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Anthony Davis Is Coming for the Crown

After years of flashing his immense potential, Davis may finally be ready to showcase the total package this season. 

Ryan Simpson

Forgive Anthony Davis if, in the blink between winning the NBA title and reporting to training camp to defend it, he never quite got around to transforming his game with the sort of ambitious training project that would occupy a world-class basketball player in a more typical offseason. The schedule itself forced the Lakers as a whole to think more conservatively. “It’s not an offseason where you’re coming into [it] saying, ‘I just want to add things to my game,’” explains head coach Frank Vogel. “It’s really about trying to refresh your mind, keeping your body in shape, maintaining your skill set, and coming back and getting to work.”

Due to the pandemic, the Lakers were prevented from fully celebrating one season and from fully preparing for the next. For Davis, what should have been six weeks away from the court was cut to half that. What could have been an opportunity for professional development became, instead, a brief window for routine maintenance. Yet even when the league rushed the Lakers back for an abridged preseason, Davis managed to stretch his talents even further than he had in the NBA Finals, most convincingly—and alarmingly—by hitting more 3-pointers in one appearance than he had in any previous game. Not all progress happens in a lab. And in some cases, even what starts there needs to gain momentum out in the wild, stammering along until hypothesis becomes habit.

After all, most of the engineering needed to advance Davis’s career is already done. Last summer, he straightened out his footwork (and thus his entire shot) with Mike Penberthy, a former Pelicans assistant whom Davis sought out for help and later recommended to the Lakers. (Although that kind of referral goes a long way, the organization was probably already familiar with Penberthy from his stint coming off the bench for L.A. in the Shaq and Kobe era.) Now the two work together daily, or as close to daily as the NBA schedule allows. Penberthy helped Davis iron out some of the inconsistencies in his form, from the angle of his toes up through the way the ball rolled off his fingers. The goal, as with any shooter, is to reach a place of infinite repeatability. Of mass production. After a drawn-out first season with the Lakers, Davis is on his way. The teammates and coaches in his ear tell him to keep shooting.

“Last year, Coach [Vogel] talked to me about getting my 3-point attempts up,” Davis says. “I think I was shooting maybe three a game last year and 38 percent in the bubble. He said it helped us win.” Vogel would like to see Davis up those attempts to five a game, which would make him one of basketball’s most prolific stretch bigs. (For comparison: Brook Lopez, who has become something of an oversized specialist, averaged 4.8 attempts a game last season.) “I just gotta be able to be confident enough to go out there and shoot the ball,” Davis says, “whether it’s a pull-up 3, side-step, whatever it is, and just try to get those attempts up to five knowing that it’d help the team.”

The casual mention from Davis that he could be pulling up and side-stepping into 3s this season should immediately concern the rest of the league. There wasn’t a reliable way to match up with Davis as it was; any true bigs who guarded him were faced up and worked over, and any rangy forwards were mashed into the paint. A defense’s only respite came when Davis was relatively idle in spacing the floor, and now he’s trying things like this:

That might be a preseason jumper, or it might be an omen for the end of days. This could all look so obvious in retrospect—as the moment that Davis began to reach for the fullest of his cataclysmic potential, a point of no return for every other team in the league.

When a superstar doesn’t have a single exploitable weakness, any hint of further development nudges opponents toward more dramatic concessions. If Davis becomes the kind of shooter defenses have to actively run off the line, should they even attempt to guard him with a big at all? And if they do decide to guard Davis with 3s and 4s, what becomes of the bigs in the rotation when Davis plays the 5, as he did for a majority of his playoff minutes? And either way, doesn’t the decision to take away Davis’s jumper in the first place demand a rewiring of a team’s basic rotations, as to prevent this sort of free-and-clear drive against an overmatched defender?

Many of basketball’s most common defensive philosophies are built on the assumption that the guy driving to the rim will be the size of a guard or, at worst, a wing. Replace that hard-charging perimeter player with Anthony freaking Davis (or, for that matter, fellow Laker captain LeBron James) and those assumptions crumble. Davis may be a challenge to any big who defends him, but putting Davis and James on the floor together is a war on guards. There isn’t a guard in the league who can defend LeBron or AD, even in a pinch. (Lord knows Jrue Holiday tried.) Yet when both Laker superstars are attacking from the perimeter off the dribble, those guards can’t even rotate over to offer much help, either. There’s nowhere to hide. If they try, LeBron will drag them out into the daylight and run them through screens before running them over. If they attempt to stay off to the side but get caught in the mix, Davis will patiently walk them down to the block and destroy everything they stand for.

“He’s one of the best players in the world,” James says. “And his talent—what he’s able to do at his size—there’s not many people in the world that’s ever been able to do that in this sport, period. … He’s gonna go out and be himself. He’s gonna do things not only that we’ve seen before, there’s gonna be some things we haven’t seen before.”

