The Lakers’ June 2019 trade for Anthony Davis, a deal that paired him with fellow superstar LeBron James, was a resounding success almost immediately. Even though it took nearly an entire calendar year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the purple and gold won their 17th title in franchise history at the conclusion of that campaign, with Davis playing a crucial role both in the regular season, and in the NBA Bubble after the pandemic-caused pause to the season.
Since then, however, it’s been a rough go for both the team and its two best players. Both James and Davis missed large chunks of the 2020-21 season due to injury, dropping L.A. to the seventh seed and relegating them to the league’s first-ever play-in tournament for a chance to make the opening round of the playoffs. Though the Lakers dispatched the Golden State Warriors in the play-in, they then lost in six games to the eventual Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns, dropping two straight after Davis injured his calf in Game 4.
The current season started even worse for Davis and the Lakers. He experimented with bulking up in order to play center more consistently, which backfired almost instantly, as Davis’s mobility and jump shot suffered mightily as criticism of him grew to a height it had not reached since he demanded a trade from the struggling New Orleans Pelicans in early 2019. Davis then missed a month due to an MCL sprain suffered on Dec. 17 against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Since returning from that injury in late January, however, Davis has displayed a newfound intensity on and off the court. His mobility and shot-making resemble his 2019-20 self much more closely, silencing critics in the process. But with James currently out due to a knee injury of his own, the Lakers are still losing, and are currently 25-28 on the season, a record that leaves them in ninth place in the Western Conference.
Davis’ public comments and mannerisms have made it clear that he cares much more about the team’s performance than the feedback he gets for his own play. And after enduring so much losing in New Orleans, the Lakers’ instant success with him set his expectations for plenty more of that success, as he told Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times on Thursday night:
“I just want to win. I’ve had seasons where I’ve lost a lot in New Orleans. And it weighed on me. And then I came here and I got spoiled with winning my first year,” Davis said during a one-on-one interview with me Thursday night. “Second year, we go to the playoffs and I feel like we could’ve still been successful if I didn’t have the injury. And this year, everyone counted us out. Said we were old. The whole locker room, we’ve got guys who have chips on their shoulders.
“But for me personally, I just want to win. I don’t want to go back to having losing seasons.”
When the Pelicans (then still operating under the Hornets name) drafted Davis in 2011, the team was still controlled by the NBA after previous ownership imploded. They were eventually bought by the Benson family that also owns the New Orleans Saints and renamed the Pelicans, but still were never able to break through into the top tier of the Western Conference. New Orleans finished in the NBA draft lottery every year Davis was there except for 2014-15 and 2017-18. They were easily swept by the eventual NBA Champion Golden State Warriors in the first round in 2014-15, and lost to the Warriors in the conference semifinals in 2017-18 after sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.
Though many pundits lauded the trade return the Pelicans got for Davis in June of 2019 — a deal that sent three promising young Lakers players in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart along with a plethora of draft picks to New Orleans — they have yet to show anything for it aside from an All-Star nod for Ingram in 2020.
The Pelicans have finished each season since the Davis trade at least 10 games under .500 and look set to do so again this year. No. 1 overall pick in 2019 Zion Williamson has missed all of the current season due to injury, and Ball left in free agency for the Chicago Bulls this past summer.
So even though Davis understandably expects a lot more success than he’s currently having for the Lakers, his former team’s current and past struggles serve as a reminder that it could always be worse. But the Lakers’ big man won’t take comfort in that, at least until his current team starts turning things around. He left the Pelicans to win more, and his recent play has shown that he’s focused on helping the Lakers do that.