If there were a basketball equivalent to the filing and petitioning required to run for high political office in the United States, it might look something like Anthony Davis methodically dropping 40 points and 20 rebounds in a blowout win over the Grizzlies this week. The campaign is officially underway; it may be far too early to discuss the MVP race in earnest, but it all begins with the dominance of the day and the stuffing of box scores.
To this point, there is only one player in the league who ranks in the top five in both scoring (28.8) and rebounding (12.8) per game. Somewhat more surprising is that Davis leads the Lakers in usage rate—a rarity among teammates of LeBron James. Kyrie Irving only took that mantle in his last season with LeBron, and Dwyane Wade only managed it (by the slimmest of margins) in their first season together. The dynamics are different with James at 34, though perhaps not so different as to allow for this development without specific intention.
Back in September, Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports reported that James had lobbied for Davis to be the centerpiece of the Laker offense. “I know what comes with that, and that’s a lot of heavy lifting,” Davis told Yahoo!. “I want to be able to do that.” Now we’re seeing it done, with Davis using a greater share of his team’s possessions than he ever did in New Orleans. While working alongside the most gifted playmaker of his career, Davis is somehow creating more of his own offense than ever before. There is no one way to utilize a superstar. Some teams do everything they can to accentuate the talents of their best player. Others might leverage those talents to the furthest extent possible, perhaps even to the point of individual inefficiency.
The fully actualized superstar has a foot in both worlds. Part of being one of the game’s best players is finding the balance between what is easy and what is hard. Danny Green and Dwight Howard have the luxury of being choosy in their shot selection. Davis does not; they can’t all be free runways to the rim, marshalled by opponents helpful enough to clear a path and wave him through. Manufacturing offense from the suboptimal is part of the job.
"We all know how great Anthony Davis is,” James said at Lakers media day. “And if we're not playing through Anthony Davis when he's on the floor, then it makes no sense to have him on the floor. He's that great. That doesn't mean that every time down we throw it to him and throw it to him and throw it to him. But we have the ability to do that.”
The Lakers do have that ability—and, so far, the willingness. James Harden can initiate the offense, set up his own drive, and bait an overeager defender into contact. Establishing a big—even an evolutionary big, like Davis—is more of a systemic act. There’s a reason only a handful of power forwards and centers have ever totaled the 27 free throws Davis shot against Memphis, even in a league where their kind ruled for decades. Feeding the post is rarely as simple as feeding the post. It takes time, it takes ball handlers, it takes cross screens, and it takes careful passing. Fundamentally, it takes patience. At a time when most of the league is looking to move faster, the Lakers (who have been one of the more efficient offenses in the league to this point, per NBA.com) have invested in a primary scoring option that requires more deliberate process.
Working the post in 2019 is more complicated than ever, but the fundamental advantage to grinding down Montrezl Harrell or Jaren Jackson Jr. is worth pursuing. It just shouldn’t come at the expense of the easy offense that every team needs to survive. Davis deserves the opportunity to be a star. He also needs room to benefit from playing alongside one, which remains the Lakers’ great work in process. Putting James and Davis on the floor together has to mean more than using one of basketball’s best living passers for post entry. There are other ways into that synergy beyond the pick-and-roll, though perhaps it’s best not to overthink it. James reads a defense down to the slightest tic and nuance. Davis is one of the great finishers of his era, and a viable shooter to bring the play to balance. Trite as it is to ask for more pick-and-roll, the Lakers have brought those calls on themselves by bringing together two of the stars best suited to the art.
It also makes no sense, to paraphrase LeBron, to make one of the most talented bigs in the league a glorified roll man. The Lakers traded away three core players and three first-round picks for Davis, a generational talent who may well spend the best years of his career in Los Angeles. Doing so was a means to get James some the help he needed, but also to recontextualize everything he brings to the table. The post is only a starting point: a way to establish Davis, and with him, a sense of order. From there comes the full platform.