By most standards, Anthony Davis’s 2020–21 season was perfectly fine, if not occasionally impressive. His 22-point, eight-rebound, three-assist per game averages warranted selection to an eighth straight All-Star team and, when healthy, Davis pressed on as a crucial member of the league’s top defense.
But, in an ultimately frustrating campaign that saw him take the floor only 41 times, Davis’s 2020–21 season was also a startling nadir. Specifically when processed on the heels of a magnificent coming-out party inside the bubble, where Davis’s staggering two-way dominance was historically notable and impossible to ignore during the ’20 playoffs.
Last season, Davis submitted career-low numbers in several statistical categories that don’t even include the woeful 26% he shot behind the three-point line. His true shooting percentage, offensive and defensive rebound rate and block percentage all plummeted to depths previously unseen. The share of his shots at the rim dropped to a career-low 32% (down 10% from what it was the previous season) and after posting the highest free throw rate of his career in 2020 (.479, then .499 in the playoffs), Davis lodged his lowest mark since he was a rookie (.349). All this was troubling for a pulverizing force who typically unleashes the most singularly destructive version of himself inside the paint.
There are clear reasons why Davis, who turned 28 in March, wasn’t able to build on that legacy-cementing playoff run. A quick recap: The Lakers had about a month to celebrate their title before training camp began, a mental and physical transition Davis never quite settled into. In February, after a 44-minute double-overtime win against the Pistons, he felt some tightness in his calf, a pain that was diagnosed as right Achilles tendinosis and then reaggravated about a week later, sidelining Davis for the next 30 games. In the playoffs, he hyperextended his knee, strained his groin and watched his Lakers fall in the first round to a Suns team that eventually went to the NBA Finals.
When healthy, he’s too long, determined, intelligent, agile and precise to be stifled while handling the ball in areas of the court where he’s comfortable. The uncomfortable spots still exist, but inside the 2020 bubble they shrunk to the point of irrelevance, as Davis posed unanswerable questions with a potent jumper: About half of all his midrange shots went in, a transformative level of accuracy that forced defenders to either throw up their hands in exasperation or bring them together in prayer. Davis had never shot the ball like that before (in the last two regular seasons he made only 34.9% and 34.8% of his midrange tries, respectively). It’s not impossible for him to reach those heights again, though it also shouldn’t be an expectation.
But on the whole, for someone who makes a complex game look like basic arithmetic, it’s less interesting to wonder whether Davis can get back to where he was when a more insightful question dangles over these Lakers: How transcendent can he be on a roster that doesn’t go out of its way to accentuate his strengths so much as take them for granted?
Davis’s peak form features a beguiling omnipresence. He’s the rare superstar who does not need the ball to have a superstaresque impact on the game’s final score. A perennial DPOY candidate, skyscraping rebounder and rim protector who can toggle between several positions, post up, spot up, screen, dive, run a fast break and sprint from one elbow to the opposite wing to can a contested buzzer-beating three, there are few systems/personnel groups that make zero sense with Davis involved. But some environments are certainly more advantageous for him than others, particularly when anything less than a Finals appearance will be seen as catastrophic.
Not all of Davis’s struggle last year should be blamed on his health, though his desire for longevity has convinced him to disregard full-time existence as a center, complicating how his teams are constructed and which lineups are deployed. Davis logged a smaller portion of his minutes at the five last season than he did the previous year (from 40% down to 9%).
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Tacked onto Davis’s reluctance were several injuries suffered by other Lakers, and the effect they had on who was acquired midseason. Andre Drummond, for example, was particularly miscast for obvious reasons. When they shared the floor, AD’s effective field goal percentage was a grotesque 41.4 (!) and L.A.’s offense toiled at 105.1 points per 100 possessions (a whopping seven fewer points than Davis’s regular mark).
The ride was bumpy for the ostensible sake of physical preservation. But when Davis functioned as a center, the Lakers were a monster truck rolling through a junkyard. Placing him at the five allows another playmaker/shooter to lend a hand in groups that should be more nimble on both ends, especially when LeBron James is at the four: Those groups generally bludgeon the rim, draw fouls, force a ton of turnovers and seek out corner threes.
