It is September of 2021 and Rob Pelinka is sitting in his office with DeAndre Jordan. Both are there so Jordan can put pen-to-paper and make his free agent signing with the Lakers official. Pelinka, always fond of telling a story, sits with his newly minted big man and reveals a part of a conversation he’d just had with a more, shall we say, high-profile Lakers front court player.
“So, Anthony Davis just said thank you”, Rob relayed. “I said ‘thank you for what?’ And he said, ‘less minutes at the 5 for me’.” Both had a good chuckle at the exchange and that was that.
Whatever eye-rolls this inspired in our little corner of the Lakers universe or the broader NBA community of fans is, frankly, not relevant to me. What is relevant, though, is that it reinforced the idea that Anthony Davis has a firm idea of what (and who) he is as a basketball player and that self-conception is, essentially, a power forward who will play some center for the betterment of the team.
I, for one, have almost always sided with AD on this general approach.
In the Lakers’ 2020 title run, AD started almost every game at PF and then slid to C for key stretches of the game, including the closing minutes of nearly every important contest. Over the course of his career, Davis has been able to bring a unique quality to each position, defending the perimeter by swatting stretch 4s with as much aplomb as he packs players at the basket. Offensively, he’s always been elite as an inside-out scorer — mixing that with a variety of ways to create his own shot or act as a finisher on the receiving end of lobs, dump-offs, and pocket passes has always been elite. He’s been too big for most forwards and too quick for most centers.
So, my argument has aligned with AD’s. Let him be a PF for 40-50% of his minutes if that’s what he wanted. After all, it’s worked out pretty damn well that way. And, at an even more grounded level, if supporting your best players in the ways they envision is best for themselves also produces elite results, there’s very few arguments against it. You build a positive relationship with the players and get the production on the court that comes with it.
This year, however, there’s been a shift. According to Cleaning the Glass, Davis has played center for 98% of his minutes. Save for a partial shift every handful of games where he’s next to Thomas Bryant, then, for every minute he’s on the floor he’s the lone big man and carries the responsibilities that come with it — and doing so at one of the highest levels in the league.
To be clear, there’s no shortage of great big men in the league and claiming AD is better than, say, back-to-back league MVP Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid (the player who was runner-up to the Joker both of those seasons), is an argument for someone else to have. Davis is a different player than both, with distinct asks on both sides of the ball, in a different system, etc. These are debates for people who enjoy arguing for the sake of hearing themselves talk, not because there’s a definitive answer.
However, what can’t be argued is that there’s a big man playing at a higher level than Davis is right now, or really, over the course of this season. And it’s not just the raw statistics, it’s the all-encompassing nature how he’s controlling games — even when the opponents are some of the best players in the league.
For example, in Friday’s fantastic win over the Bucks, AD’s monster night came against the best defensive frontcourt in the NBA on an array of jumpers, floaters, finesse layups around defenders and fierce dunks over the top of them too.
It’s rare you’re going to find any player who can operate as effectively as Davis does vs. the quality of defensive talent the Bucks threw at him. But there he was, measuring all that Lopez and Giannis had to offer, finding the small vulnerabilities and cracks in their coverages, and finding ways to beat both with his arsenal of offensive moves.
And he’s doing this night after night to everyone in the league.
On top of that, Davis remains one of the elite defensive players in the world. His 2.4 blocks per game rank 4th in the NBA, while his 1.4 steals rank 20th (he’s the only player in the top 20 in both categories). He also leads the league both in defensive rebounds per game and in total rebounding overall. There’s no player in the league who has quite the same knack as he does to both protect the rim and then leverage that presence to bait players into making passes that he then deflects or steals himself.
One of the keys to all this success on both sides of the ball is that he’s closer to the basket more often due to the position he’s playing and the asks of that position within the team’s schemes.
Darvin Ham’s defensive philosophies are putting AD in drop coverages more, with fewer switches overall, and putting the onus on him to anchor things from the restricted area out. On the other end, the team’s P&R-heavy scheme is asking him to set more screens than ever and then flow downhill where he can either catch the ball on the move, attack the offensive glass, or settle into post-up position and make himself available for an entry pass.
In a way, all of this resembles the work of an early to mid-2010’s center in the mold of prime Dwight Howard, but with the ability to shoot jumpers as an alternative approach should the defense push him further from the hoop or if that’s where the weak point of the opposition’s scheme is.
In the big picture, I’m positive that if AD needed to slide down to PF to help this team, he could do so fairly easily and impact the game at an extremely high level just as he has in the past. But, what’s also clear is that Davis has now embraced being the thing he’s always said that he’d be willing to do, but never seemed eager or enthusiastic about.
And, in doing so, Davis, at its most basic level, has become exactly what he’s said he doesn’t see himself as. And it’s leading to one of his best seasons as a professional.