The Tinseltown franchise trotted out Anthony Davis for the obligatory media photo-op, bookended by the typical smiles and gushing praise that represent standard operating procedure with these “official” team transactions. Yet everyone at the Lakers practice facility Saturday couldn’t squeeze around the elephant in the room, even if they took the scenic route.
And that beast roared: The Lakers — with a pair of top-five players on the roster — will not necessarily be the heavy favorite in the NBA next season. And maybe not even in Los Angeles.
Putting aside for the moment that Davis is non-committal both verbally and contractually beyond 2020 (more on this rather significant detail later), he and LeBron James will put the Lakers in elite company for the next championship, but that’s precisely the point: It’ll be company.
As in, given how the landscape in the league changed so drastically and suddenly around them over the last few weeks, ‘Brow and ‘Bron are no sure thing for the ring, even if they stay healthy.
This is a fantastic development for the NBA because there are no preseason concession speeches any longer for the Golden State Warriors, but it could prove disastrous for the Lakers, of whom GM Rob Pelinka says, “Anything short of a championship is not success.”
And so a new era for the LeBron Lakers, after a rough and false start, began in earnest when Davis held up his golden jersey for the flashbulbs shortly after declaring: “I’ll put our roster up against anybody. In a seven-game series, we’ll come out first.”
These are words to live by for a team that failed to coax Kawhi Leonard aboard this summer and will put plenty of faith in a roster otherwise loaded with aging veterans. They must also eventually deal with the noise sure to be generated by the Clippers, their lightly-decorated co-tenant at Staples who are thirsty for an L.A. overthrow.
The Clippers did manage to snare Kawhi and shockingly added Paul George, giving them a deeper talent pool than the Lakers. Plus, the ripple effect caused by free agency and trade demands created uprisings in Utah and Houston, not to mention improving forces in the more stable teams in Denver and Portland.
But this is about the Lakers today and how they’re ready to separate themselves from a sloppy start with LeBron last season by giving him arguably the best teammate he’s ever had, someone who might even be better than LeBron at this latter stage of his career.
About Davis, who’s just 26, Pelinka said something that won’t get much blowback: “He’s the most dominant young basketball player in the world … his dedication to his craft is unparalleled. There is no more complete player in the game. There’s nothing he can’t do. He can shoot. He can make plays. He can defend 1 through 5. He can protect the rim. He can handle the ball.”
Yes, he can indeed do all of that, as he showed during seven years in New Orleans, where he made the All-NBA first team three times and led the league in blocks per game three times while averaging 23.7 points. Davis, at 6-foot-10, is a nightmare matchup for bigs who lack his agility and shooting range, as well as forwards who struggle against Davis’ force in the paint and delicate touch at the rim. Although he has never won the Kia MVP award, Davis is MVP-caliber and best of all for the Lakers, is still in his prime and itching to finally play on a contender for a change.
But here’s where Davis has fallen short: He never took the Pelicans anywhere special in the postseason, and in five of his seven seasons he played 68 games or less because of health issues.
If Davis is such a singular force, why hasn’t he been able to duplicate what other great players — Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas and Kawhi in Toronto, to mention a pair — have done without a strong co-star? Davis’ teams made the playoffs only twice and went beyond the first round just once. No question, he is a superior player, but there are major questions as to whether he makes teammates better.
The lack-of-help excuse is no longer with Davis in L.A. He has LeBron, who turns 35 next season but will surely snort fire as he returns from the double indignity of injury and sitting out the playoffs. Whether the pressure on LeBron to prove himself is real or imagined, he’ll use it for motivation. Plus, he has an impressive sidekick. That, and a ticking basketball biological clock, should be enough for LeBron to make this work.
Davis has shown he can be one of the more accommodating stars in the league, his ego checked at the jump circle. That’s why there are few red flags flapping with regard to LeBron and Davis compared to, say, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the new double-scoop flavor in Houston.
“Both are going to command double teams,” said new head coach Frank Vogel. “To have that second star to be the counter-punch is going to complement each other.”
Davis said the chance to play alongside LeBron is “pretty amazing,” which is evidently not something that Kawhi said to himself, nor did Kevin Durant and George, both of whom turned down chances to align with LeBron over the last few years as free agents.
There’s also Kyle Kuzma, who was spared in the trade with New Orleans that brought Davis; Kuzma could flirt with All-Star status because he’ll get plenty of open shots with Davis and LeBron commanding attention.
The key, of course, is what the Lakers can possibly get while sifting through the supporting cast of DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, JaVale McGee, Avery Bradley et al. If nothing else, the Lakers did address their desperate need for shooters and defenders, two very real problems last season that contributed (along with LeBron’s injury) to a season that finished in the draft lottery. Pelinka called it a “deep, versatile roster” as opposed to last season’s cast, one that was created in part by former president Magic Johnson.
As for the issue of health with Davis, it’s real. He has sat with an assortment of shoulder and leg injuries throughout his entire career, though none proved serious, let alone career-threatening. When the trending topic of load management was raised, Davis was blunt.
I’m 26 years old. I love the game of basketball. I’m ready to play.
“I’m playing,” he said. “I’m 26 years old. I love the game of basketball. I’m ready to play.”
Sitting next to him at the press conference, Vogel managed a smile and will ultimately have the final say there; with the hefty investment made in Davis, it’ll be a shock if he even gets the chance to suit up in 70 games.
Given Davis’ bad luck with injuries and LeBron coming off a season where he played just 55 games, largely due to a groin strain, the Lakers will be extra cautious. There will be no push to win 65 games, even if they could, and there will be multiple times when James or Davis plays while the other sits.
The lurking issue lies with Davis’ future beyond this upcoming season. He has opted against signing an extension. Unless this changes, he will maintain flexibility and the power to decide his future when next summer arrives. But it will be a massive shock if Davis doesn’t stick with the Lakers, or that the team didn’t receive some assurances from him prior to sending a considerable package of No. 1 picks and young players to New Orleans.
“We want a decade of dominance from him,” said Pelinka.
Take from that what you will.
For now, it’s all about the immediate future and the scent of a championship for a proud franchise that won only 37 games last season and hasn’t made the playoffs in six years, an eternity for a team with 16 titles.
“My goal is to bring a championship here,” Davis said. “Winning championships is the only goal.”
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