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How Anthony Davis’ scoring has leveled up

By doubling down on his most dominant offensive attribute in addition to shoring up his biggest weakness, Anthony Davis has taken his scoring output from good to great for the Lakers.

Los Angeles Lakers v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Although stories of Anthony Davis’ detrimental inconsistency have been greatly exaggerated — especially due to the nature of his world-beating defensive impact — there is some truth to the notion that his, at times, awesome offense sputters out towards merely average levels. This season alone, he’s scored fewer than 10 points twice — something LeBron hasn’t done since January of 2007 — and fewer than 20 in nine of the 23 games he’s suited up for.

However, seemingly out of nowhere, Davis’s scoring has leveled up, posting 115 points across his last three games, including the In-Season Tournament championship game. In addition to being his best scoring stretch of the season, it would be his third-best three-game scoring output in five seasons as a Laker.

Stretching back even further, AD is averaging 30.5 points per game over his last eight games, a run that follows the Lakers’ drubbing in Philly.

So what’s reengaged this version of Anthony Davis on offense, especially when his scoring output is much less dependent upon shot-making variance than some of the league’s most prolific bucket-getters?

For one, the past couple of weeks have featured some solid teams and even elite rim protectors, but none that can handle Davis’ level of physicality in the paint. Although Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren are among the league’s premier shot blockers — second and fifth in the NBA in blocks per game, respectively — the rookies lack the girth to withstand the interior bludgeoning AD offers.

Five of the other starting centers are either too young to legally drink (Jalen Duren, Dereck Lively II), or known for their defensive limitations (Jusuf Nurkic, Alperen Sengun, and Jonas Valanciunas). Finally, the Pacers have arguably the most foul-prone, porous interior defense in the NBA, evidenced by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s career- and franchise-high 64-point outburst on Wednesday night where he scored 40 points in the paint and 24 more at the free throw line.

It’s true that most teams these days start centers who can’t hang with AD physically on their best days, but this group is particularly vulnerable to AD’s interior attack. Still, that personnel grouping can’t explain the fact that Davis scored just 10 and nine points against Dallas and similarly interiorly-challenged Sacramento, respectively, in games earlier this season.

After the Lakers’ LeBron-less win in San Antonio on Wednesday, Austin Reaves offered an alternative explanation.

“An offensive possession is never a bad possession when we give AD the ball,” Reaves said. “We shouldn’t have had to learn it. His body of work his whole career has basically proven that. But I feel like that’s something that we’ve learned is any time we can give him the ball anywhere on the court against anybody, we like our chances because he’s such a skilled player. With the force he’s playing with right now, it’s beautiful to see. I don’t know what everybody else thinks, I want him to keep doing the same thing. He doesn’t need to defer to anybody. He needs to just go be him.”

Given AD’s inconsistent jumper and dependence upon paint touches to score, much of his output is reliant upon the passing ability of the other Lakers. Without the team feeding him in positions to attack, a common critique of both Darvin Ham’s offensive playcalling and the Lakers’ guards, AD simply won’t be as effective as he can be. As Austin stressed, they should get him the ball as much as humanly possible.

Right now, Davis has averaged the third-most paint touches per game in the NBA, but trails both Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela in that category. AD’s offensive arsenal is more than mere rim-running, but given the fact that he might be the NBA’s best at it, it would make sense to feed him there at the highest volume.

Also, AD’s been the league’s most efficient mid-to-high volume post-up scorer as he’s scoring more points per post-up (1.20) than any player in the NBA with at least three of them per game, including perennial paint superstars Joel Embiid (1.12) and Nikola Jokic (1.11). However, he’s averaging about two fewer post-ups per game than the former MVPs, a disparity that makes some sense given the latter pair’s superior face-up and jump-shooting games. Still, the Lakers should try to close that gap given how dominant Davis has been

Further, discounting the Pelicans game, where the Lakers won by 44 with AD resting the entire fourth quarter after LeBron dominated through three, AD has taken at least 21 shots in all eight games, something he had done just once previously this season. Since Davis’ paint efficiency has remained elite as his volume has increased in recent weeks, the numbers support Austin’s idea that the Lakers’ best offensive possessions are ones where AD gets a touch.

A third and final, even more recent development is the sudden return of AD’s jumper. After not making a triple since the third game of the season, and taking just 13 total on the season, Davis has made three over his past two games on five total attempts. While that’s still a far cry from the six threes per game Darvin Ham said he asked of AD in the preseason, the mere threat of Davis as an outside shooter takes him from a dominant paint presence to a virtually unguardable one.

Davis’ offensive development could be the missing piece for the Lakers’ jumping from legitimate title contenders to one of the very few favorites to win the 2024 NBA Championship.

As a general rule, championship-winning teams often have around both a top-10 offense and defense. For example, the 2020 Lakers ranked 10th in offense, fifth in defense, and were fifth overall, while last year’s Nuggets, as somewhat of an outlier given their unstoppable offense with Jokic on the floor, were fifth in offense and 17th in defense.

Given the difference between the style of regular season and playoff basketball, teams’ mileage may vary in terms of using their overall net rating and projecting it into championship equity.

Right now, the Lakers sit at eighth in defense and 19th in offense but have crept up to fifth in defense and 15th in offense over the past two weeks. Given the correlation between the Lakers’ overall offensive improvement and Davis’ play, it’s reasonable to think that if he can continue dominating, the Lakers will keep climbing in both the standings and net rating rankings, especially since those figures fail to account for the Lakers impressive win in the IST championship.

There are reasons to think that, if even half-healthy, Davis can continue dominating. If Davis can sustain the 3-point shooting volume as the season goes on, he could maintain this recent scoring bump or even improve upon it. Even if he reverts to being an inside-only scorer, one has to hope that the Lakers have actually figured out a way to keep feeding him there.

If this trend continues, the Lakers should be again considered an inner-circle contender and could be on track to hanging the franchise’s 19th championship banner and the second of the season.

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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