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Anthony Davis Is at the Center of the Lakers’ Troubles

Davis took the blame for a Game 1 loss to the Suns, but who he’s playing alongside is a much bigger concern for the reigning champs

Scott Laven/Getty Images

The Lakers are no strangers to falling behind in a playoff series. They lost Game 1 twice last postseason, only to rebound each time with four consecutive wins. But Phoenix presents a more potent challenge than the Trail Blazers and Rockets in the bubble. In fact, the Suns are by far the best team LeBron James has ever faced in the first round.

So if the Lakers want to remain on course for a repeat title, they need to adjust quickly to their Game 1 loss. And those adjustments start with Anthony Davis, who was expected to conquer the world this season but has since been waylaid by injuries, a shooting slump, and now a poor start to his playoff run.

“There’s no way we’re winning a game, let alone a series, with me playing the way that I played,” Davis said after Game 1. “So, I mean, this is on me. I take full responsibility.”

Davis scored just 13 points in the Lakers’ 99-90 loss in Game 1 and shot 31 percent from the field (5-for-16), a career playoff low. Meanwhile, Suns counterpart Deandre Ayton dominated down low with 21 points and 16 rebounds.

Davis has bounced back from poor playoff performances before: The previous worst shooting night of his playoff career came in Game 1’s loss to Portland last postseason, after which he averaged 30 points on 66 percent shooting for the rest of the series. But he also needs to be in the best position to succeed, and for Davis and the Lakers, that position is center.

This isn’t a new point of tension, as Davis has long preferred playing as a nominal 4 next to a traditional center. And the team has doubled down on that approach in its roster construction, adding Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell to their big man rotation to replace Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee.

Yet in the most important moments, Davis belongs at the 5, giving the Lakers maximal offensive spacing and defensive coverage. In both the 2019-20 postseason and 2020-21 regular season, the Lakers were considerably more dominant with Davis as the lone big. (All lineup and position data comes from Cleaning the Glass.)

Lakers Net Rating by Anthony Davis’s Position

Time Frame Davis at 4 Davis at 5 Proportion With Davis at 5
Time Frame Davis at 4 Davis at 5 Proportion With Davis at 5
2019-20 Regular Season +5.2 +5.8 40%
2019-20 Postseason +8.3 +15.8 60%
2020-21 Regular Season +4.9 +16.9 10%

As this chart demonstrates, the Lakers used Davis at the 5 for more than half of his minutes last postseason, yet have barely done so this year. That’s fine for the regular season, but the playoffs require more urgency, especially after a Game 1 loss.

The Lakers’ starting unit with Davis at the 4 and Drummond at the 5 is particularly brutal: In the regular season, lineups with those two together were outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions. Take that figure with a grain of salt because LeBron missed most of those minutes—but it’s certainly not an encouraging sign.

Bumping Davis back up to the 5, as coach Frank Vogel did last postseason, would help the Lakers on both ends of the court. On defense, Davis is much better suited to corral the Suns’ staggered screens for Devin Booker that so troubled the Lakers in Game 1. And on offense, Davis has been a much more efficient scorer at the 5 in both seasons as a Laker. That’s because, as a center, he shoots from better spots on the floor.

Playing next to Drummond forces Davis away from the rim, where he is a phenomenal finisher, and into the less productive midrange areas. And the Suns are clearly focused on exploiting Drummond’s lack of spacing to neuter Davis’s athletic advantages. Look at the moments of Davis’s release on three representative shots when Drummond was in the game—and notice all those bodies in the paint, preventing Davis from even approaching the basket.

Conversely, Davis collected two dunks with Drummond out of the game, with more space to maneuver around the rim.

To be fair, Davis still struggled when Drummond was off the floor in Game 1, as Ayton played the best and most important game of his young career. Davis shot just 2-for-9 with Ayton as the primary defender, per Second Spectrum. But over a larger sample, the pattern in Davis’s shot distribution is clear, and scoring against someone even of Ayton’s size shouldn’t be an issue for him. Defensive matchup data can be spotty, but last postseason, Davis was more efficient when shooting over centers as opposed to forwards.

On this roster, Davis needs to score in bunches. Beyond Davis and LeBron, no Laker averaged more than 10.7 points per playoff game en route to last year’s title. While Drummond, Harrell, and fellow newbie Dennis Schröder offer theoretical scoring boosts, they aren’t even guaranteed to be on the floor in the most important moments. And the Suns don’t seem concerned by L.A.’s shaky collection of perimeter shooters, who averaged the second-worst regular-season 3-point percentage among playoff teams. (Only the Wizards were worse.)

Davis’s production is particularly important given LeBron’s questionable health. The reigning Finals MVP missed 26 of the Lakers’ last 30 regular-season games due to a high ankle sprain and, aside from a fiery closing stretch in the play-in game, hasn’t looked like himself since returning. James was uncharacteristically tentative in Game 1, taking 54 percent of his shots from 3-point range—the second-highest proportion in any of the 261 playoff games he’s played in his career. This shot chart looks like it belongs to Cam Johnson, not LeBron James.

The two green circles in the paint came on a putback and a fast break; in other words, LeBron didn’t get any baskets near the rim from a regular half-court set. Lacking his typical explosiveness, he didn’t score any points off of drives in Game 1, per Second Spectrum—the first time he was shut out in any playoff game since 2017.

LeBron might just be pacing himself for a long postseason or still testing his ankle after so much time absent. But he’s not 100 percent, and the Suns are good enough that the Lakers don’t have much more margin for error.

Playing Davis at the 5 seems like an obvious adjustment. But if the Lakers are committed to pairing Davis with another big, they should turn to Gasol, the previous starter, instead of Drummond, the current one. LeBron and Davis thrived with Gasol when healthy, with the trio clocking in at plus-13.4 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. But Gasol has fallen out of the rotation, with DNP-CDs in four of the Lakers’ past five games.

The Davis-Drummond front line doesn’t work. Consider the Lakers’ narrow play-in win over the Warriors. Drummond played the first 6:44 of the third quarter, left with the Lakers trailing by nine, and never returned, while Harrell never entered at all. With Davis playing exclusively as the lone big, the Lakers outscored Golden State by 12 points through the final 17 minutes and change.

Heading into the first-round series against Phoenix, the Davis mismatch in particular seemed to weigh on many pundits’ minds when picking the Lakers to pull the technical upset, especially after he torched the Suns for 42 points with LeBron hurt in a win earlier this month. (The Ringer’s Odds Machine, which doesn’t consider individual positional matchups, calculated the Suns as favorites before Game 1.)

There is still time for Davis to fulfill those expectations—and the broader expectations, from LeBron and others, that he would take a step forward this season as an all-around offensive player following his hot shooting in the bubble. One off night is no reason to disregard all prior belief in his abilities. But add in the surrounding context of the Suns’ overlooked talent, the Lakers’ iffy supporting cast, and LeBron’s injury, and there’s legitimate pressure on Davis to take on more responsibility. Otherwise, LeBron is in real danger of losing in the first round for the first time in his career.