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Lakers Season in Review: Anthony Davis

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Anthony Davis did not have the season that we all hoped for, but the Lakers star should be primed for a bounce-back campaign in 2021.

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to our annual Lakers season in review series, where we’ll be taking a look back at every player on the team’s roster this season, evaluating their play, and deciding if they should be a part of the organization’s future. Today, we take a closer look at Anthony Davis.

How did he play?

Anthony Davis’ second season with the Lakers was disappointing, at least compared to his usual standards. He went from playing the best basketball of his career to averaging “just” 21.8 points and 7.9 rebounds a game in the regular season — his lowest averages in both categories since his sophomore year in the league. Davis scored 30 points or more just six times this regular season, a far cry from last season, when he did it 21 times.

No matter how you slice it, his numbers were down this season, but there is obviously context that helps explain why.

After all, it’s difficult to fully assess Davis’ performance without mentioning the serious Achilles, calf and groin injuries he dealt with basically all year. He only played 36 out of 72 regular season games (that’s just 50%) due to injuries. He also suffered minor shoulder, groin and ankle injuries after coming back from his calf injury in March. AD was just never fully himself after the shortest offseason in NBA history.

“I wanted to do whatever I could to help the team. My body didn’t agree” were Davis’ final words to the media this season, perfectly summing up his ninth year in the league.

Before Lakers fans got their hearts broken on Valentine’s Day when Davis went down with a right calf injury, he averaged 22.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game in 28 games. AD eased into the season, which was a shocker for many. Because he was so dominant and imposing on both ends of the floor in the NBA Bubble, it was puzzling to see him often settle further from the basket for mid range jumpers instead of putting his head down to blow by his defender and attack the rim.

Maybe it was to conserve energy, prevent injury, or brought on by the success of his perimeter game in the bubble, or some combination of all that and more. After all, Davis did make 49% of his attempts from the midrange and 38% from behind the arc in last season’s memorable championship run. But there were major consequences when he attempted to get to the rim less this season, and not even his attempts at in-game load management could keep him healthy for the postseason.

AD’s free throw attempts, which are a big part of his game, were noticeably down this year. He only attempted 5.9 free throws per game during the regular season and was surprisingly shooting just 73.8% from the free-throw line — his second-lowest percentage since his rookie year. The Brow was also rebounding (7.9 boards a game) and blocking shots (1.6 a game) less this year. In the 36 games he played this season, AD’s minutes, shooting percentage and usage all dipped.

AD and the Lakers failed to counter frequently on their opponent’s extra defensive help on the post this season | Data courtesy of bball-index

When Davis was in the post this season, he often saw double teams. And the Lakers did a poor job countering or sending help frequently on their opponent’s extra defensive help on the post all season, with scenes like the one below playing out frequently:

This hurt Davis’ productivity on offense:

According to BBall-Index’s graph above, AD was doubled on 65% of his post-ups after January 27. Unfortunately, Davis and the Lakers did not counter on 68% of their opponents’ post defensive help. On the 47% of times they tried, the Lakers were successfully able to counter in a way where the defense did not recover 70% of the time.

In short: When Davis and the Lakers as a whole countered post ups, their half court offense was smoother, their turnovers reduced and AD was in a better position to score.

Davis also played center more in Space Jam 2 than he did this past season. According to Cleaning the Glass, Davis played the five just 9% of the time he was on the floor, and spent 91% of his time playing the four in the regular season, although he did play 20% of his minutes at the five during the Suns series. While it’s important that Davis preserves his body, 9% is still significantly low compared to last year, when he played 40% at the five during the regular season and 60% during the playoffs.

Why did he play the five less this year? Perhaps because of the Lakers’ center rotation. The Lakers distributed those minutes to Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell to start the season when they cruised to a 21-6 record before Davis’ calf injury. The addition of Andre Drummond, who the Lakers reportedly promised a starting role to, also took up those minutes when Davis returned from injury.

It didn’t help that Davis only had 13 games to get accustomed to playing with Drummond. In the regular season, the Lakers’ starting unit with Davis at the 4 and Drummond at the 5 was outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions. While this figure is mostly without LeBron James, it’s still not an ideal stat to see.

The Lakers’ net rating was clearly better when AD played the five | Data courtesy of Cleaning the glass

AD at the five will always be the Lakers’ best option during the LeBron/AD era. It’s the ball club’s solution to their poor shooting and best way to utilize their offensive spacing and defensive coverages. It would help if Davis had a point guard who can boost his offense (especially on the pick-and-roll) as well. It seemed like he and Dennis Schröder didn’t have the best on-court chemistry compared to what he had with former teammate Rajon Rondo. It would also be ideal if the Lakers can find a way to unlock more of AD’s offensive bag.

The good news for the Lakers is that the team plans to play AD at the five and James at the four more next season, according to NBA Insider Marc Stein. This should put a smile on your face if you’re a Laker fan because not long ago, the Lakers outscored the Suns in the playoffs by nearly 30 points per 100 possessions in their most-used lineup with Davis at the 5 and James playing the 4; a perfect reminder of how dominant this duo has been — and can still be — together.

What is his contract situation moving forward?

AD signed a five year contract worth $190 million last December 2020. He’s committed to the purple and gold until the 2024-2025 season. He’s made it clear that his goal is to get his jersey up in the rafters alongside the Lakers greats.

Should he be back?

If you think that Anthony Davis shouldn’t return to the Lakers next season, please seek help. One bad year when he came off the shortest off season in sports history does not define AD as a player. Some NBA media has debated whether the Lakers should trade AD for Damian Lillard, which is completely ridiculous. The Lakers, an organization known to take care of and stay loyal to its superstars, will not let go of Davis.

Meanwhile, the AD that needs to be back next season is the one that is completely healthy and motivated to chase his second ring. This season was disappointing for him because he’s a superstar, and that label comes with high expectations and standards, which he didn’t get to deliver for most part because of injuries. AD’s biggest weakness is really his health, but when he’s 100% himself, Davis is undisputedly still one of the best players in the league.

The good news is, a healthy AD may be on the way back this year:

Davis can still cement his place as part of the top-five players in the NBA, and even the best big man in the league, but that has become debatable as of this writing. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid have entered the chat, especially with their individual performances this season. Most pundits would probably put all of those guys ahead of him now, but we all know how it went after the last offseason in which Davis was doubted. It’s going to be up to Davis to reclaim his place in that conversation next year, and put the Lakers back on top where they belong.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. Nicole Ganglani is a lifelong Lakers fan and basketball journalist in the Philippines. You can follow her on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.