Anyone who has been following the NBA in the 2010s knows this summer wasn’t some major departure from the norm: It was the norm. The decade started with a bang called The Decision, and since then we’ve had a steady thrum of superstar player movement. What’s different is the volume—this summer saw an unprecedented amount of superstar talent switching teams, via trade or free agency. But what gets lost in the noise is how those roster changes can affect what we see on the court. Because with every major move this decade, a shift in the game followed. Every earth-shaking signing or trade causes a reaction as teams scheme and plot to contain the league’s new superpower.
When LeBron James formed the Heatles in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, teams like Brooklyn and the Lakers tried (and failed) to build superteams of their own. Meanwhile, the next dynasty was in utero. In 2014, Golden State’s Death Lineup was born with Draymond Green playing center alongside an all-time great backcourt in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and two stellar wings, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. The whole league started playing fast, and the shooting revolution kicked into overdrive. In 2016, Barnes was replaced by Kevin Durant, who followed the LeBron blueprint and joined the Warriors to form a juggernaut. Now Durant is gone and out for a year. Heading into next season, there are no superteams. There are only dynamic duos, and there’s no clear favorite. There are only contenders. There’s space for a team to define the style of the early 2020s. Could it be LeBron’s turn once again?
We were dazzled by the brilliant pairing of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers, the enormousness of Philly, the freakiness of the Bucks, and the reunion of James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Houston. But let’s not forget: LeBron James and Anthony Davis are playing next season. On the same team. Together. And the rest of the league should be very afraid.
Teams with championship aspirations have long needed players physically capable of hoping to contain LeBron, who is still one of the game’s elites. Now opponents will need to account for Davis, who’s more talented than any player that LeBron has ever played with (LeBron and Wade teamed up toward the end of Wade’s prime, and Bosh wasn’t on the same level as Davis is today). Davis has also never played with a teammate as talented: He toiled away in New Orleans on mediocre teams that lacked shooting and quality defenders.
Despite the weak supporting Pelicans cast, Davis developed into one of the league’s best defenders: He’s a shot-blocker who deters teams from attacking the basket with mobility and length, and can envelope perimeter players of all sizes. He’s been named to three All-Defensive teams, and if he had been playing with a better team, he might have won a Defensive Player of the Year award.
On offense, Davis is one of the league’s most efficient players. Since entering the NBA as the no. 1 pick in 2012, he’s never ranked worse than the 83rd percentile in scoring efficiency, according to Synergy Sports. Davis can handle the ball like a wing to beat smaller or bigger defenders off the dribble using a bevy of crossovers and maneuvers to get to the paint. He can score from midrange using post-ups or floaters. He can throw down thunderous dunks after rumbling down the lane, cutting, or crashing the boards. He’s a solid shooter for a big man, and hit 33.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s in the past four seasons. Davis can even use off-ball screens and handoffs to generate jumpers and driving lanes to the rim. In a league where bigs increasingly resemble guards, Davis could serve as the poster boy for the position’s evolution now that he has the big stage.
Beyond his scoring, rebounding, and defending prowess, Davis is also a potent passer who can bring the ball up the floor or facilitate from the elbows. Davis grew up handling the ball until a growth spurt during high school, and last season his passing finally manifested at the NBA level. AD could already do it all in the Big Easy, and now he’s about to play with LeBron in the City of Angels.
The two stars could be the league’s most devastating pick-and-roll pairing. LeBron has played with threatening rollers in the past like Tristan Thompson, but never anyone like Davis. Davis scores a dominant 1.36 points per possession when rolling to the rim, per Synergy—the equivalent of shooting 68 percent. He routinely ranks near the top of the leaderboard, just as LeBron does as a scorer and playmaker using on-ball screens. Davis has found all his success with passers like Jrue Holiday and Elfrid Payton, and now he’s working with LeBron.
A defense’s only hope against a rim runner like Davis and driver like LeBron is to pray, or help off nonshooters to clog the paint. The latter is precisely what the Warriors did in 2018 during Davis’s last playoff appearance. But the Lakers have way more shooting now than the Pelicans did then. Never mind LeBron—Davis hasn’t even shared the floor with a player like Danny Green. The best wings of AD’s career were Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, and E’Twaun Moore. After them, it got ugly. Green was critical to championship runs with the Raptors and Spurs as a lockdown defender and knockdown shooter who’s hit 41.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s since 2013-14. Now he brings those skills to the Lakers. Green sacrificed a bit by waiting for Kawhi, and the Lakers took a risk holding out for Kawhi as other productive role players were signing elsewhere, but landing Green is a win for both parties. After the 2018 summer, during which Magic Johnson signed poor-shooting playmakers Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo, Rob Pelinka prioritized shooting to build a cohesive roster around their two superstars. Green is joined by Jared Dudley, a reliable defender and spot-up shooter who’s hit 39.2 percent of his career 3-pointers; Quinn Cook, a classic spark plug who can light it up from 3; Troy Daniels, a shooting specialist who’s drained 40 percent of his career attempts from 3; and Avery Bradley, a fine shooter and energetic defender.
