple-double, so he had the stats. That season, Westbrook carried a Thunder team that had just lost Kevin Durant in free agency to a mid-level playoff seed when it was conceivable they may not make the postseason at all, so he had the narrative. And while Russ had several memorable moments, none captured the essence of his candidacy more than a buzzer-beating, 40-foot 3-pointer he hit in Denver to not only win the game, but that gave him 50 points and got him a record breaking 42nd triple double of the season.
In getting back to AD, his early season candidacy for DPOY is checking off all these same boxes. Let’s go one by one.
Davis currently ranks 14th in the NBA in steals at 1.5 a game. He ranks second in blocks at 2.7 a game. He’s the only player in the league reaching those thresholds in those categories, and his combined 4.2 “stocks” (steals and blocks combined) are 2nd in the league behind the Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic.
From a team standpoint, however, the Lakers actually have a better defense when Davis sits than when he plays, a weird development that, while not unheard of for a top defensive player, still casts doubt on his overall impact. There are reasons I believe these stats play out the way they do (chief among them, when Davis plays with all-bench units, he’s typically surrounded by weaker defensive players and he doesn’t get the bump that those players do from playing in garbage time), but that’s a topic for a different post.
Counting stats and on/off numbers aside, there are other metrics and numbers that work in his favor. For one, when a player shoots a shot that Davis is defending, they only shoot 38.2%. Of players who have played 15 games or more and defend 12 shot attempts or more per game, Davis ranks 1st in the league in this stat.
Further, players only convert 47% of their shots taken at the rim when Davis is defending — good for 2nd in the league for players who have defended 100 or more such shots. Add in the number of 3’s that Davis defends (4.6 per night) and the percentage players shoot on those (32.4%) and there’s really not a big man like him who defends at all three levels of the floor while having the type of success that he does all over the court.
I will admit that the platform Davis has as a member of the Lakers while being teammates with LeBron James matters in building narratives. There is an inherent interest in how good the Lakers are, and how Davis plays a part in that. Those extra eyeballs matter in how Davis’ play is perceived (and the discussion which forms because of that), all of which helps build the narrative around his season and the accolades he will (or will not) receive.
In acknowledging all that, there’s some pretty simple points to be made here that should matter. In the same interview in which Davis said he wanted to be the DPOY, he also said he wants LeBron to be First-Team All-Defense. Maybe it’s a coincidence that LeBron is playing better defensively than any regular season since he was in Miami. But I think Davis showed real leadership in the nascent stages of this roster coming together, helping establish a culture of accountability that only reinforced the values of a newly minted head coach who’s best known for his defense.
Beyond off-the-court stuff, there’s also setting a tone through performance and on-court leadership. I cited some stats above, but anyone who’s watched more than a few Lakers games in full can see that it’s Davis who is the centerpiece of the Lakers defensive attack; he’s the player who is asked to do the most, and he does it without complaint and with nearly maximum effort for all his minutes on the floor. Be it defending the rim as a traditional big, chasing stretch power forwards around the perimeter, or switching onto the opposition’s primary scoring wing or ball handler for a critical possession, Davis carries an incredible burden possession to possession, game to game to be the Lakers’ do-it-all defensive stopper.
In the same way that unselfish offensive players like Steve Nash can set the tone for his team to make the extra pass, Davis is the rare defensive player who sets a tone for his teammates to make the extra rotation. He embodies the effort and trust top defensive teams display in order to be successful on that side of the ball and it’s a big reason why the Lakers’ have the sixth-best defense in the league, and were at the top of the NBA on that end for much of the season.
There may not be a player in the league who has as many key late-game defensive plays as Davis. He had a literal game-saving block on Harrison Barnes in the Lakers’ win over the Kings. In the final minutes of the Lakers win over the Nuggets, he had a pair of crucial stops in one on one matchups vs. each of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. When the Lakers won in San Antonio in late November, it was Davis who snuffed out any hint of a late game run with a huge block where he rotated all the way from the 3-point line to destroy a Bryn Forbes layup after he’d beaten KCP off the dribble. I could go on and on.
Beyond those late-game stops, though, Davis simply makes countless other plays, multiple times, every game that disrupt or outright blow up the opposition’s offense. A broken up lob at the rim, an arm in a passing lane for a deflection, a reach in when helping on a dribble drive to force a turnover, a drawn charge, an on-ball block against a post player, a block on a jump-shooter in drop coverage when defending a pick and roll, a last second rotation to take away a shot at the rim when a teammate gets beat... Davis has done and continues to do it all, every single night.
Some (or even a lot) of these plays may not stand out on their own. But when you see them so often, they add up to create a lasting memory of the overall impact he’s having. They just sort of blur together like the beautiful scenery of a long road trip. I may not be able to tell you when, exactly, we drove past that snow capped mountain range or what part of the state we were in when the sunset hit just right in the tree-lined western sky, but the images still stick. The same is true of Davis’ defensive genius for Lakers fans.
Ultimately, though, if I were going to make the final case for Davis at this point in the season, it might not even come down to any of the stats, narrative, or moments I’ve laid out above. In the end, I’d simply argue that most of the Lakers success through 24 games has come from their ability to turn a game on its head by putting together the type of run that demoralizes the other team. Those runs have almost always begun defensively and with Davis, more times than not, setting the tone. In the same way that a Steph Curry 28-foot 3-pointer off the dribble came to symbolize the juggernaut that was the Warriors, when I think of the 21-3 Lakers, I envision Anthony Davis wreaking havoc defensively.
There’s really no higher praise I can give him and it’s why, at this point of the year, he should be the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year.