It is often said that the greatest ability is availability. This, of course, is a lie.
The greatest ability is... drumroll please... actual ability. If you gave GMs across the NBA a choice between Zion Williamson (who missed every game last season) and Dwight Powell (who appeared in all 82 regular season games), they’d all take Zion to start next season without thinking twice.
This isn’t meant as disrespect to Powell, who is a fine NBA rotation player and started in 89 of his 100 appearances for the Western Conference Finalist Mavericks last season. It is, however, a recognition that Zion is a generational talent, and despite his injury history and questions about his long-term availability, every team in the league would take him now and worry about those other problems later.
The NBA is, first and foremost, a talent-driven league. So, let’s dispel with the myth that simply being an available NBA player means more than being one of the most talented NBA players.
With that out of the way, let’s not be dumb either. All things being equal, give me the player who is available over the player who is not. While there are many ways to help your team when you’re not able to play — offering insight in film sessions, supporting teammates from the sideline in games, being a key leadership voice in the locker room — those things will never be worth more than playing in actual games, particularly if you’re one of the more talented players on your team.
Which brings us to Anthony Davis.
AD has been much-maligned for his career-long injury woes with most of that criticism having been overblown.
Or at least it was overblown before these past two seasons. Just to set the record straight, in the two seasons before AD requested his trade from the Pelicans, he appeared in 75 games each of those seasons. Then, in his first season with the Lakers, he appeared in 62 of the team’s 71 games in the COVID-shortened season. In the past two seasons, however, AD has played in a total of 76 of a possible 154 regular season games and also had his playoffs cut short last season due to a groin injury.
It’s no wonder, then, that Darvin Ham, both in his introductory press conference and in a recent appearance on the Dan Patrick show, stressed Davis’ health and spoke openly about availability being the most important thing for AD this upcoming season. More than that, though, Ham spoke about the ways in which he envisions being able to facilitate that sustained health while also getting the most out of AD when he is on the floor:
The biggest thing with that is, again, lightening the load and making them feel like they don’t have to take fourth quarter shots in the first quarter or play playoff basketball in the first month of the season. Everyone has to pitch in and I think different ways we’ll move him around defensively as well as offensively will lighten that load a little bit, where he’s not flying all over the place having to cover for everyone defensively or he’s not taking a beating every single play down the floor just trying to iso, iso, iso. Playing faster offensively and again having that team pride and every man accounting for one another defensively will help give him the best chance to not only stay healthy but get back to that championship level of play that we’ve been accustomed of seeing him.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s take it point by point.
First, I can appreciate the idea of lessening the pressure, not just on AD but on the entire team. Ham speaking about “fourth quarter shots in the first quarter” and playoff intensity in the first month of the season, to me, represents an understanding that playing free and loose is the only way for the Lakers to truly be at their best. Understand, this isn’t the same as not taking things seriously or not understanding the stakes. But, I do think it’s important for the team to get back to having fun, feeling the joy of playing this game, and using that as the driving force behind their push to be great, rather than feeling this innate pressure of trying to win and carrying an unnecessarily burdensome load while trying to accomplish that.
Now, in relating that back to AD, I think Ham’s point about team-wide accountability within a greater team structure on both sides of the ball is also super important.
Last season’s team seemed to look at AD as some sort of defensive savior, where all too often it felt like there was a sense that “once AD gets back, he’ll fix the defense” or, worse, that he’d simply erase their individual mistakes whenever he shared the floor with them. Davis is good enough to do just that on any given possession, but that does not create the sort of habits that truly excellent teams need to make deep playoff runs. Instead, it only defers individual accountability or shifts the responsibility to another player to constantly bail out his teammates.
Defense, of course, cannot be played this way at a high level. Truly elite defenses are typically anchored by a player of AD’s quality, but they’re also made up of willing and committed defenders at the other four positions. These kinds of defenders not only take pride in their own assignment, but buy in fully to their team’s scheme, selling out in their help responsibilities because they know one of their teammates is going to do the same for them when it’s time to. This, not so coincidentally, is why Ham has repeatedly mentioned the need for Russ to recommit to playing high-level defense and why he’s challenged him to be a “dog” on that end of the floor.
Lastly, we cannot ignore the implications of Ham citing the need to play faster and how his desire to move AD around to different parts of the floor may affect him from a physical preparation standpoint. If AD is going to play effectively all over the floor while moving around at his peak athletic ability, there’s not a doubt in my mind that he’ll need to come into the season carrying less bulk than he did last year. AD, at his best, moves with the power and speed of a wing, has a bounciness to his step, and changes ends relentlessly.
Last season, I thought AD’s bulkier frame sapped him of some of that explosiveness and general ability to play in space as much as he did during the team’s run to the championship two seasons ago. Based on Ham’s comments, he plans on using AD to a similar effect next season. So, my hope is that he recognizes what the asks of him will be before he arrives at camp and adapts accordingly through this offseason.
I hope that he can relate that same idea of being a lighter, more nimble player to being a healthier player. Because, while it’s easy to understand that a bad ankle roll and a guy falling into your knee aren’t really avoidable injuries, being someone who moves around more freely and is lighter on his feet might improve the chances of trying to avoid those types of freak accidents.
Which, if you listen to Darvin Ham, is exactly what the Lakers will need from Anthony Davis next season.