The big-name addition was DeMarcus Cousins, AD’s old frontcourt partner in New Orleans. Cousins has hit 34.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s since 2015-16. The ceiling for Cousins—who is still recovering from two significant injuries (a 2018 Achilles and a 2019 quad rupture)—is unknown. It’s unlikely he’ll ever get back to his level between 2015-17. But Cousins still presents upside beyond what was available when they signed him, and he offers utility as a big dude who can pass and shoot. The Lakers will be patient with Cousins; he’s friends with Davis, and, back in 2017, LeBron called him the best big in the game. A lot has changed since then, but the Lakers didn’t even have a reliable stretch big last season. At least now they have two in Davis and Cousins.
The Lakers can play jumbo with AD and Cousins in the frontcourt, just like the Pelicans did with mixed results for one and a half seasons until Cousins got hurt. That New Orleans team lacked the necessary spacing to work as effectively as it could have, but the potential was on display with its double-big pick-and-rolls. Cousins handled the ball with Davis screening, which created matchup issues for the defense. With Cousins serving as a big point guard, the offense was inverted by playing a smaller player on the post. The Lakers could do similarly with LeBron or Kyle Kuzma inside.
Those Pelicans teams would also run double high screens with Cousins popping and Davis rolling, just like in the clip above. Imagine LeBron running the pick-and-roll instead of Holiday, with Green and another shooter on the wing. Goodness gracious.
Aside from the new faces, the Lakers return Kyle Kuzma, a jumbo scorer who can heat up for explosive performances; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, an imperfect role player due to his streakiness but a solid bench option; and Alex Caruso, a steady ball handler. Rondo and JaVale McGee will also be back (neither provide spacing but McGee can cause defenses to rotate as a rim runner and Rondo is a well-liked veteran presence). Put it all together and Davis will have more support than he’s ever had. The last time Davis played on a team so strong he was leading Kentucky to a national championship during the greatest one-and-done season in history.
The Lakers’ current recipe resembles LeBron’s teams in Cleveland, which had some of the best playoff offenses of all time. LeBron had open shooters and space to pummel defenses by attacking the paint. The problem for those Cleveland teams was defense. The Lakers should be a bit more stout. Davis and Green are elite in their respective roles, and there will be less pressure on Davis to shoulder the offense, which could allow him to expend even more energy on defense. LeBron was better than he got credit for last season and still can turn it on in the playoffs. Bradley is undersized but still can harass point guards, which gives him value as a specialist in a playoff series against Steph Curry or Dame Lillard. Dudley and KCP are solid too. There are holes, sure: Kuzma, Daniels, Rondo, and Cook are all negative defenders. They need to find a backup wing, and Andre Iguodala is nothing more than a pipe dream unless he improbably gets bought out. LeBron, who will turn 35 in December, will need plenty of rest during the regular season. Davis has battled injuries throughout his career. Still, they have enough to survive and thrive on defense, while their offense can dictate matchups.
Not many teams are equipped to play this big. Davis, Cousins, or LeBron could all beat mismatches on the post, or cause double-teams, opening up other shooters. This is precisely how the Lakers could influence how other front offices are building rosters and how coaches are choosing lineups. The Lakers will play LeBron at “point guard,” which is what he’s always done as the team’s primary playmaker. His adoption of the role by title suggests that they’ll play big lineups and the offense could be run through larger playmakers: LeBron, Cousins, and Davis. Their combination of skill and size will theoretically be a handful for teams to defend. Most teams are still built to play with smaller, shooting-oriented lineups, a byproduct of the era that the Warriors helped birth. The Lakers could force teams to play big, but they aren’t one-dimensional. Davis could play center while LeBron and Kuzma are on the floor to maximize spacing and defensive versatility when matching up against a team like the Clippers or Bucks. L.A. can also play small with LeBron at the 5, like the Cavaliers did in the Finals, if it comes down to it against the Warriors or Rockets. Wings like Green and Bradley can be used in any of these lineups, while Dudley and KCP can be plugged in depending on the personnel. New Lakers head coach Frank Vogel shouldn’t hesitate to experiment with a roster that’s diverse in skills.
We could witness a new level for AD with LeBron and the rest of the roster. Davis said at his introductory press conference that he’d put the Lakers roster up against any other team in a seven-game series. In the next year, there will undoubtedly be more drama around the Lakers, just as there always seems to be. The noise will only distract from the fact that this Lakers team could be so great they have the potential to change basketball.