The Point: Lakers’ Core Identity Is Loaded With A.D.’s DNA
One playoff series so far, and one clear reminder: how much of Anthony Davis’ genetic code is needed to make the proteins and molecules essential for these Lakers’ championship growth, development and health.
The Lakers are at their best when they play great defense—then run the floor to turn that great defense into easy offense. They thrive by exploiting size advantages over all comers whether Davis plays power forward or center—as seen in their 55-point playoff average for points in the paint, best in the league. When they hit their outside shots, too, the game becomes awfully easy for them.
All of that is A.D.’s way, and it has become the Lakers’ way.
The basis of the four consecutive victories over Portland was the Lakers’ defense-to-offense pace and relentless paint attack, buoyed by timely perimeter shooting. It has bolstered the Lakers’ confidence in their style as they enter their second-round matchup against another guard-driven team, the Houston Rockets.
That snowball effect began with Davis admitting disappointment that he didn’t play enough of his game in the Lakers’ Game 1 loss. As we saw the rest of the first round with the Lakers blitzing the Trail Blazers, Davis’ best self frequently mirrors this team’s best self.
Yes, Davis readily acknowledges leaning on LeBron James as his trail guide on this mountain hike. But Davis also has the status to speak seriously—such as in Game 3, when the Lakers trailed Portland by four at halftime.
“I told Bron at half: I’ve got to take some of the pressure off of him,” Davis said.
And it wasn’t just a speak-for-myself moment. Davis added: “I told the guys in the huddle: ‘It’s our job when he’s attacking, it’s our job for us to make shots.’ And guys were able to do that.”
Davis endorses James as the NBA MVP. Davis openly and sometimes comedically salutes three-time-champ James for the experience and leadership that such an elder statesman can pass down to him and all the Lakers. James also has the ball in his hands so much—91.7 touches per game, third in the league, and 7.4 minutes per game, sixth in the league—that it’s downright tone-deaf not to acknowledge James as conductor of this orchestra.
Yet as powerful as James’ leadership is for this Lakers team, everyone needs to understand why the players often reference “LeBron and A.D.” together as the team’s leaders. Not only do they together dictate so much of the basketball decisions, Davis holds a higher office that is unique.
No one can be like LeBron in this life. He is a global icon who doubles as community servant and social activist, then doubles again as social-media maven and movie star. As gifted as he is at being an inclusive teammate, the reality is that LeBron’s existence is not like everyone else’s.
So Davis is, by default, called to be a connector. Not that James necessarily needs help connecting with people, but Davis is the star with a more relatable platform. And he delivers plenty of that connective help, because it’s what comes naturally to Davis.
Davis’ longtime coach in New Orleans, Alvin Gentry, put it to me bluntly a few years ago when Davis was realizing he had to amplify his voice—no matter how much he enjoyed being one the guys—to carry the Pelicans higher.
Gentry wanted Davis to embrace a simple precept: “I’m one of the guys, but I’m the leader.”
Well, with James on this team, Davis doesn’t have to force that shot.
For as long as they play together, James puts more time on the 24-second clock for Davis to find his leadership comfort zone to take that shot. This is a veteran Lakers team right now anyway.
Davis can just be himself—which is someone who loves to learn, is properly respectful and is intent on improving in every way possible. That includes listening to James’ wisdom.
“He’s just been staying in my ear about everything, especially through the playoffs right now,” Davis said. “He’s been there for me and supported me and guided me throughout this entire process.”
Davis’ willingness to let James lead has defined the team in a basic sense. But a flip side of that is how Davis, 27, interacts with James, 35, to set another tone for the team—a lighter one in which everyone enjoys coming to work.
“Two guys who just like to have fun,” Davis said. “We like to work; we like to win. But off the court we kind of clicked: Two guys who like to have fun. Two guys who are big kids and play Xbox and have game nights back in L.A.”
Said James: “We’re two guys who know who we are. We know who we are as human beings. We’re not trying to be nobody else but our own identity, our own self. And when you know yourself and when you’re confident in what you do, both on and off the floor, and you know what you represent, then there’s no ego.
“We want both of us to succeed, both on and off the floor. We want our families to be happy. We want each other to try to be as happy as possible. There’s no ego. So, when you're able to figure that out in life—who you are and what you stand for—then nothing else matters.”
Even as Davis these days dismisses his influence on James—“There’s nothing I can say that he hasn’t heard or seen already,” Davis said—don’t forget that Davis was clear about holding James more accountable for his defensive play entering this season.
Has Davis’ mission to lock in that aspect of the team’s identity been accomplished?
The newly anointed runner-up for NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Davis said: “Defense is all about effort. You’ve got to want to play defense. And everybody in our locker room has taken that challenge.
“We want to be a great defensive team. We don’t want to rely on our offense to win games. We want to do it on the defensive end.”
The Lakers are averaging a league-best 21.2 points off turnovers in the playoffs. That happened even though Portland (14.5) nearly led the league in the regular season for fewest opponent points off turnovers, slightly behind Dallas (14.3) and Orlando (14.3).
The series-clinching sequence in Game 5 started with Davis’ unrelenting double-team trap of Portland’s C.J. McCollum, who was forced to pick up his dribble as he took two steps backward into the center NBA logo on the court. With Davis in his face, McCollum had to raise the arc on his pass to get it over Davis’ high hands, and the result was Alex Caruso moving back to intercept it. The ensuing fast break ended with Davis’ dunk, part of a late-game stretch of nine consecutive Davis points that looked effortlessly organic.
“We just want to run,” Davis said. “We’re very good when we’re running, playing in a fast break. So, my job is—once we get the rebound—if I get it, I push; if not, I’m running the floor. And let them guys adjust to us.”
Now listen to how Kyle Kuzma describes the way his approach on defense has evolved:
“I get pissed when I get scored on; I don’t want to be scored on. That’s just my whole mindset,” Kuzma said. “I’m just trying to be a dog out there. Stop guys so we can get on the break. Come home and have a nice glass of wine with a win.”
The wine part might sound like LeBron, but the rest of it is quintessential A.D.
Kuzma deserves full credit for his own progression as a player. It’s just that it’s far easier to trace over an image than draw it freehand.
Davis has given the Lakers his template for winning basketball.
So has James, of course. They just do it differently, which is the way it should be.
If the Lakers’ postseason continues as hoped, it’s possible it will be remembered foremost as LeBron leading them to their first title since Kobe Bryant last prevailed. After all, it’s understandable for Davis to be learning the ropes of being a big-time playoff performer and champion.
It’s also possible, however, that Davis is too good and too dominant to marginalize in any way.
A.D.’s 43 points in Game 5? Even Kobe never scored more in a playoff game during the Lakers’ 2009 and ’10 championship runs … or any subsequent playoff game.
Oh, by the way, Davis similarly scored 47 points two years ago to close out the Blazers in another playoff series. That’s 47 and 43 points’ worth of killer instinct for a guy who is known more as a multifaceted talent than pure scorer.
Then again, Davis is also still the guy who has never advanced out of playoffs’ second round—whereas James is the guy Davis says is such a playoff-basketball guru that “he’s in there with the coaches for film sessions.”
But this is what Davis wanted: to join forces with James and fuse their strengths to win bigger games than Davis had ever seen.
Their work together so far? So good.
But not nearly done.
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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.
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