There appears to be a six-team race for the four Play-In spots in the Western Conference. Six teams that are no better than .500 and have either 35 or 36 losses through Wednesday, with 12 or 13 games left to play.
Every game those teams play is critical, but the Los Angeles Lakers (34-36 and in 10th place) lost to the last-place Houston Rockets on Wednesday, mostly because they were without LeBron James and Anthony Davis. James’ right foot injury is scheduled to be reevaluated in another week, while Davis sat because it was the second game of a back-to-back and the Lakers were being cautious.
The good news is that the Lakers have just one back-to-back left on the schedule, and that’s the last week of the season (April 4-5). The Lakers have one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules, with only three of their final 12 games against teams that currently have winning records. They also have four remaining rest-advantage games, where they’re rested and their opponent is playing the second game of a back-to-back.
For as long as James is out, the best thing the Lakers have going for them is Davis, who’s playing bigger than ever.
1. Working inside
Davis has been a better jump shooter this season than he had been since the Lakers won the championship in 2020. His effective field goal percentage of 40.6% on shots from outside the paint is up from 35.4% over the last two seasons.
Unfortunately, an effective field goal percentage of 40.6% is still not very good. Through Wednesday, it ranks 269th (just ahead of Russell Westbrook) among 283 players who’ve attempted at least 100 shots from outside the paint. Essentially, Davis remains one of the worst mid-to-high-volume jump shooters in the league.
But Davis is shooting jumpers less than ever. This season, 72% of his field goal attempts have come in the paint. That’s the highest rate of his career, up from 62% last season and 54% the season prior.
Anthony Davis shooting, in and outside the paint
|Season||Paint FG%||Outside eFG%||Diff.||%Paint|
With more shots in the paint, Davis has also seen a jump in free throw rate, attempting 44.4 free throws per 100 shots from the field, the second highest rate of his career and up from 35.0 per 100 over the last two seasons. This combination of more shots in the paint and more free throws has Davis registering career-best marks in both effective field goal percentage (57.3%) and true shooting percentage (62.9%). The latter ranks sixth among the 21 players who’ve averaged at least 25 points in 40 games or more this season.
Effective field goal percentage measures effectiveness on shots from the field: (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
True shooting percentage measures scoring efficiency: PTS / (2 * (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))
Davis is more efficient because he’s playing more like a big man. He’s played just 5% of his minutes at the four (alongside Wenyen Gabriel or Thomas Bryant), down from 24% last season and 91% of his minutes in 2020-21. According to Second Spectrum tracking, he’s set 45.4 ball screens per 100 possessions, by far his highest rate in the last six seasons. And he’s rolled to the basket (instead of popping to the perimeter) 58% of the time he’s set a ball-screen, his highest rate since his second season in the league.
In New Orleans on Tuesday, Davis set 35 ball screens in just over 33 minutes, and he rolled 21 times. The Lakers’ very first offensive possession looked to be designed for a Davis iso, but he ultimately handed the ball off to D’Angelo Russell, rolled to the rim, made a tough catch between two defenders, scored and drew a foul …
Davis can also call his own number. Quickness can be his biggest asset as a center, and later in the first quarter, he faked a handoff to Malik Beasley and drove around Jonas Valanciunas for a dunk.
2. Glass work
In addition to registering career-high marks in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, Davis is grabbing a career-high 9.9% of available offensive rebounds. And while he may not always get open on a roll to the basket, he can use that second when his defender has to address the action to get below him and into rebounding position …
3. Roll-man gravity
Davis rolling to the rim doesn’t just get him shots in the paint. It also collapses the defense, creating open looks for his teammates, whether he’s making the pass after rolling to the rim …
… or just pulling every defender into the paint without touching the ball …
The Pelicans also double-teamed Davis early on Tuesday, leading to an open 3 for Russell when the ball moved faster than the Pels’ rotations.
Playing alongside an attacker like James and/or a non-shooter like Jarred Vanderbilt (4-for-19 from 3-point range with the Lakers), it would be nice if Davis could shoot like he did in the 2020 playoffs, when he was 57-for-115 (49.6%) from mid-range and 23-for-60 (38.3%) from 3-point range. But if he’s not shooting well from the outside, at least he’s shooting less from the outside.
Of course, Davis’ biggest impact is on the other end of the floor. The Lakers rank first defensively (109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) since the All-Star break and 12th overall. And for the season, they’ve allowed 6.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor (108.9) than they have with him off the floor (115.2). That’s the second biggest such differential (behind that of Jaren Jackson Jr.*) among full-time starters who’ve played at least 1,000 minutes.
* The Grizzlies have allowed 7.5 fewer per 100 with Jackson on the floor. Other full-time starters with significant differentials: Franz Wagner (-5.4), Rudy Gobert (-5.2) and Draymond Green (-5.1). Franz Wagner!
According to Second Spectrum tracking, opponents have shot just 43.9% when Davis has been defending them, with their expected field goal percentage on those shots being 50.5%. That (-6.6%) is the second biggest differential (behind that of Giannis Antetokounmpo) among 182 players who’ve defended at least 500 shots this season.
Davis’ impact could certainly be seen on Tuesday. For the most part, he hung out in the paint, playing in drop coverage or sagging off his man to prevent passes to Pelicans that would otherwise be open …
The Lakers would sometimes have Davis at the level of the screen, but on one first-quarter possession, he was able to recover back and keep Valanciunas from having a clean layup …
With his length, Davis doesn’t need to be out at the 3-point line to defend ball-handlers. On an after-timeout play in the third quarter, Davis was able to contest a CJ McCollum pull-up 3 from the foul line …
As is the case on offense, Davis is most effective on defense when he’s in the paint. But if he is contesting shots on the perimeter, he’ll turn that into an opportunity to get position against a smaller defender on the other end of the floor …
The Lakers are 8-8 (5-5 since the trade deadline) in games that Davis has played without James, having allowed just 110.6 points per 100 possessions over those 16 games. And with no back-to-backs until the last week of the season, they should have Davis in uniform for at least the next eight. They begin a five-game homestand with another big game within the 7-12 scrum in the Western Conference, hosting the 35-35, eighth-place Dallas Mavericks (who are dealing with their own injury issues) on Friday (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV).
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