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Why Anthony Davis’ desire to play less center continues to be a matter of semantics

With reports suggesting Anthony Davis and the Lakers plan to reduce his time at the five-spot this upcoming season, the practically of this, and the surrounding discourse, rests on what being a “center” actually means.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

In what is becoming an annual tradition, the topic of Anthony Davis’ positional preference continues to spark debates within the basketball stratosphere. The latest round of arguments stem from recent reports that Davis has “made it clear” to the Lakers that he wants additional support at the center spot this upcoming season in order to reduces his minutes at the five.

The team has since seemingly obliged Davis’ request as they signed Jaxson Hayes to a deal early in free agency, and most recently, agreed to terms with Christian Wood on a 2-year contract.

Beyond the additions of Hayes and Wood, there have also been multiple instances this offseason where those within the organization have tipped their hand that there may be a potential shift back to the two-big lineups the Lakers utilized during their championship season in 2020.

While it’s understandable why Davis would want some reinforcements on the front line after a taxing season led to fatigue and potential over-exertion, it’s also hard to ignore both the individual and team benefits that came from a year that saw him play his most minutes at center to date. It is here where those on each side of the argument have staked their flags.

The resounding issue, however, is that there is so much necessary context missing from the merry-go-round of “player x should play this position” discourse that takes place on a near daily basis.

Mainly because not only does every individual have their own different interpretation of what a certain position is and entails, but the reliance of the positional classification system itself continues to be sorely outdated and often falls victim to semantics.

Despite the rapid evolution that has transpired in the sport over the years, the five rigid pillars of point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center still binds how many view players from a slotting perspective.

The question shouldn't be whether or not Davis should play center, but rather, what does he actually want to do more and less of?

2023 NBA Playoffs - Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

In a traditional sense, the center spot has often been thought of solely as the position where the biggest player is assigned. Once there, they must also defend the opposition's tallest and strongest player, hover around the paint, and rebound the basketball.

While these are still technically the case in some capacity, the current era of basketball is far more fluid.

Davis is the perfect example of this phenomenon, as his two-way skillset transcends past simply being confined into a singular term. Instead, it’s his responsibilities on the floor that are more representative of what he actually is.

There have been attempts in recent years to expand the basketball lexicon and introduce new grouping terminology — like Cleaning the Glass, who utilizes point, combo, wing, forward and big in their classifications. And when it comes to categorizing how a player is deployed, the BBall-Index has pushed for using archetypes like “shot creator,” “movement shooter” and “stretch big” to give users a more focused insight into roles.

It’s useful to view players like Davis, especially through this more modern lens, as he is far more than just a power forward or center for the Lakers.

He’s their sun.

If the team wants to play drop coverage on defense, Davis serves as the black hole that sucks opposing ball-handlers into his gravitational pull and then spits them back out. If they want to switch, Davis uses his mobility to not only survive out on the perimeter, but overwhelm those who try to attack him in space. And on offense, they can comfortably hand him the rock down to low in isolation or even spam pick-and-rolls all night.

It’s because of his multi-faceted contributions and impact that makes it difficult to outsource his center duties to others, regardless of who they may be. This heavy load coupled with the typical degree of physicality that comes with being the team’s anchor are likely the types of duties Davis hopes his new teammates help take on.

The inclusions of Hayes and Wood should offer the Lakers the front-court size they lacked last season, but neither offers the requisite attributes to fully relieve Davis of his center responsibilities in terms of what the team actually needs.

For example, the likely appeal of revisiting two-big lineups where Davis plays the nominal power forward spot would be that the Lakers match up better against more physical front-court players like Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid.

The issue with this, outside of the fact that rarely are individual players left alone on an island against these caliber of bigs, is that it’s a role that neither Hayes or Wood were previously asked to do.

According to the BBall-Index’s database, Davis defended “post-scorers” 18.3% of the time last season, which ranked in the 83rd percentile of the league. Wood, in comparison, only checked post-scorers for 7% of his defensive possessions. And for Hayes, who spent a majority of his time defending the perimeter — namely against stretch bigs — only 1% of his time came matched up in the post.

While those numbers will naturally inflate with more reps with the Lakers, this only exemplifies the flaws in the line of thinking that simply slotting in another tall player means Davis will be relieved of his center duties. He may indeed play more power forward this season, but it could be in name only.

Maybe Davis ultimately simply wants some help in getting through the 82-game grind. Hayes and Wood should be useful innings eaters in this regard, and even provide their own set of skills the Lakes have lacked from their secondary bigs in recent seasons.

So in that sense, Davis may get his wish. But practicality wise, the tasks he will be asked to execute will remain the same.

At the end of the day, regardless of where Davis is penciled in within the lineup, he will continue to remain to be the Lakers’ spiritual center as he quite literally is at the center of it all. He is what everything is constructed around, and he is what makes the Lakers’ engine run.

The player — and the sun — that sits among stars, watching as others orbit around him. The unclassifiable weight of responsibility still as vast as the space he permanently resides in.

You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.

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