Anthony Davis with the block vs the Nuggets

AD The Key

At his introductory press conference, new Lakers head coach Darvin Ham was asked about Anthony Davis, and Ham definitely didn’t downplay AD’s importance.

“I think he's the key,” Ham began. “Like … he's the key.”

Of course, when LeBron James is on your basketball team, he is usually the key … but since you know what you’re going to get from LeBron, it almost goes without saying.

And that’s the thing with Davis. First, the obvious positive: when he’s on the court, he’s one of the very few players in the NBA that can dominate a game on offense and defense.

Statistically, Davis was one of only four players last season to average at least 23.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists, joining MVP Nikola Jokic, 2021 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and MVP runner up from the last two seasons, Joel Embiid.

Add in AD’s steals (1.2) and blocks (2.3), and not a single other player was as productive in the five major statistical categories.

“We've all seen what can happen when he's healthy and playing at a high level and in rhythm,” said Ham. “We saw it in the bubble. His skill set, his size, his versatility, his defensive acumen, his relentlessness, his ability to give multiple efforts defensively is key. It's going to be the foundation of the type of standard we set.”

Now the downside: Davis has only been on the floor for 76 out of 154 possible regular season games in the last two seasons (49.4 percent).

“We need consistency out of Anthony Davis,” Ham continued. “We need him to be healthy, we need him to be in a good mental space. And we need him to be as consistent at possible, like we're playing that championship-type level of basketball. And we're going to do everything in our power to support him.”

In his first season with the Lakers (2019-20), Davis missed only nine games (including a few games of rest) before embarking on a dominant postseason run to the title. In the playoffs, he averaged 27.7 points on 57.1 percent shooting (38.3 percent from three) with 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals as the Lakers won their 17th championship.

While that shooting success will be hard for him – or most – to match from the Bubble in Orlando, where players benefitted from no travel, a lack of crowd noise and consistent sightlines and rims, it wasn’t his first dominant postseason. In 2017-18, Davis went for 30.1 points, 13.4 boards, 2.3 blocks and 2.0 steals as the Pelicans beat the Blazers, and lost to the eventual-champion Warriors.

L.A. was up 2-1 in their 2021. first round series with Phoenix – who’d eventually win the West – when Davis went down with a groin injury. It was hard to watch the rest of that postseason, or the Laker-less 2022 playoffs, without thinking about how much AD’s game is maximized in playoff settings. Any weakness on a team gets exposed in a series, and Davis can be deployed in my myriad ways. Need to slow an elite wing? Need to switch out on or trap an elite guard? Need to shut down the rim for an opposing big? Need to go “small” on offense to create more spacing without sacrificing much defensively inside? Need to get to the free throw line? Need to put pressure on the rim? Need to bring a big out to the perimeter for a blow by? Davis has answers.

The injury bug of the last two seasons seemed primed to bite Davis in part due to the 2020-21 season starting literally two months after L.A. won the title in October of 2020. Davis said on Media Day (early December of 2020) that his body simply wasn’t ready. When he eventually broke down – as did several of his teammates, not to mention several players on the other teams that played into late September and October – it was not a major surprise given the accrued wear and tear.

The hope was that with a full offseason, Davis would be able to maintain his health for the 2021-22 season. And yet, he suffered a sprained knee on Dec. 17 at Minnesota when a Wolves player (Jaden McDaniels) fell into his leg, which kept him out until January 25. Then Davis got hurt again on Feb. 16, when he landed on the foot of Utah’s Rudy Gobert, causing a foot sprain that kept him out until April 1.

Asked about these injuries after the season, Davis said they didn’t change his approach.

“Kind of do the same thing I did last offseason,” he responded. “It was a successful offseason for me, like I say you can’t control stepping on the foot. So other than that, I was fine and get back to work, figure out the time table with that, taking however much time off and then coming back and getting back after it and getting ready for next season.”

Finding the best training program is up to Davis and the Lakers staff to iron out. Should he try to come in a bit lighter on his feet than last season, when he bulked up a bit presuming he’d be playing more center? Will he focus more on core strength and flexibility than weightlifting? A bit of everything? 

