Anthony Davis is living in a different world. The teams he lugged to mediocrity in New Orleans weren’t without their redeeming qualities, but none was anywhere near as promising as the current Lakers, with their juggernaut record (22-3) and point differential (plus-9.9) to match. Talented as former All-Stars Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins may be, there is no experience in basketball quite like running with LeBron James. The sport’s greatest assurance is realizing that no matter what challenges may come, James will already have seen them and solved them.
With that comes both incredible calm and undeniable pressure. What a relief it must be for Davis to let the offense run itself. Superstars on middling teams don’t often have the luxury of just doing their own job; bailing out broken actions becomes their responsibility. Davis is at his best working near or toward the basket, but so much of his basketball life in New Orleans was spent helicopter-parenting replacement-level guards. Expanding his game to the perimeter wasn’t just an effort to keep up with the times, but a practical necessity on a team without a safety net. Davis had to carry the weight of an entire franchise just to keep it competitive. The Lakers stand on their own, even if it took a certain amount of organizational privilege to prop them up.
This week, Davis scored just 16 points in a game against the Magic while shooting 6-for-20 from the field, his worst offensive performance of the season. The Lakers won anyway. In his last five years in New Orleans, the Pelicans went 12-36 in games where Davis played but scored 16 points or fewer. The burden of saving a team has given way to the commitment of helping to lead one.
This particular Lakers group is almost charmingly old-fashioned: traditional on defense, reliant on 2s for offense, and supersized whenever possible. Yet Davis, who was already a great defender on balance, seems even more invested in his coverage from play to play. His scoring is as lean and devastating as ever, driven by the fact that he can get to the rim—or the free throw line—from so many different points of origin. Set up Davis on the block (where he is the league’s second-largest consumer of post-up possessions, per Synergy Sports) and he can get the inside lane to power up for a dunk:
Let Davis work the offense from the outside in and he’ll attack off the bounce to make opposing bigs look ridiculous:
You can throw Davis the lob if it’s available, or you can get him the ball early and let him find his own way:
Only two players in the league have more dunks this season than Davis, largely because it’s so easy for him to generate forward momentum. All it takes is a roll, a switch, or a lag in rotation. A first step, an open baseline, or an offensive rebound. It’s a true collaboration that makes James-to-Davis the most prolific assist combination in the league; LeBron opens up a wider range of possibilities with his vision, but it’s Davis who brings them to bear. The more they connect, the more Davis seems to unlock in himself.
This is the Anthony Davis we’ve been waiting for. Or, really, it’s the Anthony Davis who was always there—a breathtaking talent held back both by his previous surroundings and his response to them. We like to pretend that people are immutable. It’s more comforting to see the world that way, to reduce chaos to its constants. Rarely are things so simple. In moving from the Pelicans to the Lakers, Davis traded one set of pressures for another. The lens of his experience shifted; a hard-fought game will feel different for a frustrated star going it alone than it will for one playing for a balanced team alongside one of the greatest players of all time. When you give a player a chance to contend for something real, a different side of them comes out. Davis was brilliant in the two playoffs he appeared in with New Orleans. The problem was that there were only two.
Davis played well for the Pelicans. Sure, there were nights when he couldn’t play quite well enough, or chose to take a quarter at half speed. But the only time he truly came up short for the franchise was when he decided to force his way out—when he opted not to carry his team in the way peers of his stature carry theirs. Part of the problem is that players know what we know: that only a few teams a season are really in the running for the championship, and the rest are either striving or occupying themselves. There’s something admirable about stars who will run through a wall for a team with no real shot at a title, but something refreshingly honest about Davis admitting that he is not one of them.
Davis plays differently now, in the sense that he’s playing for something entirely different. There’s a different level of focus and trust. It’s not just about his fit with James as a pick-and-roll partner, but what the two stars do for each other. Davis gives James cover and allows him to pick his spots. James gives Davis the freedom to dominate and the framework to help turn that dominance into wins. It’s not always easy; playing alongside LeBron James means lower stress, in certain ways, but also higher stakes. Every shortcoming will be noticed. Poor defense or waning effort will become a national talking point. Fair or not, LeBron’s teammates are held to a different standard than those of any other star—even more so now that he plays for the Lakers, one of the most high-profile teams in sports. Thus far, Davis has more than measured up.
Playing with LeBron for a contending team allowed Davis to be this version of himself, but it was Davis who put the team over the top into contention in the first place. One causality can’t be untangled from the other. What matters most is where the string ends: with Davis as the leading scorer and top defender on the West’s best team, all because a trade of his own making to a destination of his own choosing brought Davis exactly where he needed to be.