The open-ended nature of Davis’s game is what makes him a compelling MVP candidate. For most bigs, long-range shooting is just another way to stay on the floor as the game gets smaller and faster. It’s a safety net. But for Davis, the threat of the 3 intensifies everything that already makes him so dangerous. When Vogel said that Davis’s shooting helps the Lakers win, he wasn’t just referring to some abstract benefit of spacing the floor that could lift up the team’s supporting cast. Davis pushing his range helps the Lakers win because it makes him undeniable. It takes the desperate plans of desperate teams and artfully deconstructs them—first with a turnaround jumper, then with a face-up drive, and finally, with the gutting deflation of a stepback 3. Then, when the opposing team reaches the end of its optimism, they will resort to loading up on Davis in some self-destructive way, assuming, of course, that they aren’t already doing the same with LeBron.

The Lakers won a championship while only beginning to explore the power of that interaction. As superstars, Davis and James are a dream fit—as compatible as two players of their talent and status could hope to be. As friends, they seem genuinely inseparable; LeBron was the first person to congratulate AD on his trade to the Lakers (after they effectively instigated the deal for their respective teams), and the two bonded even more closely through the season and in the bubble. As co-captains, they are in constant dialogue over how to best navigate a game. “It starts with me and Bron,” Davis said after winning the title. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. I challenge him, he challenges me. It’s not always sweet and smooth, but it gets the job done. You’re gonna have them confrontations, them arguments throughout the season to win a championship, and we had our fair share. But at the end of the day, we respect one another. We respect what each one is trying to do. I respect his game, he respects my game, and we just put it all together.”

Those negotiations will continue, but with the established shorthand of a successful season and an understanding of how their relationship already works. For most superteams, the first year amounts to an orientation—a chance for stars accustomed to near-complete autonomy to figure out how they should collaborate. That was true for the Lakers, as well, though their interpersonal learning curve was flattened beneath the weight of what James and Davis could do on the court. What happens when Davis is able to simply ease into an offense he already knows well? How will he read the action when he not only understands his place in it, but that the end result can lead to a title?

Everything about Davis’s circumstances feels like an inversion of where James was at the same point in his career. LeBron’s age-27 season came in the wake of defeat; the Heat’s loss in the 2011 Finals was both a failure to live up to the promise of their superstar union and the basketball nadir for one of the greatest players of all time. In response, he worked for months on a complete overhaul of his post game—a grasp at the kind of control of the action that had eluded him against the Mavericks. The 2011-12 season became LeBron’s purest expression of dominance. Dwyane Wade gladly deferred. Chris Bosh found himself in his supporting role. Meanwhile, James guided players on both teams around the floor as he willed, every player an X or unwitting O. The awakening of that season wasn’t in the post, but in the way LeBron experienced the game. If there’s any parallel for improvement in Davis, maybe it’s there.

The game has already slowed down for AD; now it’s just about making it his own. It’s a matter of manipulating the floor before he goes to work. It’s about baiting a jumpy defender into a double-team, and swinging the ball out a half-beat earlier than the defense might expect. It’s selling a pass to the corner the whole way, only to dish out to the wing instead:

Basketball dominance comes from an understanding of the moment. Davis clearly has that in the macro sense—the kind that tells a player when to seize control of a playoff game, how to break the spirit of the opposing team, or how to spring open for a soul-crushing, game-winning jumper. Where he’s still evolving is in what he makes of a play by its smallest particles. Davis can be guilty, on occasion, of throwing the right pass so high that it negates the advantage of throwing it. He’ll sometimes allow a defender to float in his orbit without forcing them to commit, reacting to the play rather than making it himself. Plugging in Marc Gasol as a stretch 5 and replacing Rajon Rondo with Dennis Schröder (who shot 39 percent from deep last season) should simplify things at times; there are fewer wrong answers on a well-spaced court. Still, Davis will inevitably be forced to solve some of the NBA’s most complex geometry, as all its best players are. No one should reasonably expect Davis to see every split-second opportunity against the league’s top defenses, but sometimes capital-G Greatness comes down to a player’s ability to wind their way through this sort of labyrinth:

After good games and bad, Davis will hear from Laker veteran—and motivational speaker—Jared Dudley, who always pushes him to do more. It’s not about what Davis did, but what he’ll do next. It’s not about where he is now, but how he plans to separate himself from the rest of the NBA elite. Those reads are the answer, and Davis couldn’t have perfected them in an empty gym in a longer offseason, or even in the sorts of summer runs where double-teams are, as Devin Booker made clear, frowned upon. Film study can offer a sense of what might be coming, but a player can learn how to respond to a moment only while inside it. Those moments will find Davis, if only because he gives defenses no real choice but to test him. They have to double. They have to zone up. They have to accept that the only way to have a chance against Davis is to give him everything he needs, and pray he doesn’t crack it.