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Anthony Davis Is the End Point of Small Ball

There’s no advantage to going small when the opposing big man can do everything your guards can do—only better

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Mike D’Antoni had a sassy comeback when he was asked about whether small ball could work in the playoffs following the Rockets’ second-round loss to the Lakers: “Ask the Lakers. That’s what they beat us with.”

He was only sort of right. After losing Game 1, Los Angeles came back against Houston by benching its two centers—JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. But it’s hard to refer to a lineup with Anthony Davis (6-foot-10 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot-6 wingspan) at the 5 as “small ball.”

Davis is the end point of the small-ball revolution. He’s a 7-footer who plays like a guard on both ends of the floor. That’s because he was a guard before a late growth spurt in high school. To paraphrase SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell, Davis went to bed wishing he was a superhero only to wake up and become one. He went from getting scholarship offers from places like Cleveland State to Kentucky. A big man with his skill set has a natural immunity to teams downsizing against him.

The best matchups for him are players who are just as big, fast, and skilled. The problem for the rest of the NBA is that there aren’t many of those players out there. The Blazers, Rockets, and Nuggets found that out over the past month. The Heat just did in Game 1.

Davis has been on a historic tear through the playoffs, averaging 29.1 points on 56.7 percent shooting, 9.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game. The only players to ever reach those marks in a postseason are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James.

The most impressive part of AD’s performance is the sheer variety of opponents that he has beaten. He dominated a small-ball Rockets team that put P.J. Tucker (6-foot-5 and 245 pounds) on him, and a massive Nuggets team built around another elite 7-footer in Nikola Jokic.

The Heat started Game 1 with the 6-foot-6 Jae Crowder on Davis, a matchup they have to change before Game 2. It’s not just that Davis is bigger than him. Miami can live with bigger players trying to bully Crowder. The problem is that AD is faster than him too. His ability to make plays off the dribble from the 3-point line is what makes him such an impossible matchup. There’s not much Crowder can do once Davis puts his head down and goes to the rim:

The Heat need to hope that Bam Adebayo, their best frontcourt defender, can play on Friday. He’s currently listed as doubtful after injuring his shoulder in Game 1. The Heat had good reasons to not use Bam on Davis right away in this series. They wanted to keep their center closer to the rim on defense and prevent him from getting into early foul trouble. But they have no one else with a fighting chance of stopping AD.

Bam has been doing many of the same things as Davis on the other side of the playoff bracket. Miami changed its identity when it downsized with Bam at the 5, benching Meyers Leonard and putting four perimeter players around him. The difference is that Bam (6-foot-9 and 255 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan) is closer to the traditional definition of a small-ball center than Davis. He’s an elite athlete with the toughness and basketball IQ to hold up in the post against bigger centers like Brook Lopez.

Davis a different kind of challenge. Bam didn’t guard his fellow Kentucky big man much in Game 1. He guarded Howard instead of Davis in his 21 minutes of playing time before getting hurt. Adebayo was the primary defender on AD for only three of his 21 field goal attempts. But that attempt showed the difficulties that Bam will have in that matchup, if he can play in Game 2:

Those are the plays that separate Davis from Giannis Antetokounmpo, whom Bam had success against in the second round. Davis can face up against smaller defenders and shoot over them. The Heat built a wall to stop Giannis from getting to the rim. Davis can stop short and shoot right over.

His ability to score at will on almost any defender is why the Lakers have had so much success “going small” in the playoffs. Centers like Howard and JaVale McGee who can’t space the floor just end up getting in his way. AD’s true shooting percentage in the playoffs goes from 55.0 in 116 minutes with JaVale to 60.3 in 139 minutes with Dwight and 73.5 in 323 minutes without either.

