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Anthony Davis Was Key For The Lakers’ Title Run. He’s Also The Key To Their Future.

The championship ambitions of the Los Angeles Lakers naturally centered on the historically great pedigree of LeBron James. But Anthony Davis proved to be the Lakers’ ultimate margin for error throughout its title run.

In the six seasons preceding Davis’s arrival, the Lakers missed the playoffs more times than they did in their first 65 years combined (five). The Lakers’ star duo provided All-NBA production this year en route to snapping the franchise’s decadelong Finals drought — equivalent to several eternities for most Laker fans — and becoming just the third team in league history to clinch a Finals berth after missing the playoffs over at least five previous seasons. But Davis joined the Lakers already on his own Hall-of-Fame pace, his combination of youth (he turns 28 in March) and stardom aligning perfectly with LeBron’s careerlong prime (he turns 36 in December).

Though Davis has expressed an ambition to follow LeBron “to hopefully nine more Finals,” he has yet to sign a contract extension with the Lakers, who have only LeBron’s $41 million player-option for 2021-22 on its books beyond next season, according to Spotrac. What The Brow decides to do next could set the course for the foreseeable future for this franchise.

With his 7-foot-6 wingspan, Davis produced a Finals run illustrating that his broad shoulders are the perfect bridge between James’s win-now window and the Lakers’ long-term future, provided he chooses to stay in L.A. Here’s a closer look at just what he means to the team.

Clutch-time impact

LeBron’s championship chases are brimful of the most pivotal buckets in NBA postseason history, and not just his own. Shots from his teammates — namely those of Ray Allen (2013) and Kyrie Irving (2016) — will be remembered for years.

In Game 2 of the 2020 Western Conference finals, Davis added his own clutch memory by sending the Nuggets home with a loss via buzzer-beater, the first by any Laker while trailing in a playoff game since Kobe Bryant in 2006, per BasketballReference.com. The Brow scored 10 points in clutch time in that Game 2, which provided the Lakers with a 2-0 series lead and marked half of his team-high 20 such points in the playoffs. James was the only other Laker to score at least 10 clutch-time points all postseason.

“I want to be aggressive, take some pressure off this guy [LeBron James] over here,” Davis told the media after the shot — his second career buzzer-beater. “A lot of teams lock in on him late game. … I’ve got his back and he’s got mine. Especially in the fourth quarter, we have each other’s back and will be locked in. That’s something we’ve been able to do, especially in this series.”

In the NBA Finals, Davis’s presence swung the Lakers’ net rating by a team-best 26.5 points, more than 11 points higher than second-place LeBron, per NBA Advanced Stats. The Brow proved at various points against Miami that he can both provide and stifle offense.

After Jimmy Butler’s 40-point triple-double for Miami in Game 3, just the third in Finals history, Davis requested the assignment of guarding Butler in the next outing. In Game 4, Jimmy got buckets to the tune of a Heat-high 22 points, but he shot just 1-for-5 when guarded by Davis. The Lakers’ collective effort that night gave them a 3-1 series lead, a championship advantage conquered only once before — by the legend Davis found himself running the league with.

Extending LeBron

In seven seasons preceding his arrival in L.A., Davis never advanced past the second round in the playoffs. In the season preceding The Brow’s arrival, LeBron and the Lakers missed the playoffs entirely. The Lakers’ new star duo both wanted and needed each other at respectively critical stages of their careers.

At age 35, LeBron finished second in MVP voting for the fourth time in his career, tied with Larry Bird and Jerry West for the most in league history. Though LeBron disagreed with the final count, he and Davis were the only pair of teammates to tally a point in voting. For some, Davis’s presence might dilute the rest of LeBron’s career, but their respective games actually go hand-in-hand, allowing LeBron to extend his prime.

For example: Including the playoffs, LeBron dimed Davis 238 times over the 2019-20 campaign, by far his highest single-season total among the 141 teammates to score off his passes.

For his part, Davis has consistently expanded his offensive repertoire, reaching new heights alongside LeBron. This season, Davis scored 328 points in the paint off his new teammate’s passes, another high among LeBron teammates. Including the playoffs, The Brow made a career-high 95 3-pointers, with 43 of them coming via the regular-season assist leader.

Anthony Davis has feasted on LeBron’s dimes

Teammates of LeBron James with at least 200 points in the paint off James passes in a single season, including playoffs, plus 3-pointers made

From LeBron’s passes
Player Season Points in the paint 3-pointers
Anthony Davis 2019-20 328 43
Dwyane Wade 2012-13 268 1
Dwyane Wade 2010-11 234 12
Anderson Varejao 2008-09 214 0

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

“I didn’t think we were going to be able to connect this fast just because of the fact he had a lot of stuff going on this summer with ‘Space Jam [2],’ so we didn’t get a lot of time to work out together,” Davis explained in November, months before the coronavirus pandemic further stagnated his adjustment with the eventual champions. “Then we hit a short training camp and had to go to China, and all that stuff, so I’m surprised that we’ve got a little connection right now.”

