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Anthony Davis Wasn’t Meant to Be an Alpha—Just a Superstar

The Lakers star followed LeBron James’s cues to get to his first Finals. Now, he’s blossomed into arguably the NBA’s best player. But he had to learn from the league’s most valuable one to get there.

Jonathan Bartlett

Anthony Davis had barely gotten a “KOBE!” off before his buzzer-beating 3-pointer was hailed as validation for all the shenanigans that led him to Los Angeles. After trying to squeeze wins out of Walt Lemons for years in New Orleans, Davis eventually forced his way out last season in search of greater opportunities. The Game 2 winner against the Denver Nuggets was the shining example of what he could do once he got what he wanted. “It’s for sure the biggest shot of my career,” Davis said.

When the celebratory dog-pile around him broke up, and a nonplussed Rajon Rondo finally made it past half court, Davis donned the ceremonial headphones for the TNT walk-off interview and LeBron James took first position in front of the assembled bubble media.

“I wish we were playing at Staples,” James told reporters. “We miss our fans so much. It probably would have blown the roof off.”

Davis, with James watching over him like a proud papa, soon followed for his own session with reporters.

“It’s a huge dream,” he said. “To make it even better, I just wish it was in Staples tonight with the fans that support us all year.”

There wasn’t an echo on the Zoom audio; Davis’s comment was as close to LeBron’s as you can get without needing citation. AD has been taking cues from James for a while now, and not just on the court. He hired the same agent. He tried his hand at leveraging his new franchise—declaring at his introductory press conference that he didn’t want to play center, after years of dancing around the truth, and declining to sign a contract extension, even though the Lakers had just paid the King’s ransom to acquire him. He got a similar Kobe Bryant tattoo as LeBron, on the same part of his leg, and literally followed his costar’s lead after winning his first conference title, working his own locker room like he was James’s VP nominee. Many star players have used LeBron’s blueprint to empower their careers; Davis is the first to follow the plans like Google Maps directions.

In return, James has ceded the spotlight like never before. He said in September that the Lakers should play through Davis, and unlike most preseason proclamations, he stuck to it: This season marks the first time in LeBron’s 17-year NBA career that he didn’t lead his team in scoring. There is no media circus or need for motivational subtweets this time around; only couples’ bike rides around the bubble and Step Brothers comparisons.

“We’re not jealous of each other,” James said last week. “In professional sports, you have guys that join forces to become alpha males. That’s what they call them. Two guys that have been dominant in a specific sport on their own respective teams. And they get together and they talk about how dominant they can be, and they talk about this is going to be this and that. I believe jealousy creeps in a lot. And that is the absolute contrary of what we are.”

Fitting in has never been a problem for Davis; setting the agenda, however, has proved more challenging. His effort waned at times in New Orleans, long before he became a specter over his last half-season there. He fought against playing the 5 full time, creating a need for his frontcourt partner’s skill set to be almost as singular as his. Fair or not, he also built a reputation for being unwilling to play through bumps and bruises—he missed approximately 15 games each season on average and was prone to early exits when he did play. (When I was a Pelicans beat writer, I kept a spreadsheet that tracked every time he left a game because of injury.)

Davis has admitted that vocal leadership doesn’t come naturally to him, and it wasn’t until he finally teamed up with another All-NBA player that he found the right balance between his abilities and the responsibilities that come with them. DeMarcus Cousins became a much-needed galvanizer—a Draymond Green–type accelerant—and Davis settled into a role as his Boogie’s keeper, talking down the hot-headed behemoth when he inevitably got distracted by this ref or that opposing big man. When Cousins’s leg gave out, the Pelicans rallied to their best finish ever with AD, including a take-no-prisoners first-round performance against the Blazers that suggested better times ahead. Just four months later, though, Davis hired Rich Paul, signaling to his own head coach that the end was nigh, and setting in motion a chain of events that would inevitably lead him to the Lakers, and now, two wins away from his first NBA championship.

New Orleans is often blamed for mishandling Davis’s historic potential; according to The Ringer’s Zach Kram, Davis’s Pelicans had the fourth-worst winning percentage ever for a team employing a multi-time All-NBA first-teamer. The only All-Star teammate Davis ever had in New Orleans was Cousins, and he showed up to the event on crutches. Omer Asik, Solomon Hill—the list of failed short-term moves is as long as Davis’s wingspan. And then there’s all of those injuries. Altogether, it tells a familiar story for stars in the post-Decision era. But Davis’s story isn’t that simple.

Everything that happened to New Orleans in the AD era ultimately traces back to draft night 2013, when the Pelicans traded two first-round picks for Jrue Holiday to accelerate their rebuild. Through Davis’s entire run with Holiday, from 2013-14 through 2018-19, the big man ranked 10th in the NBA in FiveThirtEight’s wins above replacement metric, according to a Kram analysis—and could have gotten as high as sixth easily if not for the missed games. Kemba Walker was just behind him in 11th place, and Damian Lillard was 12th. Over that time, Davis’s Pelicans had the worst record among the trio. Yet, contrary to conventional wisdom, Davis also had the highest-ranking teammate:

Big-ish Twos From 2014-19

Player WAR (2014-19) Rank Best Teammate WAR (2014-19) Rank Team Win % Rank
Player WAR (2014-19) Rank Best Teammate WAR (2014-19) Rank Team Win % Rank
Anthony Davis 59.812 10 Jrue Holiday 37.5 30 0.455 21
Kemba Walker 58.801 11 Nicolas Batum 21.4 75 0.478 17
Damian Lillard 59.4 12 CJ McCollum 30 44 0.593 7

Most of James’s best sidekicks had minimal success before joining hashtag la familia: Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving had never made the playoffs; Chris Bosh had never advanced past the first round; and though Dwyane Wade had his one ring before the Big Three assembled, the Heat hovered around .500 in the afterglow. Davis was no different; he had two pre-Lakers postseason appearances, and one measly, albeit memorable, series win. But, statistically, he projects to be closer to a next LeBron than a next Kyrie. All four of Davis’s All-NBA selections have been to the first team, and the only two snubs in the past six years have coincided with prolonged absences—one due to injury, the other his own doing. The only thing keeping Davis from being a top-five player is himself.

Such individual brilliance begets certain burdens. LeBron, of all people, can relate. But the role of savior never quite fit for Davis. In the spring of 2016, a New Orleans executive suggested to me that Davis would never be a “true no. 1”—a Kobe Bryant type who could put the team on his back and will them to a win on the second night of a road back-to-back. On its face, the claim sounded preposterous: How could perhaps the best young player in the NBA not be the most important player on his own team? The criticism only gained credence, though, as Davis’s career in New Orleans reached its inevitable conclusion in unseemly fashion.

Yet as Davis reaches the zenith of his powers under James’s wing, that same critique reads more like an instruction for how to bring out the best of a historic talent. Davis is now widely regarded as James’s best teammate ever—including by Wade—precisely because James is one of the few players in the league that allows him to be the Lakers’ best player but not its most important. Davis recently told Yahoo Sports that he wanted to be a Laker because he wanted what LeBron had—all those rings, all that sustained success. What he needed, though, was for someone like LeBron to show him how to get there.

The Ringer’s Zach Kram contributed to this story.