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Bend or Break: Anthony Davis is leading the Lakers beyond his comfort zone

By stepping up to Darvin Ham’s preseason challenge, Anthony Davis has stabilized the Lakers through the early days of the 2022-23 campaign.

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Ever since taking over as the team’s new head coach, Darvin Ham has made one thing clear: he wants the Lakers to be Anthony Davis’ team.

In his introductory press conference, Ham called Davis “the key,” specifically citing his game-breaking defensive abilities as a cornerstone upon which his Lakers would be built. Ham said of this year’s team, “It’s going to be built on that defense, and [Davis is] going to be the main piece, the centerpiece of it.”

Looking at the team’s recent history suggests Ham is right. When the Lakers won their most recent championship in the 2020 bubble, it was Anthony Davis, not LeBron James, who led them in both scoring and Win Shares. Perhaps more importantly, Davis was the backline of the Lakers’ defense that ranked fifth overall in 2019-20 and second in 2020-21. But last season, Davis’ inability to stay healthy along with a degradation of the team’s depth and overall identity torpedoed their defensive integrity, falling all the way to 24th in that category.

When I asked Darvin Ham about challenging Davis to take on a bigger leadership role this season before Wednesday’s win over the Pelicans, Ham jumped at the opportunity to augment his stance on Davis’ essentiality to the Lakers’ success.

Specifically, Ham reiterated what he told Davis when he took the Lakers job, “You’re gonna have to carry a big load for us. You’re the guy.” He continued explicating his approach to handling the Lakers’ star big man, stating that he told him, “We’re gonna push you, and I want you to be more of a commanding presence, not just on the court, but with your teammates.”

For Anthony Davis to make good on Ham’s promise, the most important thing for him is to simply be able to suit up. After missing only nine regular season games in 2019-20, AD sat out 36 and 42 games in the following two campaigns due to a whole host of physical maladies.

Despite Davis’ obvious on-court dominance, his spurts of unavailability have, fairly or unfairly, emboldened his critics to cast him as one of the game’s more disappointing superstars.

After finishing in the top nine of MVP voting four times (and as high as third) between 2014-15 and 2019-20, Davis has fallen outside the league’s inner circle of presumed world-beaters. Entering the season, ESPN listed Davis 20th in their annual player rankings, behind the likes of Bradley Beal, Trae Young, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jimmy Butler, none of whom have ever finished higher than 10th in the voting for the league’s most prestigious individual award.

This year, Davis has missed just one game but has been managing a back problem since the preseason. A scary fall after biting on a Kawhi Leonard pump fake in the Lakers’ second game of the season seemed to aggravate Davis’ back, which apparently only worsened during his battles with reigning MVP and certified bruiser Nikola Jokić last Wednesday and Sunday.

Closing out the aforementioned pregame presser, Ham touched on a moment in the Lakers’ loss to the Nuggets in Denver when Davis tweaked his back, “He stretched out for an offensive rebound and hurt his back, I was getting ready to take him out and he waved me off and pushed through.” For Ham, Davis’ reluctance to leave the court is an example of the kind of “competitive hunger” Ham’s sought to foster in Davis. Ham finished by saying, “So I see him growing right before our eyes as a leader and a guy that’s gonna lead by example and hold others accountable.”

Accountability, a big buzzword for Ham and the Lakers’ brass, has also underscored his pregame pronouncements of AD’s availability to the press. Davis has yet to enter a contest without being listed on the pregame injury report, but before each game Davis has played, Ham has alerted reporters to his availability, a tendency that starkly contrasts with Frank Vogel’s ritualistic habit of extreme conservatism and pregame starting lineup non-disclosure. By publicizing the certainty of AD’s availability in contrast with his listing on the injury report, Ham has put the onus on Davis to sacrifice by playing through nicks and bruises for the benefit of the team.

Ham’s challenge appears geared towards bringing out a more spirited, resilient Anthony Davis this season, and, so far, it seems to be working. He’s not just playing through whatever’s ailing him, but performing at the uber-elite level Ham openly hoped to draw out of him.

Davis’ individual numbers look almost identical to his averages from last season, albeit with an uptick in rebounding, but the Lakers’ team defense has skyrocketed towards the top of the league. Through seven games, the Lakers rank second in defensive efficiency, despite already facing the fourth, 11th, and 13th-best offenses in the league in addition to a pair of games against the eighth-ranked Nuggets.

When I asked Davis about how he’s responded to Ham’s challenge after the Lakers’ win over the Pelicans, he was quick to agree that he has taken on a bigger role this season but proceeded with a hesitation that was not present in Ham’s pregame proffering. This is, after all, a new responsibility for him.

After taking a moment to collect himself in between words, AD spoke on his importance to the franchise, “I’m heavily involved in a lot of the things around the organization so — it’s kind of like a responsibility of mine to take that leadership role and take some of it off LeBron.”

He continued, acknowledging that his efforts to spearhead winning this season have gone beyond those of past seasons, stating, “I’m making sure that I try to be more vocal, and more of a leader, especially in certain situations.”

On Sunday, AD did just that.

On a night when Russell Westbrook was again a spark off the bench but faded in the second half, and LeBron James was clearly not himself due to a non-COVID illness, AD stepped up.

Dealing with not one, but two paint powerhouses in Jonas Valančiūnas and Zion Williamson, Davis held JV to just nine points on 3-of-11 shooting and helped out on Zion (who he was almost never directly matched up on) including this monster rejection:

Davis missed a handful of bunnies in the first quarter but came on strong to finish with a monster double-double of 20 points and 16 boards to go along with four blocks, four assists, and a steal, and he had a game-high plus-9 box plus-minus. And with the win, the Lakers are technically on their first streak of the year, both coming against a pair of veritable contenders, bumping their record to a salvageable 2-5, especially with an easier schedule around the bend.

The Lakers are far from leading the pack, but they’re back in the race, and that’s a big step in the right direction considering how things soured in Los Angeles over the course of last season. Despite his palpable physical and emotional discomfort with the leadership the Lakers need from him, AD is playing through it.

For the first time since joining the Lakers, the team has gone against his stated preference of playing the 4 and foregone a safety net of veteran big men to lean on in case of an AD emergency. Now, the team is almost built to fail in his absence.

For the Lakers to be great, or even good, Davis has to be able to stay on the court. And whether he’s comfortable with that load or not, it’s clearer than ever that the team will fail if cannot rise to the challenge.

But he can get there, even without approaching the absolute peak of his powers. So far this season, he’s been arguably the best defensive player in the league and one of the most dominant paint scorers in basketball all with a balky back and an unreliable jump shot. At his absolute floor, so long as he’s on it, Davis is inarguably one of the best players in basketball.

Whether he can withstand the rigors of an 82-game season, bend or break, only time will tell.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Post Production Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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