Editor’s Note: As the season gets closer, our Silver Screen and Roll staff is going to be taking a closer look back at every player on the Lakers for a refresher on stuff we may have forgotten during quarantine. Think of this as the 30-second clip reminding you of what happened during the current season of your favorite TV show that rolls right before the latest episode starts. Today, let’s recall what was up with Anthony Davis.
A little over 13 months ago, the Lakers traded Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, and three first-round picks to New Orleans for the rights to Anthony Davis. A short while later, they amended the trade to also send most of their remaining young players to Washington. After years of youth movements in Los Angeles, the Lakers were putting all of their eggs in Davis’ basket.
Davis had been the best player on the Pelicans essentially since he was drafted by New Orleans in 2012. He had led the team to the postseason on two occasions. winning one playoff series and losing twice to the juggernaut Warriors, but the limitations of that roster were readily apparent. Davis needed a change, and the Lakers needed a superstar. Despite the high price, the team was certain this was a move that had to be made.
It was absolutely the right decision.
Davis has been even better than Lakers fans could have hoped for in the first of what will hopefully be several seasons in Los Angeles. He is a seamless offensive counterpart to LeBron James and a game-altering force on the defensive side of the ball. He has a never-ending motor — though watching him sell out his body for loose balls can sometimes cause anxiety — and possesses a selfless demeanor on and off the court. He’s a Laker who can make his free throws, as he did to earn Team LeBron a win in the 2020 All-Star game. There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe how good Davis has been this year.
Offensively, Davis is no longer asked to be the hub of an offense, and that’s for the best, because his work in isolation and on post ups still leaves something to be desired. What he has done is settle in comfortably as the second banana to LeBron James, and that works in a number of ways. James is one of the premier pick-and-roll operators in league history, and Davis is a willing partner in that he sets good screens, can score with either hand around the basket, and has the catch radius necessary to finish any lob thrown near the rim. Davis scores 1.27 points per possession as the roll man, second among players who have at least three such possessions per game.
Davis can also pop out to provide space for James and the Lakers centers to attack the basket. He has become a more efficient 3-pointer shooter as the year has gone on: Davis shot 28.7% on 3.7 3-point attempts per game through December, but has shot 40.5% on 3.3 attempts per game in 2020. The Lakers might want to increase his volume, but it’s hard to quibble with the results.
Where Davis has really shined is in transition. As others have noted, the Lakers play selectively fast, but they excel when they do get out in the open floor. Davis leaks out when he is defending the perimeter and is near impossible to guard on the break thanks to his length, making every outlet thrown his way catchable. The Lakers throw the most hit-ahead passes in the NBA, with James as the primary passer and Davis the most frequent target. It’s no surprise that between their halfcourt and fast-break chemistry, Davis has been the recipient of 172 James assists this season, 42 more than any other combination in the league.
It’s on the other end of the floor that Davis has been most impactful, and is one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year. Davis is seemingly everywhere on defense, and he has the complete skill set to fight through screens while also staying attached to the offensive player and then overwhelm them with his length. His block and steal rates are among the highest in the league, and he rarely gets in foul trouble. He keeps that defensive intensity high throughout the game, and has made some key defensive plays down the stretch against New Orleans, Sacramento, and Denver, among other teams.
Davis also has the flexibility to guard every position; Frank Vogel has trusted him on everyone from Chris Paul, to Kawhi Leonard, and even Nikola Jokic. That willingness to toggle between the four and the five is key. Despite declaring during the offseason that he would prefer not to play center, Davis slid to the five in just the second game of the season because the Lakers needed a different look to contend with Rudy Gobert.
It isn’t easy to play second fiddle to James. Kyrie Irving chafed at the responsibility, and Dwyane Wade only ceded alpha dog status to James in their second year together. But Davis has embraced the secondary role and thrived in it. He has even inspired James to be better, committing to the defensive end during the regular season for the first time in ages.
James may be the alpha of the team, but the Lakers proved last year that just James wasn’t enough to be a contender, or even a playoff team. They needed someone else to share the burden, someone who could play to James’ level without taking too much of the spotlight.
Davis is that player. He is uniquely suited to fill this role, and he has played it to perfection.
Still, this season can’t be considered an unqualified success without factoring in Davis’ playoff performance. This is Los Angeles after all, where conference championships aren’t even honored. An all-NBA season from Davis is to be commended, but it won’t go down in Lakers lore unless some hardware comes at the end.
Davis wanted to be a Laker. He wanted the pressure of playing for this franchise, knowing the lineage of greats, specifically bigs, who had preceded him. The rest of the season may look and feel a little different, but this is the moment Davis has been angling for since he demanded a trade to Los Angeles. He’s been great so far, and he deserves every plaudit that has come his way. Now is his chance to prove that he’s a player who can count himself among the game’s greats, not just a regular season success story.
For Anthony Davis, it’s showtime.