Looking back, the absence of Davis was compounded by LeBron’s own injuries, as James played just 45 games in 2020-21, and 56 in 2021-22, after averaging 74.4 games played in his first 17 years.

The Lakers went 45-14 when LeBron and AD both played in 2019-20, and 19-8 in only 27 games together in 2020-21. They were both on the floor for only 22 games last season (11-11). And so, after 59 regular season and 21 postseason games together in Year 1, they’ve shared the floor for only 49 and four, respectively, since.

“Injuries (are) definitely a part of the game and you try to put yourself in the position where you can be injury-free throughout the season, but that’s why I don’t like taking off games,” said LeBron at his exit interview. “Everybody want me to sit down and take off games and things of that nature. Listen, you never know when the game will be taken away from you, so that’s why I like to play in every game when I’m healthy, so hopefully I’ll be in more than 58 games, 56 games next year for sure.” 

Davis was asked if he thinks he and LeBron can still get it done at the highest levels as a duo.

“We’ve shown that we can,” he said. “I don’t know that’s something we just have to reevaluate in the offseason, upstairs, me and him talking about this season and what we would like to see next season and kind of just figure it out. Like I said, we don’t, what’s happening in the season, technically isn’t over, and then when it is guys like to decompress and just kind of take time to think about themselves and look in the mirror and evaluate themselves and then come together as a group and just figuring out what’s best for the team to get back to championship mentality that we had our first year.”

To AD’s point, and as mentioned, the Lakers were only 11-11 even when the two stars played, to it was clearly not all about health. Davis and James weren’t surrounded with the same level of two-way support players that made winning plays on both ends as they were in the previous two seasons. Lakers VP of Basketball Ops Rob Pelinka addressed that during exit interviews.

“This was a disappointing Lakers season at every level,” he explained. “In the face of disappointment, our fans expect more. That’s at every facet. It starts with the front office, led by me, and our ability to construct the right roster. It starts with the coaches holding players accountable and making sure that there’s on-court execution. It goes to our training staff doing everything they can to make sure we have healthy bodies on the court, and it goes to our players to play with on-court execution at the highest level, because that’s what Lakers fans expect and deserve from all of us.”

Several things played a role, but ultimately, Davis also wasn’t as good in 2021-22 as he can be. He finished the season with a net rating of -3.0, which almost seems like a typo. The previous season, his net rating was 5.2, trailing only Alex Caruso (5.3) and LeBron (9.2). His first year in L.A., it was 5.0.

Even with health considered, Davis can control some of that impact number. Regardless, there’s one change the Lakers are hopeful about: that Ham can have a positive impact not just on Davis, but the rest of the roster.

“I think all of us would agree that teams, whether it’s any sport, take on the identity of their head coach,” said Pelinka. “And the things that stood out to Darvin in the interview process was the two words he’s been using: one was sacrifice. He was a player in the league that made every sacrifice to be great. He wasn’t a superstar. He knew what it takes to be in the gaps to do the little things to make his teams great, like the championship team he was on. And then toughness. I think one of the things we lacked last year was an identity of toughness and I think we excited to see coach with his leadership style will bring those attributes to our team next year. And he said, there’s going to be expectations, especially on the defensive end that those words carry forward – words like toughness and sacrifice and accountability and that’s what Coach Ham’s leadership stands for and represents.”

Among Ham’s first acts as Lakers coach was to speak with Davis. There are some similarities between Ham’s most recent otherworldly-athletic player when he was an assistant with Milwaukee: Antetokounmpo, who may be the only other human being that can effectively defend NBA guards, wings and big men aside from AD.

Further optimism seems to be coming from LeBron, who posted an impromptu highlight reel of his fellow former No. 1 overall pick on Instagram, plus some words presumably directed at any Davis doubters.  

It’s tough to argue with Davis highlights, as they show off a nearly unrivaled combination of size and skills that make him so critical to his team’s success. Yet, Davis’ ceiling isn’t so much of a question, as we’ve seen it before. Perhaps the Lakers just need the floor – represented in part by his availability – to be a bit higher. 

When the 2022-23 season starts … in only four months … that, without doubt, will be a major key.