At his best, Anthony Davis is a lethal force in the NBA, capable of knocking down shots from anywhere on the court while also moonlighting as the league’s best defensive big man in the process. He showcased those talents at both ends of the floor during the Lakers’ run through the bubble to a 17th banner.
The long-running debate, though, has been at what position is Davis at his best. His incredible versatility allows him to play either power forward or center, but his desire to protect his body throughout the season often limits his minutes at the 5 position, where most feel he is at his best.
But after tons of rumors since the Russell Westbrook acquisition this summer, Davis confirmed at Tuesday’s media day that he will be playing the 5 this season. It won’t be a full-time move, as head coach Frank Vogel was quick to point out himself on Tuesday, but by Davis’ own words, it’s a shift in philosophy at the very least that very well could lead to big dividends this season.
His teammates agree.
“It can be deadly because AD is obviously one of the best players in the world,” Westbrook said. “He can play inside, he can shoot it. He can pretty much do everything. Him at the 5, you never know where he’s going to be. He can roll, he can pop, he can space the floor and that creates an advantage for us each and every night because there’s nobody in the world that can guard him at the 5 or the 4, it doesn’t really matter. But him at the 5 really gives us an advantage, I believe.”
As Westbrook alluded to, Davis’ minutes won’t be strictly limited to the center role, as DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard each will still almost certainly see time alongside Davis this year. That, however, won’t stop how effective Davis can be.
“I think at the 4 or the 5, AD is still a hell of a basketball player,” Jordan said. “I think you could put him at any position on the floor and he’s still going to be Anthony Davis. Obviously, at the 5 he spaces the floor a little bit more and it’s a little tougher for traditional fives to be able to guard him.
“But also at the 4, he’s able to make plays and put pressure on defenses. And with Dwight and I back there, we’re able to help flatten the defense to where if the 5 does help... he’s able to make that little push shot, lob pass and things over the top or underneath just to make the defenses play a little bit more honest. His ability to switch a lot of pick and rolls will be huge for us.”
Davis remained effective last season alongside other bigs, whether it was Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell or Andre Drummond. But no matter if it was in the postseason or regular season, his net rating was never higher than when he was the lone big man on the floor. In 160 minutes across the regular season, play-in game and playoffs last year with Davis as the only big, the Lakers had a net rating of +14.9. His best mark with any big man was alongside Gasol, when he had a +6.8 net rating
It’s a trend that carried over from the 2019-20 season as well. Never was Davis better individually than without Howard and JaVale McGee on the floor, sporting a net rating of +8.1 in 1,313 minutes. Alongside Howard, that rating was +6.3 while it dipped to +5.7 alongside McGee.
Westbrook’s arrival puts a larger emphasis on the need for Davis to play center. For as tremendous a player as the Los Angeles native is, Westbrook still ranks as one of the league’s worst high-volume 3-point shooters in history. The need to space the floor will be even more paramount with the natural solution being moving Davis to center, not only opening up the paint with his ability to step out to the perimeter and score but also by allowing the Lakers another shooter on the wing in place of a traditional center.
“He’s so versatile,” Rajon Rondo said of Davis. “He usually stretches the bigs out. If he’s facing a bigger, slower big, he can take them out on the perimeter. If he’s facing a smaller big, he puts them in the post. And then the best thing about this year, I believe, is a lot of the big guys he bangs against, we have two of them on our team so we don’t have to worry about him getting worn or banging against too many big guys in the league because we have two of the best on our team with DeAndre (Jordan) and Dwight (Howard).”
The numbers don’t lie. While Davis has been a tremendous talent for the Lakers no matter what position he’s played, he and the team have been at their best with him at the 5. Now, it appears fans and opponents will see it unleashed on a grander scale than ever this season, with the Lakers looking poised to reap the benefits.