Unicorns have roamed the NBA for years, stretching our imaginations with their unique blend of size, skill, and athleticism. But after waiting and wondering what Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, and Karl-Anthony Towns could become, the blessing is now ready to take over the league. As part of our 2019-20 NBA season preview, we’re taking a long, hard look at the impact of the six generational bigs. This is the Year of the Unicorn.
Anthony Davis did more than force his way out of New Orleans last season. In between all the drama off the court, the 26-year-old found time to make some key improvements on the court. Now the Lakers will need him to build on those improvements to carry a flawed roster with championship expectations.
Davis will have as much responsibility as any player in the NBA this season. Los Angeles is a top-heavy team that already lost DeMarcus Cousins for the season and will be without Kyle Kuzma indefinitely.
LeBron James can’t do much of the heavy lifting in the regular season, either. He’s still one of the best players in the league, but the number of miles the 34-year-old has put on his body means he has to conserve energy to have anything left for the playoffs. James’s physical decline has been even more noticeable on defense, where he routinely takes plays off and hides as much as possible.
The good news for the Lakers is that all the work Davis has put into his game should allow him to cover for his older costar and his more limited teammates. How a more well-rounded version of AD fares in these three areas will determine the ceiling of his new team and could be the key to winning his first MVP award.
AD As a Passer
The biggest leap Davis made last season was as a playmaker. He averaged 3.9 assists per game after averaging 1.9 in his first six seasons in the NBA. The progress in his assist-to-turnover ratio was even more impressive, as it skyrocketed from 1.05-to-1 before last season to 1.95-to-1. He didn’t suddenly become a Louisiana version of Nikola Jokic, but going from average to good as a passer is a bigger step than going from good to great.
AD used to be far more comfortable finishing plays than creating them for others. In the past, the Pelicans couldn’t ask him to create shots for his teammates, which forced them to run the offense through less talented players who didn’t put as much pressure on the defense. Davis still scored at will, but he didn’t make anyone else better.
That changed last season. For the first time in his NBA career, Davis consistently made quick reads with the ball and found the open man. Look at the diversity of the passes that he makes in this clip: He finds an open shooter out of the pick-and-roll, executes a post-entry pass from the top of the key, and makes a cross-court pass after being doubled on the catch.
His playmaking will take pressure off LeBron in two distinct ways: Davis will create shots for him when they are both on the court and create shots for everyone else when LeBron is off, allowing him to rest for longer periods. The Lakers asked too much from James last season, when he was no. 7 in the NBA in minutes per game (35.2). It’s hard to rest a player, no matter how old he is, if he is the only thing keeping the team afloat, and LeBron had the best net rating of anyone in the Los Angeles rotation when he was in (plus-2.0 in 1,937 minutes); without him, the Lakers had their worst net rating (minus-5.6 in 2,019 minutes).
AD’s passing will also create more lineup options for new Lakers coach Frank Vogel. If Vogel is running the offense through Davis, he won’t need to lean as much on Rajon Rondo or Quinn Cook. He could play perimeter units around AD composed entirely of 3-and-D specialists like Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Jared Dudley. While that group is hardly the Lineup of Death, it would still be an upgrade over some of the Lakers’ more traditional lineups.
AD As a Shooter
Davis’s growth as a shooter will create even more lineup flexibility. Losing Cousins was a huge blow because he gave the Lakers another floor-spacing option at center. Now they have to rely on AD to stretch the defense, either as a 5 in small-ball lineups or as a shooter at the 4 in bigger lineups with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Those two, for all their flaws, could still be valuable in a limited role next to Davis.
AD’s jumper has improved dramatically over the years. He was 3-for-27 from 3 (11.1 percent) in his first three seasons in the NBA. Last season, his seventh, he attempted a career-high number of 3s (2.6 per game) on the second-best percentage (33.1) of his career. Just like with his passing, it’s not that Davis became elite as a floor spacer. But making the leap from average to good opens up the rest of his game by forcing defenders to guard him on the perimeter.
Davis has become a fully armed and operational battle station. There is nothing a defense can do against a player with his size and quickness who can put the ball on the floor and shoot from anywhere on the floor. Davis was in the 75th percentile of isolation scorers leaguewide on a healthy number of attempts (102) after never finishing higher than 58th in the previous three seasons. These buckets are unicorn-on-unicorn violence:
In the last clip, Davis is sharing the floor with Jahlil Okafor, who is not exactly a floor-spacer. It doesn’t matter because AD has developed the ability to score in tight spaces, which means that Vogel can use him to carry lineups without much shooting around him.
AD As a Defender
For as much as AD will have to do on offense this season, his bigger challenge will be on the other side of the ball. The Lakers don’t have many players who can complement him on defense. Howard and McGee can’t guard away from the paint, LeBron and Rondo haven’t given consistent effort in years, and defense is one of the weakest parts of Kuzma’s game.
Davis will have to cover a multitude of sins. He has the ability. At 6-foot-10 and 253 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, he’s a versatile defender who can protect the rim while also being able to stay in front of smaller guards on the perimeter. There is no one in the NBA quite like him. He lapped the field last season when it comes to combined average of steals and blocks per game:
Going Big (and Small): NBA Blocks and Steals Leaders
|Player||Blocks Per Game||Steals Per Game||Combined|
|Player||Blocks Per Game||Steals Per Game||Combined|
But individual defense doesn’t necessarily translate to teamwide success. The Pelicans had the no. 23 defense in the NBA, and their defensive rating with Davis (110.1 in 1,850 minutes) was only slightly better than it was without him (112.3 in 2,101 minutes). It also dropped by three points after the All-Star break, after all the noise surrounding his trade demand had engulfed their season. The commitment to doing the little things, whether it’s calling out coverages, positioning yourself off the ball, or making the extra rotation, is often the first thing to go when a player is unhappy. Given the weaknesses of the players around him, the Lakers need to Davis to be fully engaged over the grind of a long season.
AD’s defense will be even more important in the playoffs. Davis can lock up anyone: He was in the 95th percentile of defenders leaguewide last season. And while Los Angeles has good perimeter defenders, none have the size to match up with supersize wings like Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Unless LeBron, who will turn 35 in December, can turn back the clock, the Lakers might need Davis to handle those types of matchups. The Raptors came back against the Bucks in last season’s Eastern Conference finals by putting Kawhi on Giannis. The Lakers may have to use Davis on Kawhi when they face the Clippers.
Los Angeles’s best chance to win an NBA championship might be to take a page from Toronto and build everything around its superstar on both ends of the floor. Like Kawhi, Davis can isolate at the top of the key, score over any defender in the league, and find the open man if the defense sends help. Davis also has the combination of length and athleticism to stay in front of any offensive player in the league and at least contest their shot.
The Lakers don’t need AD to be the best big man in the league; they need him to be the best wing. In that sense, his career path has been the inverse of Kevin Durant’s. KD came into the league as a guard who had to learn how to play as a more of a big man; AD is a big man who has slowly turned himself into a guard. The days of the best centers in the NBA battling in the paint are over. They have to step out on the perimeter and beat the guards at their own game. If Davis wins a title in Los Angeles, it could become the model for unicorns around the league.