Each sidekick selected by LeBron James in his last three stops served a clear purpose upon James’s arrival at a new location. He teamed up with Dwyane Wade to find a true partner in crime and, more importantly, one who boasted championship experience. Kyrie Irving served as an impactful second playmaker, tasked with controlling the action for significant stretches as James rested. Both Wade and Irving lived up to expectations. Anthony Davis is currently exceeding them.
Davis is the first dominant above-the-rim presence to play with James, and he’s been, as advertised, a shot blocker and rim protector. But the Lakers have gotten much more than the Davis we saw wreak havoc in New Orleans. He is canning jumpers at a rate similar to Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. He’s increasingly effective off the bounce, displaying a deft touch near the foul line as teams suddenly run at him from beyond the arc. We assumed Davis would grow into a top option in the coming years, leading the Lakers as the greatest player of his era dipped in the league hierarchy. But the former No. 1 pick is far ahead of schedule. This is effectively an equal partnership in every sense.
James’s costar proved his playoff mettle in a short sample with the Pelicans in previous seasons, and he took little time to acclimate himself to a postseason with the purple and gold. Davis shook off a shaky Game 1 performance against the Blazers with 30.3 points per game on 66% shooting in the rest of the first round, and he bulldozed the small-ball Rockets throughout their conference semifinal matchup. We’ve seen Davis reach new heights vs. Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets. Davis erupted for 37 points in Game 1, and he won a late-game duel against Jokic in Game 2. It can be jarring to see James as somewhat of a second option, but he’s been just that as Davis takes control with the Finals on the line.
We should take a moment to underscore just how dominant Davis has been in the playoffs. He is averaging 28 points and 10 rebounds per game on 65% true shooting, a mark matched by only Hakeem Olajuwon in a single playoffs. Los Angeles’s big man has hit 39% of his threes in his last 10 games, and in the postseason he’s made exactly 50% of shots between 10 feet and 20 feet. Davis is punishing Denver from all areas of the floor, and the Nuggets have paid the price. This deficit will likely be too much for the NBA’s preeminent comeback kids. Taking down one Los Angeles superteam will have to suffice in 2020.
Sunday’s fourth quarter illustrates Davis’s ascent as a bankable superstar. As James struggled down the stretch, Davis became Los Angeles’s top option, trusted to go mano a mano with Jokic on a stream of late-game possessions. Davis scored the last 10 Lakers points, with none of his late-game baskets coming on spoon-fed lobs or dump-offs from James. It was a master class offensive performance, one we haven’t seen from a James teammate in quite some time.
Davis’s penultimate basket of the night featured a head-fake from beyond the arc followed by two dribbles and a smooth pull-up jumper. His last bucket was a buzzer-beating three. Mason Plumlee was excoriated for his defense on Davis as the clock expired Sunday, and those bashing Plumlee were likely correct in their assessment of the play. But the critics are largely missing the point. Davis has become unguardable in the 2020 playoffs, combining his freakish size and athleticism with the perimeter potence of a skilled wing. Davis has flashed top-five talent in spurts for much of the last half-decade. He’s put it all together in the most important stretch of his career.
It appears as though James has made the right call in targeting his most recent costar, and the implications of the Davis trade could extend far beyond Los Angeles’s current series with the Nuggets. The Lakers currently stand as the favorites for the 2020 title, and, even in his post-prime, James remains among the most unstoppable forces in the league. Davis raises the Lakers’ ceiling to a level unmatched across the NBA, and, even in a crowded Western Conference, there is no true juggernaut à la the Kevin Durant–Steph Curry Warriors. The Lakers could very well win the 2020 title, repeat in 2021 and place James within one championship of Michael Jordan.
We shouldn’t count the rings just yet, especially given the talent and coaching from both the Nuggets and the two Eastern Conference teams remaining. But even with the championship not guaranteed, one thing is for certain: James made the right call in tabbing Davis as his superstar sidekick. As a result, he may very well be rewarded with another Larry O’Brien Trophy in less than a month.