Throughout the Finals, their connection amounted to the Lakers’ outscoring the Heat by more than 14 points per 100 possessions with LeBron and AD sharing the court. Davis proved reliable over the 246 minutes LeBron sat in the postseason, marking James’s most minutes spent on the bench in any of his nine Finals appearances since 2011.

According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Lakers maintained a net rating of 5.0 over Davis’s 203 minutes without LeBron on the court in the playoffs. Much of the team’s success centered on The Brow boasting increases in rebounding, assist and usage rate while sporting a true shooting percentage of 68.7 in that sample size.

Over an entire postseason, that mark would be higher than any of Stephen Curry’s seven playoff runs.

Perimeter versatility

With his aforementioned 7-foot-6 wingspan, Davis is capable of connecting himself to any part of the court when anchoring defenses.

He held opponents to just 41.9 percent shooting throughout the playoffs, according to NBA Advanced Stats, trailing only Markieff Morris for the Lakers’ best mark. Once the Finals rolled around, Davis held Miami opponents to just 39.2 percent shooting as the Heat’s offensive efficiency declined by over 17 points with him on the court.

“That’s why he’s the Defensive Player of the Year,” LeBron told the media after Davis stifled Butler in Game 4. “We said that all year. His ability to play one through five, guard anybody on the floor, take the challenge, not only guard on the perimeter, and continue to protect the paint. Guards drive on him. It’s hard to score on him.”

Though Davis has not yet won Defensive Player of the Year honors, he boasts a case as arguably the league’s most versatile weapon on that side of the court. His combination of length, strength, agility and acumen can pose problems against any action at any spot, as evidenced by him holding opponents to the league’s lowest field-goal percentage on jumpers over the past five seasons, according to Second Spectrum.

AD shuts down jump shots

Top 5 defenders on jumpers over the past five seasons, including playoffs

Player Opp. Field Goal %
Anthony Davis 32.7%
Kevin Durant 33.1
Andre Roberson 33.1
Jayson Tatum 33.6
Eric Gordon 33.8

Among 239 players with a minimum of 1,000 jump shots defended.

Source: Second Spectrum

During his first season as a Laker, when defending from the paint, Davis ranked seventh among 96 qualified players in field-goal percentage allowed (47.3), the best mark by any Lakers defender in those same five seasons. Throughout his career, Davis has frustrated opponents by stifling their offense just as well as he provides his own.

During the regular season, Davis had his own struggles with his jumper, shooting just 34.9 percent on contested jump shots, his lowest rate in Second Spectrum’s seven seasons of play-by-play tracking. Fortunately for the Lakers, Davis found his footing by the playoffs, improving to 43.1 percent when shooting contested jumpers. Not only was that the best mark on the team, but his clip ranked 12th among 48 qualified shooters in the 2020 playoffs, placing him between Danilo Gallinari and CJ McCollum.

Interior dominance

As for Davis’s Hall-of-Fame pace, his Finals run with the Lakers only further cements his eventual case, on which Basketball-Reference gives a 96 percent probability.

Prior to Game 1 of the Finals, LeBron described why he believes Davis, despite all his accomplishments thus far, is only getting started at age 27.

“There’s a reason we wanted him here,” LeBron said to Yahoo Sports ahead of his 10th career Finals appearance. “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.”

Even before joining the Lakers, Davis was already the only player to record at least 10,000 points and 1,000 blocks since 2012-13, his rookie season. In fact, he’s among just eight players since the 1973-74 season to record those numbers with 500 career games, with six of them already being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.1 Among those on this short list, only Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson reached those marks quicker than Davis, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

Anthony Davis is in elite, big-man company

NBA players with at least 10,000 points and 1,000 blocks in their first 500 career games

BY the time of their 500th game
Player Team Season Points Blocks
Anthony Davis Lakers 2019-20 12,002 1,209
Elton Brand Clippers 2005-06 10,080 1,031
Tim Duncan Spurs 2003-04 11,454 1,261
Alonzo Mourning Heat 1999-2000 10,577 1,560
Shaquille O’Neal Lakers 1999-2000 13,589 1,353
David Robinson Spurs 1995-96 12,873 1,823
Patrick Ewing Knicks 1991-92 11,789 1,547
Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets 1990-91 11,634 1,693

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

As LeBron’s career nears its end, Davis’s prime should give the Lakers the cushion they need to maintain their now-restored championship window. The Lakers hope to rest their long-term ambitions on Davis’s broad shoulders as he continues walking the path of past legends while simultaneously breaking his own mold.

The idea already has a nice ring to it.

Footnotes

  1. Everyone but Davis and Elton Brand.

James Jackson is a Florida A&M graduate from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Currently with ESPN, he has covered the NBA since 2014, with work featured on ESPN.com, NBA International and SB Nation, among other platforms.

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