As the Lakers try to defend their title, there has undoubtedly been something different about Anthony Davis this year.
Is it that he’s averaging his fewest points (21.1) since his sophomore season in the NBA? Is it that his free-throw percentage (72.5%) is the worst it’s ever been? Is it that the numbers say the Lakers are better defensively when he sits than they are when he plays? Could it be that he’s taking more mid-range jumpers than ever, and taking the lowest percentage of attempts at the basket — just 25.3% of his shots have come at the rim — of his career?
For Davis, the issue is simpler than all that.
“I think I suck right now. I’m not making shots. I’m not making free throws,” Davis said on yet another night this season on which the Lakers won, but Davis clearly wasn’t happy with how he played. Davis went just 8-18 from the field and 2-5 from the line in the Lakers’ 113-106 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. He was impactful, but not nearly as much as he’d like to be.
The good news is that over the entirety of the season so far, Davis’ shot actually hasn’t been that off. He’s shooting the third-highest percentage (52.5%) from the field of his career, and shooting a career-high 35.1% from three. But when it’s not falling — or when he’s getting double teamed — he’s shown that the changes in his game aren’t actually all bad. For instance, he’s been making slow and steady improvements as a passer over the course of the last year.
When Davis got to the Lakers, he’d often get knocked off kilter by double teams, and rush a pass that wasn’t there or struggle to find the right read. As the season went along, though, he started to get better, and he’s talked this season about how Marc Gasol has helped him improve as a facilitator, something he showed flashes of with a career-high (for a quarter) of 6 assists in the first frame against the Golden State Warriors this week. He only finished the game with 7 assists, however, demonstrating that he still has room to grow while making adjustments to the adjustments that opponents make.
But against the Bucks he kept the pressure on, dishing 6 assists, including several key ones down the stretch, and he’s assisting on 17.1% of his teammates’ baskets this year (the second-highest rate of his career, per basketball-reference). His 3.6 assists per game are additionally the second-best average of his career, and his penultimate pass to help seal the game against the Bucks was a good example of his progress as a passer.
Milwaukee brought basically every defender they had towards the paint, and Davis calmly spun to the middle to draw Giannis Antetokounmpo a step further in from the corner, where his man (Alex Caruso) was waiting. As soon as Davis saw Giannis, he knew where Caruso would be, and lasered a pass through multiple bodies that essentially iced the game:
And Gasol isn’t the only one that’s been working on facilitating with Davis. His co-star, LeBron James, has also been trying to help Davis grow as a passer since he arrived with the Lakers, a development that James always knew would take time.
“I believe, with him being in New Orleans, a lot of people either didn’t watch their games or just weren’t paying attention to the level of talent that Anthony Davis was, and he got the opportunity to see a lot of one-on-one coverages, because they didn’t want to let his teammates get off and felt like he would always get his,” James explained. “I feel like since he’s been here, he’s so damn good that I knew eventually he was going to see a lot of double teams.
“A lot of teams are not going to allow him to just play one-on-one, because there’s not one one-on-one matchup that he can’t exploit,” James continued, adding that since he’s seen double teams throughout his whole career in the low-post and on the perimeter, he’s tried to help Davis identify where passes will be, and how to best get the ball to the weak side of the defense.
“And he’s continuing to grow every single game. Every single film session we kind of break those things down, what he sees on the floor,” James said. “Tonight was just another example of him seeing the other side of the floor and putting the ball on time, on target and guys knocking it down.”
Davis just feels like passing a way that he can make an impact when his game isn’t going the way he wants.
“I think tonight my aggressiveness, just being in the post and getting to the paint allowed guys to get open, and I trust my teammates,” Davis said. “I think my aggressiveness tonight opened up the floor for everyone, and I think that’s the only way I feel like I’m gonna get out of this funk or whatever that I’m in.”
But for all the (somewhat-warranted) concern about Davis’ game — including from the man himself — the bottom line is that the Lakers are still significantly better when he plays, outscoring opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions, a slightly better mark than James himself (12.1). When Davis sits, that advantage drops to just 4 points per 100 possessions.
Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, but if Davis has been this underwhelming, and is this pissed about how he and the team have played while they’re blowing teams out with him on the floor, it’s pretty wild to think about how good this roster can be when he rounds into form and meets his own sky-high expectations.
And rest-assured, Lakers fans: He says he’s not going to stop until he gets there.
“Right now, I’m so hard on myself, man,” Davis said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a better basketball player every game, and that’s what I’m gonna continue to do.”
That’s the right mentality, and a small reminder that even if it looks different, by the end of the season, these changes in Davis’ approach may result in an even more well-rounded player. If that eventually helps the Lakers repeat, no one is going to remember when Davis supposedly “sucked” earlier in the year.