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Can Anthony Davis be the best player on a championship team?

This season, Anthony Davis is more than just “the key” to the Lakers’ success. He’s the lock, the door, the foundation and the framework the whole team is built on.

NBA: Preseason-Milwaukee Bucks at Los Angeles Lakers Jonathan Hui-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Anthony Davis.

Entering last season Darvin Ham repeatedly stressed that AD was “the key” to the team’s potential success. Then, through a playoff run where the Lakers came 24 points short of a Finals appearance, Anthony Davis proved worthy of that title and more.

It was Davis, and not LeBron James — whose lingering foot injury hampered his typical performance — who the Lakers relied upon the most through their run to the Western Conference Finals. While the Lakers were a team-low 12.9 points per 100 possessions worse with LeBron on the floor compared to when he sat, they were a team-high 18.2 points per 100 possessions better when AD played compared to when he sat.

Although an overall lack of size on the roster and LeBron’s imperfect health may account for some of this disparity, it’s hard to argue that AD isn’t the Lakers’ most important player when it comes to driving winning basketball.

This season, with LeBron closer to 40 than 30 and entering a virtually unprecedented 21st season as a superstar player, the Lakers’ reliance on Davis is greater than ever.

What is his best-case scenario?

Last season, as a virtual non-shooter from outside of 15 feet, AD was inarguably a top-10 playoff contributor based on his two-way paint presence, and there is a strong case to be made that he was probably higher than that. Pairing his intermittently unstoppable inside scoring with the ability to deter or flat-out reject opponents from getting clean looks in the paint, regardless of where you ultimately slotted him amongst basketball’s best, AD was an undeniable monster. Still, all of that happened under the suffocating weight of a lack of shooting from the Lakers’ primary contributors and Davis himself.

By redistributing shots to better shooters, adding some in the offseason, and hopefully positively regressing towards superior career averages (looking at you, Bron), the Lakers look to be a significantly superior shooting team as a whole. However, AD’s best-case scenario probably requires the rediscovery of a passable 3-point stroke and shooting them at a steady clip.

Last season, AD averaged just over a single 3-point attempt per game, making just over a quarter of them. In the 2019-20 title-winning season, Davis took 3.5 attempts per game and made just under a third of them, still below league average. Even though Davis didn’t shoot particularly accurately, the willingness with which he shot threes kept defenses honest, preventing them from completely ignoring him and loading up the paint. Shooting better on threes doesn’t just improve AD’s effectiveness, it eases the burden for his teammates’ scoring and enables the deployment of more defensively-oriented lineups.

The early returns on AD’s return to long-range viability couldn’t be going better. He’s made at least one three in every preseason game so far and is shooting 50% from long range overall. While an all-time record for season-long 3-point accuracy is probably too much to ask for, his early comfortability with the three-ball is promising.

With a consistent jumper, AD becomes a more trustworthy scorer in addition to being the most reliable defender in the NBA, and one of the best all-around players in the NBA. If AD can put everything together for a full season, there’s no reason to believe that an MVP award is out of the question.

What is his worst-case scenario?

Despite ducking the elephant in the room in the above section, AD’s worst-case scenario is one where he’s scarcely on the floor, or at least when his team needs him the most. If AD is unavailable to suit up for a large portion of the regular season or any amount of the playoffs, the Lakers’ championship aspirations are assuredly cooked.

Although that is of course the case for any team’s best player, Davis has rightfully earned a reputation for being injury-prone, even if he gets it thrown in his face more often than other superstars with checkered medical histories. AD hasn’t played 70 regular season games since 2018-19 and his 56 games last season was a personal best since his 65 in the COVID-shortened 2019-20 campaign.

If AD plays fewer than 50 games or misses too many at the wrong time, the Lakers are better equipped to survive his absence than they have been in past seasons. Still, their ceiling drops precipitously if the ultimate version of the team is one without Anthony Davis.

What is his most likely role on the team?

In all likelihood, Davis will miss some time, but even semi-consistent availability will keep him at the heart of everything the Lakers want to do. Even LeBron has admitted that Davis is the “face” of the Lakers, a claim backed up by the recent contract extension that makes him the recipient of league’s largest already-promised salary in 2027.

Everything is in place for AD to lead the Lakers to the promised land. We’ll have to wait and see if Davis and the Lakers can get the breaks they need while avoiding the ones that will sink them.

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 find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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