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Anthony Davis is playing under a spotlight worthy of his talent
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won a championship and three MVP’s with the Milwaukee Bucks. If you like the NBA, you probably know that, but it’s not front of mind. Oh, right. He did do that.
Something happens when great free agents join the Lakers. Their Tinseltown tenure becomes the last word on their careers. Lakers fans, as LeBron James learned last season, don’t care who you were before joining them. The past dies behind those doors. Winners are deified, losers are vilified. The stakes heighten. Great performances go straight from the court to be etched into history.
Anthony Davis has only played 24 games for the Lakers, and yet there are times when you forget he was ever on the New Orleans Pelicans, where he spent the first seven years of his career.
Davis was quiet in public, and despite being a constant lob threat, his style is utilitarian, almost business-like. It’s often been said LeBron can just throw the ball in Davis’ general direction and he will dunk it in, but it’s rare for Davis to ever make himself a hard target. He is a positioning wizard, a master at finding open space and planting himself in it. And Davis’ defense, his greatest strength, generally got respectfully hat-tipped before being ignored in service of a more interesting story.
He is the same destroyer of worlds he always was — maybe marginally better as a result of entering his prime — but now, Davis’ 27.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game and 7.9 net rating raise questions about his MVP hopes and where he ranks among the NBA’s best players. He’s second in the league in blocked shots — he’s led the league twice before — but it’s now wrapped in a full-frontal pitch that will likely result in Davis taking home his first Defensive Player of the Year honor as the anchor of the Lakers’ top-five defense.
Davis is the same player, just a little more optimized, a little more free. Playing alongside LeBron James has turned him into a constant highlight reel, harkening Showtime — a historical reference that, of course, would never be invoked elsewhere.
That’s the promise and burden, the pressure Davis seeked out by landing on the Lakers. The hype, essentially, puts the same scintillating stats — most of which have slightly dropped, actually, as a result of playing alongside his best teammates yet — into the appropriate context, the spotlight his talent always should have demanded.
The Knicks are proof that culture matters
On Dec. 3, before the visiting Miami Heat beat the Toronto Raptors in overtime, coach Erik Spoelstra shared his thoughts in a media scrum revolving around the respective cultures of both teams.
“It doesn’t really matter what your culture is as long as you believe in it and hold people to those standards and you’re consistent with it even though there’s personnel changes from year to year, quite naturally,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to do.”
A reporter asked why. “It’s much easier to fire people,” responded Spoelstra.
Six days later, the New York Knicks proved both of his points. They fired coach David Fizdale (who happens to be a former Heat assistant) and reminded the world that their culture is actually just as consistent — and as a result — impenetrable: Nobody can pierce through it and construct a legitimate professional basketball team.
The Knicks’ culture of fear, where survival constantly trumps performance, is in fact so pervasive that their existence alone — in an industry that prints money off the deification of individuals — is enough to disprove The Great Man Theory (that history can be explained and bent by the arc of superior individuals). No man has been great enough to lead them to success since the turn of the millennium. They are the best example of a dynamic that sports encourages the opposite of: how well-meaning people can enter organizations and become worse than the sum of their parts.
The worst part is it doesn’t even rise to the levels of entertainment we’ve come to expect from palace intrigue. When the Lakers imploded last year, we got GM Rob Pelinka lying about setting up dinners with dead movie stars. We got Magic Johnson sounding off on national TV. We got a much better unexpected press conference than the one the Knicks hastily arranged, clearly at the behest of owner James Dolan, a month before firing Fizdale.
The Knicks’ dysfunction is actually depressingly typical: Managers who prize one trait above all when deciding who to hire — making sure they’re just under-qualified enough to never replace you — where the ability to ingratiate oneself to higher-ups ends up being more valuable than skill set, where reasonable expectations are never communicated to the boss, and where it really just comes down to the fact that the boss kinda sucks.
I can’t let this exchange get lost to history
Let’s start here: The Portland Trail Blazers are falling apart. Signing Carmelo Anthony, despite his play defying expectations, hasn’t moved the needle and on Thursday, Rodney Hood had surgery for a torn ACL, further depleting a rotation that’s missing Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic.
Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, who could chew up a good deal of those minutes, would reportedly prefer a trade to the Trail Blazers, which, according to The Athletic’s Jason Quick, led Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside to shout, “Kevin Love doesn’t rebound like that!” to Anthony during a win over the Knicks on Tuesday. For what it’s worth: he does.
On Thursday, Whiteside told reporters, “Kevin Love doesn’t block shots like that either,” before making it clear he was joking, and then added — in a clear sign that he is very much not worried about losing minutes or being traded for Love — that “if we are struggling on defense and you want to [trade Whiteside], I mean, good luck,” a seeming reference to Love’s poor defense.
That same afternoon, Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports reported that Whiteside’s “tunnel vision and me-first mentality weighed heavily on the locker room” of the Miami Heat last year.
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