It’s usually pretty easy to pick out Anthony Davis on an NBA court; if you can’t spot his gangly limbs flopping around the lane, sooner or later, he’ll be the one dunking on some unfortunate fellow’s head. In his farewell stretch with the New Orleans Pelicans, however, he was noticeable for all the wrong reasons.
Davis’s per-minute production in his final 15 games of the 2018-19 regular season was predictably sterling, but his all-out effort—the bedrock of his game before his ball skills caught up to his body—had downshifted to a loafing that only a DeMarcus Cousins could love. Forced by the league office to keep playing in the wake of his botched trade demand and held to a minutes limit that also kept him out of fourth quarters, Davis became as stilted as his attempts to explain his agent’s strong-arm tactics against the Pelicans:
Five months have passed since Davis’s last game with New Orleans, and with little public life other than the execution of his long-awaited trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, the bad vibes that loomed over him the entire second half of last season have festered. Unless your Twitter handle includes the words “Mamba,” “Ringz,” or “Lakers4Lyfe,” it’s easier to think these days of Davis’s PR blunders than his prodigious basketball talents. Luckily, that’s nothing a well-edited summer training video can’t change:
Let’s overlook the odd fact Davis is still working out alongside three Pelicans teammates, under the watch of one current Pelicans trainer and one Pelicans assistant turned Lakers assistant, and instead marvel at the Harley Davidson–sized man crossing up defenders from the top of the key. Not impressed? How about Davis practicing Harden-level step-backs and firing away from deep range? Or doing a thing that indicates he’s really, really strong?
Offseason workouts are an oasis, best evidenced by Jahlil Okafor looking like an XXXL Quinn Cook. But Davis has been honing his handle for a while—he has run dribbling drills with the guards before every Pelicans game for at least three years—and took a bigger step than ever in that regard last season before everything went to shit. Rather than simply finish off a fast break with a lob dunk, Davis could be spotted ripping the defensive rebound and pushing the ball up the court himself. He attempted almost as many 3s as the season before, in about 900 fewer minutes. Perhaps most importantly, his passing—long the weakest part of an otherwise all-world offensive game—took a leap; he totaled more assists (218) in 56 games last season than he did in his first two NBA seasons. Davis demanded out of New Orleans to finally get the elite-level help he never received under deposed GM Dell Demps’s watch, but the irony is that Davis was better equipped than ever to do everything himself.
Now the best version of Davis gets to team up with the best player he’s ever played with, who also happens to be one of the best players in basketball history. LeBron James had perhaps his worst season since he came to form, yet he still averaged more assists (8.3) than any single Pelican. Jrue Holiday has emerged from Davis’s shadow to become one of the league’s best two-way players, but he never developed into the ultimate pick-and-roll partner for Davis like some expected, and instead found a home off the ball as a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. Still, playing alongside someone of Holiday’s caliber has always been an accelerant to Davis’s game: Last season, Davis had a 9.3 net rating when sharing the court with Jrue and a minus-17 net without him. The Lakers, with mercenaries and dart throws up and down the depth chart, could experience a similar cliff dive when Davis and James split up, but James’s offensive game is almost tailor-made to make Davis the most destructive big man in the game.
The Lakers’ co-tenants at Staples Center offer stiff competition for the title of best Big Two in the league, but no two-man game is as lethal as what James and Davis can put together. James was one of the most effective high-frequency pick-and-roll ball handlers in the game last season while playing with kids and has-beens. Now add Davis, one of the most dangerous players in the NBA after setting a screen given his ability to storm the lane with a unique blend of size and athleticism or pop for one of his many midrange pull-ups; if his playmaking indeed blossoms, add to that the ability to put the ball on the deck and hit what should be wide-open shooters off the short roll. If the league does trend bigger, the Lakers could hold the trump card, given their two best bigs also happen to be their most skilled offensive players.
That’s how good Davis, still only 26, has been in his seven NBA seasons before ever linking up with a player of James’s caliber. Before Giannis Antetokounmpo claimed the unicorn belt and won league MVP, last season was supposed to be the Year of AD. And even amid the chaos that erupted in New Orleans, Davis’s raw numbers last season (25.9 points, 12 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 2.4 blocks) bear a striking resemblance to Antetokounmpo’s (27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 1.5 blocks), minus the same efficiency, games played, and the 60 wins—all of which are pretty important; but if all goes right for the Lakers, it wouldn’t be a stretch for Davis to put up the first season of 30 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and two blocks in NBA history.
Then again, not much has gone right for the Lakers in Davis’s month-plus with the team. The starry-eyed pursuit of Kawhi Leonard ended in the worst-possible outcome, and yet another leg injury will likely keep DeMarcus Cousins out for the season and perhaps longer. The Lakers will be worse this season because of both events; even a Boogie pessimist (hello) would concede that his veteran’s minuscule contract was worth the risk given the team’s need for impact offense in order to manage both of their superstars’ load and minutes. But Davis’s individual numbers, and thus his MVP campaign, may be better off because of both situations. Leonard would have likely assumed the top spot on the offensive call sheet, and Cousins’s absence should force Davis to play more at center in the regular season, whether he wants to or not. The latter Lakers setback is the exact situation that led to Davis having his best all-around season to date, when he finished third in MVP voting in 2017-18. If he can do that with Rajon Rondo as his point guard in crunch time, he can do it again with … an even older Rajon Rondo as his point guard in crunch time.
The competition for next year’s Podoloff trophy should be thick. The last two winners, Giannis and James Harden, return in featured roles for title contenders. With Kevin Durant gone and Klay Thompson on the mend, Steph Curry could receive a Hardenesque diet of opportunities and put up scoring numbers that best his historic 2015-16 season. Nikola Jokic proved he can turn on the defense when necessary last postseason and will vault the Nuggets even higher than last season’s 54 wins if he takes more control of the offense—his 27.4 usage percentage wasn’t in the top 20 among qualifying players. Perennial contenders Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and Joel Embiid could get in the mix too. As could LeBron, health willing.
But while James’s reputation as the league’s puppet master continues to grow, he has shown a willingness to defer in his short Lakers tenure (sometimes to a fault). He reportedly signed off on the original plan for last season that would’ve seen him concede primary ballhandling duties and play more out of the post. This summer, he was reportedly more active in recruiting, even telling Kawhi he was willing to take a back seat to the reigning Finals MVP. Neither of those things wound up happening, so maybe bowing to Davis won’t either. But it may be his only choice. Davis and Kyle Kuzma, and to a lesser extent Rondo, are the only other players on the roster capable of creating a shot for themselves—and even then, such an outcome is hardly an ideal use of a possession. LeBron’s “shift” to starting point guard won’t make any functional difference—he had the league’s eighth-highest usage percentage last season—but it did signal a change in mind-set.
Davis has never had a better opportunity to showcase his many gifts—and maybe never will, given the well of assets the Lakers gave up to trade for him and James’s age. Davis did everything in his power to force the situation of his choosing; now it’s up to him to reset his reputation and finally make good on the MVP hype that is now five years in the making.