How Anthony Davis has looked to the past in an attempt to salvage the Lakers' future

When Anthony Davis helped propel the Lakers to the 2020 NBA championship, he did it by unleashing a career-best brand of all-court dominance: as an interior finisher, a possession-destroying defender … and a knockdown jump shooter.

On top of shooting 80% at the basket and getting to the free-throw line 8.5 times per game during the 2020 playoffs, Davis shot 49.6% from midrange and 38.3% from 3-point land, rampaging through defenses as L.A. tore through the West before dispatching the Heat in six games. Seven seasons after being selected first overall out of Kentucky, Davis had reached the rarefied air so many projected for him; one year removed from the Lakers’ damn-the-torpedoes, all-in trade to extract him from New Orleans, he looked like a bargain at twice the price. That version of Davis — a three-level-scoring offensive force and Defensive Player of the Year finalist — could carry the franchise through LeBron James’ eventual decline and keep the Lakers contending for years to come.

The Lakers, as you’re probably aware, haven’t kept contending over the past couple of years. While it doesn’t top the list of reasons for their spiraling — spates of injuries, trading half a rotation for Russell Westbrook, and the Herculean struggle to find ways to fit him in all probably deserve higher placement — the disappearance of Davis’ jumper hasn’t helped. AD shot 90-for-284 (31.7 percent) outside the paint during the 2020-21 season and 85-for-265 (32.1 percent) last season. His accuracy has ticked up this season, but only a bit — just 34.3 percent on attempts from beyond the lane.

Maybe it’s that Davis feasted on the cleaner empty-gym sightlines the bubble offered and just hasn’t been able to reacclimate since fans re-entered NBA arenas. Maybe the weight of all those injuries over the past couple of years have irrevocably damaged his form (though, for what it’s worth, he is shooting 81.5% from the charity stripe this season). Whatever the reason, the good news is that Davis has hit on a pretty elegant solution for the problems with his jumper: He’s just stopped taking them.

Davis has attempted only 19 3-pointers in 17 games and just 70 shots beyond the paint; he’s taken more than three-quarters of his field-goal attempts inside the lane, according to NBA Advanced Stats. In a related story, the eight-time All-Star is off to his best start in years, averaging 26.2 points, a league-leading 12.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 34.5 minutes per game, while shooting 59.6% from 2-point range with a .635 true shooting percentage — both career highs.

Indiana Pacers' Buddy Hield, left, shoots as Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

After many years of Davis hemming and hawing about preferring to play power forward rather than center, due partly to the greater freedom it afforded him on the offensive end and partly to save him some of the defensive pounding that comes from banging with opposing bigs all night, Lakers head coach Darvin Ham now has AD playing nearly all of his minutes at the 5. And since the vanishing of his J means he can’t really be a stretch-5, Davis is playing like a proper traditional center — a mammoth but nimble roadblock dedicated to the business of planting himself in the paths of opposing guards and separating them from Lakers ball-handlers.

Davis is setting more than 42 screens per 100 possessions this season, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, by far the highest number since his New Orleans heyday. Perhaps more important, though, is what he’s doing after setting them — or, rather, where he’s going. Davis has popped to the perimeter fewer than 1.5 times per 100 screens this season, which would be his lowest mark in the last nine years. In the month of November, which has seen James miss six games and the Lakers offense rely almost solely on Davis for long stretches, he’s rolling to the rim nearly 30 times per 100 screens, which would be his highest mark in that span. (Second Spectrum doesn’t offer the tracking data for AD’s rookie season.)

At the risk of overstating the blindingly obvious, there are a few reasons why it seems like a pretty healthy offensive idea to have Davis diving toward the basket rather than drifting away from it.

For one thing, if you want to feature him as a scoring threat, it makes more sense to get him the ball on the move toward the spot where he’s shooting 76.5% (the restricted area) than it does tossing it to him where he misses nearly two-thirds of his attempts (outside the paint). If you were a defender, which would you be more afraid of: AD standing still and facing up 24 feet away, or slicing to within one dribble or arm’s reach of the cup, where he can either use his strength and great interior touch to finish in traffic or soar above it to crush lobs?

Turns out, Davis is still capable of being hell on wheels when he gets downhill with a head of steam. He’s shooting 66.1% on plays he’s finishing as the roll man this season, and scoring 1.35 points per possession on those rolls, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s tracking — his best marks of the past eight seasons and among the best of any high-volume pick-and-roll finisher this year.

A threat that dangerous demands early, rapt attention from opposing help defenders tasked with tagging Davis’ rolls. When those help defenders sag toward the lane a beat early, it opens up opportunities for skip passes to shooters, creating the kind of open looks that a “laser”-light roster like L.A.’s desperately needs to scratch out points.

You might have noticed that a few of those off-the-catch shots missed; you might also have noticed that Davis hoovered a couple of those misses before stuffing them through the rim. That’s another exceedingly basic reason why it’s a pretty good idea to have Davis roll rather than pop: It puts a 6-foot-10, 253-pound monster under the basket to clean the glass. Davis is averaging 3.4 offensive rebounds per game and grabbing 10.6% of the Lakers’ misses during his floor time, both career highs, and leading the league in second-chance points per game — another vital source of added offense for a Lakers attack that can struggle to cash in the first time around.

The Lakers’ offense hasn’t been great any way you slice it, but it’s notable that L.A. has scored 112.3 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Davis on the floor and just 103.4-per-100 with him off of it, according to Cleaning the Glass — roughly the difference between a league-average attack and by far the NBA’s worst. What might be even more notable? The Lakers have scored at an elite clip when Davis has played without LeBron thus far this season — something that has not been the case since their first season together.

Even better news for L.A.: Davis is playing like one of the most dominant interior scorers in the sport while also appearing to be just about all the way back to his status as one of its most dominant interior defenders. Davis ranks third in the NBA in blocks per game, 13th in steals and is tied for seventh in deflections, and while the Lakers actually have a lower defensive rating with him off the court than on it, the fact that they lead the league in points allowed per possession in the half-court has a ton to do with how terrifying Davis has been walling off the paint — opponents are scoring a microscopic 0.731 points per possession when Davis is in a “soft” or drop coverage, according to Second Spectrum, the second-stingiest mark among 63 players with 100-plus possessions in drop. Add up those two-way contributions, and you can understand why a whole lot of advanced metrics peg Davis as one of the 10 best players in the NBA thus far this season.

That might be cold comfort for fans of a Lakers team that enters Wednesday’s meeting with the Trail Blazers at 7-12 with the NBA’s No. 24 net rating, coming off a disastrous fourth-quarter collapse to the Pacers in which Davis took just two shots in the deciding stanza. And if Ham can’t find a way to coax more out of a roster in which only two players (Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker IV) are shooting above league average from 3-point range, if LeBron can’t consistently turn back the clock to his pre-injury form, and if Rob Pelinka can’t (or won’t) find some deal that can add more dependable present-tense talent to this year’s team, then it’s unlikely that anything Davis does will be enough to get the Lakers back to where they want to go right now.

In the big picture, though, Davis’ resurgence represents a gleaming bright spot in a season with too few of those in Lakerland — a reason to believe that the squad’s closer to competitive than it might seem, that AD really might be capable of serving as the bridge that helps keep L.A. competitive when LeBron’s finally ready to exit. Even without a jumper.

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