It’s hard to overstate how absurd that number is. The leaders in true shooting percentage in the regular season were Mitchell Robinson (72.6), Damian Jones (71.2), and Nerlens Noel (71.1). All three did nothing but catch lobs. They didn’t create any of their own offense, much less shoot outside the paint. None had a usage rate above 15. Davis has a usage rate of 28.1 without Howard and McGee in the postseason. It should not be possible for a player to create that much of his own offense while being that efficient, especially against elite defenses.

The only way to stop Davis is to send help and make him give the ball up. That’s why the most encouraging development for the Lakers in the playoffs is AD’s growth as a passer. He’s averaging more than twice as many assists (3.7) than in his first two postseasons with the Pelicans (1.8). He had five against the Heat in Game 1. Some were simple plays where he kept the ball moving. Others were inside-out plays that Miami had no answer for:

The Lakers are undefeated this postseason when AD has at least two assists. The scary part is that he still has plenty of room to grow in that area. LeBron said as much to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports before Game 1: “There’s a reason that we wanted him here. He’s a complete player, and now the world is seeing what he can do in games that matter. All he ever wanted was a chance. That’s all anybody ever wants. And now that he has it, I think you’re going to see him flourish, and he has. We haven’t seen the best of AD yet. He’s just scratching the surface.”

The other way to slow down someone who’s rolling on offense is to attack them on defense and get them in foul trouble. But that’s not any easier against Davis. He finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting this season. He can match up with almost every player in the NBA.

Bam is the one Heat player who might give him trouble. They need the player who closed out the Celtics with 32 points and five assists on 11-of-15 shooting in Game 6 of the East finals. But Davis isn’t Daniel Theis. He was the primary defender on Adebayo for two of his eight field goal attempts in Game 1. And just like on the other end of the floor, Bam struggled with his length:

He’s not the only star who has had that problem in the playoffs. Davis swallowed up Russell Westbrook, holding him to 9-of-25 shooting in 78.5 possessions as the primary defender in the second round, per the tracking data at NBA Advanced Stats. Houston’s goal in trading Clint Capela was to open up the paint for Westbrook and give him runways to attack bigger and slower defenders. That plan was dead on arrival against Davis.

The reason the Nuggets gave the Lakers more problems than anyone else in the playoffs so far is because they made them play more conventionally. Jokic was far better against AD than Westbrook, shooting 11-of-19 from the field in 40.4 possessions against him. That forced the Lakers to keep Howard on Jokic and play bigger lineups that were easier to defend.

But that’s where AD’s versatility comes into play. His Plan A should be playing the 5 on offense. But he can still win with Plan B. Denver was able to shrink the floor against him on defense when he was at the 4, and he still averaged 31.2 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting in the series. Defenses would rather Davis beat them at the 3-point line than the rim, but as the Nuggets found out in the final seconds of Game 2, he can beat you that way, too:

The ideal matchup against Davis is someone who can score like Jokic while also being able to guard him on the other end. There’s a reason his two postseason losses came against the Warriors. It wasn’t just that they had one of the greatest teams of all time. They featured elite two-way frontcourt players in Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. AD’s rise will make those kinds of players even more valuable.

The small-ball revolution is just like any other in history. A successful revolution requires a king with a weak chin. David was smaller than Goliath, but he was also smarter, faster, and more skilled in warfare. It’s like the opening scene in Troy, when Achilles (played by Brad Pitt) is summoned to the battlefield to duel a giant from the opposing army. Everyone else is terrified of his size. But Achilles knows he’s too slow to be a good matchup for him:

What happens when Achilles is running at a giant just as quick as he is? That’s the challenge small-ball teams face against Davis.

The past decade might have been a vacation from history for the NBA. Durant was the only future Hall of Fame 7-footer in the prime of his career. The first decade of the 2000s featured Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, and Pau Gasol. That list doubles as a rundown of every NBA champion from 1999 to 2011, with the exception of 2004, when the Pistons won a title with Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace. A new generation of great 7-footers is rising in the 2020s. Davis has moved to the front of that line in these playoffs.