When the Lakers and Anthony Davis recently agreed to extend their relationship for three more years, there was an understanding that each would hold up their end of the bargain going forward. And like any successful union, there's going to need to be some give and take on both sides to make it work.
Since departing New Orleans for Los Angeles, Davis has showed exactly why he’s worth the investment. He’s been the prototypical running mate next to LeBron James and also has continued to be one of the league’s fiercest defensive anchors. The results have spoken for themselves in the form of a championship and a recent Western Conference berth.
Davis has even showed he’s willing to sacrifice his individual preferences for the betterment of the team beyond just sharing the spotlight with James.
In the past, Davis has publicly made it known he prefers to play the power forward position but has been willing to step into the five-spot when necessary. While the amount of time he’s switched off each position has varied throughout his Lakers’ tenure, Davis’ malleability was pushed to the test this season as 99% of his possessions came as the lone big on the floor according to Cleaning the Glass.
While it wasn't the ideal job description for Davis, he did see the benefits that come with being the team’s full-time center from a shot profile perspective.
When removing garbage time, Davis attempted his highest shot frequency at the rim (47%) since 2013 and posted his shortest 2-point shot distance average (6.75 feet) of his career according to PBP stats. For comparison, Davis had an average 2-point distance of 8.95 feet in the 2020-2021 season when he played 91% of his minutes at power forward.
There was the other side of the coin however, as Davis also suffered the physical toll that comes with having to battle against opposing bigs in the post every night and representing the team’s sole backline rim deterrent.
After a grueling season that saw the seven-footer miss nearly six weeks due to a foot injury, Davis and the Lakers ran out of gas and options by the time they faced off against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.
Given how their year ended and the team's long-term commitment to Davis, recent comments suggest Davis may soon get his wish and see some pullback on him predominately playing the five.
According to multiple rumblings, there has been consideration within the organization to reinstate the two-big lineups that were successful during the Lakers’ championship run.
It was during this time when Davis logged just 40% of his possessions at the center position with the likes of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard on the team. The next year, only a mere 9% of his time would come at the five-spot with Marc Gasol and Andre Drummond shoring up the paint.
The Lakers signed Jaxson Hayes this offseason to what at the time seemed to be a back-up role. But as the weeks passed and their desire in adding another big began to surface, it began to become clear there’s smoke to the two-big fire.
“Coach and I have talked a little bit with Anthony in the offseason about more minutes of some of the 2020 success we had, where Anthony got to play with a big,” Rob Pelinka shared during Las Vegas Summer League.
“I think adding Jaxson Hayes was key to that. I think of Jaxson much like maybe Dwight Howard in that stretch for us: big body, rim protector, active roller...I think Jaxson is going to be big there. But we are looking to add an additional center as well.”
Even when not taking into account Hayes’ checkered career up until this point, there should be some warranted hesitation in trying to replicate the championship formula. Namely, when taking into account how inserting an additional non-shooting big next to Davis would impact the team's overall spacing and how it may alter Davis’ own looks as well.
While that 2019-20 squad ultimately overcame the forrest of trees that were routinely parked in the paint — thanks to their stifling defense, timely contributions from role players and a devastating transition attack — let’s not forget that many of Davis’ shots looked like this due to an extra defender hovering in the dunker spot.
Outside of Gasol, Davis has typically been the big who has had to serve as the spacer when playing beside a traditional spacer, which has pushed him further away from the basket in the process. And as his career numbers have reflected, the further Davis’ looks have come from, the less efficient he’s been.
Since the Lakers steered away from tying another big to his hip, Davis has not made adequate enough of strides with his jumper to envision the spacing issues to be resolved. In fact, he arguably has regressed when taking into account his 3-point game.
While the midrange game continues to be a major tool within Davis’ arsenal (46% of his attempts), Davis’ shot frequency from behind the arc has dipped every season since joining the Lakers.
Perhaps worse than Davis converting just 26% of his 3-point attempts this year may be the fact that the 3-ball accounted for only 7% of his total shots (second lowest of his career). As a result, defenders understandably treated him like a non-shooter, as 72 of his 73 threes were classified as either open or wide-open per the league’s tracking data.
In order to align with Davis’ preference of playing more of the four this season, he in turn must not only be more efficient when extending his range, but also, be more willing.
This is not to say Davis must completely abandon the paint and take up residence on the perimeter, but there has to be a bit more variety to his scoring attack to open up the offense. If not, the benefits that come with being bigger on the floor may not be worth the trade-off of simply sticking with Davis at the five.
As of this article, the Lakers have also not signed the aforementioned additional center to the roster which could alter to what degree Davis may need to modify his approach.
If the team opts for a more traditional center like Bismack Biyombo, it will be up to Davis to help drift extra bodies out of the paint. But if the organization pursues a player like Christian Wood instead, Davis could resume operating more within the 3-point line thanks to Wood’s proven shooting ability.
Like anything, there are pros and cons with both options. Yet regardless of who the team ultimately signs, it shouldn't completely determine whether or not Davis works to improve an obviously inconsistent part of his game.
Even if Davis has already compromised in the past and has proved why he’s been worth every dollar they’ve invested in him, the Lakers will need him to not only be better — but slightly different — if they have any hopes of finding success in playing two bigs once again.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.