AMID ALL THE SMALL BALL, LAKERS’ LUXURY IS A.D.’S SIZE
Four years ago, when the general managers were asked before the season by NBA.com to select the player with whom they would most like to start a franchise, one name went on almost every ballot.
Anthony Davis got 86.2 percent of the votes, the greatest majority the annual survey has seen in that category since 89.7 percent would’ve started their franchise in 2013 with LeBron James, who’d just won consecutive NBA titles in Miami.
Davis’ landslide vote was four years ago. That is how long and how plainly Davis has been viewed as the potential ruler of this league with his unique combination of size and skill. Now 26, Davis has had dominant debut moments in a Lakers uniform already. They serve as a tolling bell to remind about that size and skill, and it’s worth deeper examination of Davis’ place in the league today.
The size, in particular, was noticeable against Golden State in the preseason opener. Davis simply had his way at and above the rim. He was more likely than not to secure any rebound in his air space. He actually dunked on three consecutive plays in three different ways (hustle put-back, rolling bounce pass from LeBron, spin-move lob).
In the second preseason game against Brooklyn, Davis seized upon more size mismatches and was fouled time after time by smaller Nets players deathly fearful of harsh-dunk humiliation when Davis kept hustling out early in transition.
Davis might not be quite as tall as previous Lakers big-man legends—Davis said publicly in 2016 that he had grown to 6-foot-11 (after measuring 6-9 1/4 without shoes when entering the NBA in 2012)—but this is also not the same league in which previous big-man legends battled other giants to do damage. Yes, the league has been governed by big men, traditionally. The only guards in the top 20 in all-time scoring are Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. But if you talk to those who know amateur basketball these days, it is apparent that Kevin Durant (the only player besides James ever to win that “start your franchise” vote—with 55 percent in 2010—since the survey’s inception in 2006 before Davis did) changed the way young tall American boys saw themselves.
The pipeline is now loaded with tall players who prefer finesse over power, who drift to the perimeter to shoot over defenders rather than attack the rim. That matches up with the NBA’s evolution into a game featuring more perimeter-shooting power forwards and small-ball centers.
Because of that landscape, Davis is not just the unibrow, he is the unicorn. At this point in his career, he has increased his strength so that he possesses a true power game at his height, plus he has handle and shooting touch. That old-school, backboard-bending power at his height stands out more than ever now—and it’s time to prepare ourselves for just how much it will stand out this season—even as Davis otherwise fits so seamlessly into the modern NBA.
Giannis Antetokounmpo became the NBA MVP last season … and he can’t really shoot yet. That’s how much he stood out in today’s NBA with his power and height despite making only 25.6 percent of his three-point attempts.
Among the 20 players with the most dunks last season, 18 were more traditional big men. They still have it the easiest in getting the highest-percentage baskets, but the 6-11 Antetokounmpo and 6-10 Ben Simmons were the exceptions on that list—potent forces inside as ball-handling guards who rarely took jump shots. Guys like Durant, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns have the height, yet they aren’t really power players; none of them were among the top 20 in dunks last season. Neither was Joel Embiid, who like Jokic, was also a worse three-point shooter than Davis last season.
So you see how Davis, who was 11th in the NBA in dunks despite playing just 56 games last season, is unique. He has improved that three-point shooting the past two years to 34 and 33 percent—and believes he is ready to make a major leap there now. His presence around the rim is already as proven as anything.
He is the league’s active leader in blocks per game at 2.4. Less size throughout the league, in addition to Davis better tailoring his training for strength and durability in recent years, has made rebounding easier for him lately, too: His 11.1-rebound average last season was fifth in the NBA, Davis’ highest finish in that category in his career despite logging the second-fewest minutes per game of his career (33.0).
His dunking frequency stands to be even more promising now with Davis receiving passes from Rajon Rondo or James, who obviously remains his own monster threat to roar to the rim. Rondo and James sure made it a lot easier for JaVale McGee to pile up those 201 dunks last season.
During one of the Lakers’ first scrimmages of training camp, McGee did well to predict how Rondo on the other team was going to throw a lob for Davis before Davis had even started his cut—and McGee deftly broke it up. Most opponents won’t know the way Rondo likes to time that lob the way McGee does—and they likely won’t have the kind of size and athleticism McGee does to compete with Davis.
With McGee (or Dwight Howard) and Davis, Lakers coach Frank Vogel will still use a “five-out” offense that tries to keep the lane open for drives and rolls. But the lob threats can come from different places—and the other big figures to be alone often to clean up whatever misses. If the Lakers’ three-point threats are as sharp as they hope to be, it’s going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses to cheat to protect that paint against Davis, James and others.
James’ rebounding averages the past three seasons are 8.6, 8.6 and 8.5, so you know he will not be denied his slice of that pie. Howard is a flat-out natural at rebounding, posting a career average of 12.6 over 15 years. Vogel has encouraged his team to make it “a street fight on the glass.” He wants the Lakers to own rebounding with that intensity and verve, and so far it has often looked like smaller opponents can do nothing but slink away to avoid falling shards of that glass.
Same as Davis’ power at his size is increasingly rare in the league today, the Lakers’ overall size is going to be daunting at a time when most teams are shifting to go small. Ball control through rebounding and defense might not be as exciting as lob dunks, but all the elements add up to a fantastically efficient way to win.
And speaking of efficiency, Davis is a career 79.5 percent free-throw shooter.
“He’s a monster,” Vogel said after the preseason opener. “It’s going to be very difficult to slow him down with what we have around him.”
Throw in that Davis might be at his versatile best when he operates as the center in a lineup, too. Not only does that format ensure the lane is wide-open for him to go toward the rim, but if he wants, he usually can just shoot over an opposing center nowhere near as tall as he is. Or that alignment sets up perfectly for him to crash the offensive glass for those put-backs at which he is so adept.
But the most noteworthy play out of all the Lakers’ best preseason moments to date was that dunk James set up for Davis on a set play in San Francisco. James’ drive to the hoop remains one of the most unstoppable threats in the game. He doesn’t quite have Davis’ height, but James certainly possesses his own legendary power.
On the specific play Rondo stands up top and passes to James on the left wing after he curls from the baseline around a Davis pin-down screen. (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Howard run a similar action on the right side to space the floor.) James receives the ball as he turns and charges forward, and he redistributes it via right-handed pocket pass to a cutting Davis before taking even a single step. Rolling toward the hoop to James’ left, Davis takes the bounce pass in stride and dunks before anyone can recover toward him.
The last line of defense the Lakers ran the play against? Golden State’s Draymond Green, who called himself “the best defender ever” during the recent NBA playoffs and stands the poster boy for the entire small-ball center movement.
Two poisons, one pick: Green hedges off Davis as he sets that pick to free James, meaning Green can help against James steaming toward the rim … but also meaning Green is helpless to stop James setting Davis up even closer to the rim.
“That’s tough to cover. You’ve got a guy like him going downhill and a guy like me who’s rolling who is a lob threat,” Davis explained. “You’ve got to pick your poison. He’s getting to his strong hand, he’s in the paint, and then you’ve got me rolling behind. So either he’s going to go finish, a pocket pass or a lob.” This time it was a pocket pass.
But in every one of those cases, it can be a rim-rocking, tide-turning dunk.
These Lakers are just starting, yet already we see just how good they will be at finishing. Size still matters—and it might actually matter more in a league now lacking it.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.