Perhaps Davis will still neglect the sharpest role for him and the team. Assuming he does—despite reports he’s acknowledged how convenient a positional change would be, the Lakers still have a starting center and a backup center on their roster who aren’t named Anthony Davis—the shortcomings will be even more pronounced when he shares the floor with Russell Westbrook, LeBron (who’s plenty effective off-ball, though in a way that keeps him from being LeBron) and either Marc Gasol or Dwight Howard. Slowing the Lakers down in half-court confrontations will require little more than across-the-board discipline and a strong chin. There simply isn’t a way to combine that star power, their need for space and solid defense holding down the other end.
When Davis slides up to the five, there are only so many lineup options that won’t also force him to cover more ground than any single human should be asked to. Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Wayne Ellington and Westbrook are bad defenders who can’t/don’t contain the ball. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Alex Caruso aren’t walking through that door.
Kent Bazemore is a career 25.4% three-point shooter in the playoffs and has been up and down from deep since he was drafted. Trevor Ariza made 35% of his threes last season and is 35.2% for his career. Kendrick Nunn led the 2020 Heat in field goal attempts but is also only 6' 2". Putting any two of those three beside Davis, James and Westbrook could be interesting, though still not ideal in every matchup, especially against teams in the Western Conference that are equipped to go small without entirely abandoning the center position (think Suns, Warriors, Jazz, Nuggets and Clippers, when at full strength).
In the regular season, Westbrook’s sheer velocity will come in handy on blow-bys that force Davis’s man to slide over and help. Expect to see a ton of lobs sprout from Westbrook’s explosive first step. Genius passing matters, too. Rajon Rondo, Westbrook and James augur a wave of precise touchdown tosses that let Davis separate himself from everybody else—literally and figuratively.
From that perspective, half of Davis’s responsibility may be simplified as his brilliant teammates map plays out and ask him to finish them off. It’s the playoffs where his skill must overcome claustrophobic, prosaic offense, while still shouldering the onus to put out various fires when L.A. needs to get stops.
Davis’s all-around closest parallel is probably Giannis Antetokounmpo, except he’s more cautious and polite (with a deeper bag). Antetokounmpo has also spent the past couple of years mostly surrounded by two-way players who can all rain fire from the outside. Double-teaming Giannis is a calculated gamble. Double-teaming Davis, especially when he’s at the four, is simply an obvious recourse. From there, it’s a luxury to have someone who puts his opponent in rotation as easily as he can, but what every other Laker (not named LeBron) does from that point on is an issue that’s paramount to their success, especially knowing Westbrook will not be guarded off the ball in a playoff series.
Some might think the pinnacle of Davis’s career has already happened, a remark that pushes back against the inveterate positivity that’s followed him for nearly a decade. Perhaps his reign was more ephemeral than his unreal talent suggests it should be, in part because his two best teammates will be a combined 70 years old by the time this upcoming season ends.
This year is an opportunity for him to stamp elements of that narrative out (as it relates to injuries and poor play before he even hurt himself). It’s redemptive rehabilitation, a reminder that even on the same team as LeBron and Westbrook, Davis can still stupefy opponents on a regular-enough basis to win his first MVP. He can lead the Lakers to the Finals, overpower the Nets for six or seven games and also win his first Finals MVP. This realistic framing is a good way to illustrate the totality of his control. The scariest thing about Davis is there’s seemingly even more to unlock, perhaps regardless of however instrumental or restricting the roster around him will be. Squeezing every drop Davis has to offer without overextending him is a different question, though.
In this extremely heightened context, where Finals-deep playoff runs are the only bar worth consideration, if the Lakers struggle to adequately harness the qualities that make Davis so inimitable, what’s stopping one disappointing season from stretching into two? Westbrook and James aren’t getting younger and a ravenous younger generation is already snapping at their heels.
From season to season, Davis is still at a point in his career where anything that fails to be a step above static should be received as a waste of his true pantheon-worthy gifts. While playing for a heavily scrutinized organization that has pushed all its chips toward the middle, it’s not easy to identify any in-between. Davis can bounce back this year, in spite of how the Lakers remade their depth chart. If he does not, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.
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