Did Anthony Davis Save This Lakers Season?

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Here’s where we are with this Lakers season: We are isolating incredibly small sample sizes and trying to argue them as proof things are going to be O.K. Is this a particularly sound strategy? Probably not. And yet … Anthony Davis has been on an absolute scoring bender of late. AD is averaging 33.2 points per game in his last five contests, all of which have come without LeBron James. It’s the first time Davis has averaged at least 33 points in a five-game stretch since Dec. 1–8, 2019, his first season with Los Angeles. And it could be the sign the Lakers needed to make sure they try to salvage this season.

Overall, James has missed the last six games, during which Los Angeles is 3–3. Wins over the Spurs, Pistons and Nets in this period don’t exactly spark parade-route plans, but they’re a start. Going .500 without LeBron is a massive accomplishment for the Lakers, who were 8–18 without him last season. Heck, going .500 with LeBron would be a cause for celebration, as the Lakers are still 5–11 this season, looking at an uphill climb to a play-in spot.

Davis has forced us to raise an eyebrow at this team’s playoff prospects, however. Add James to this version of AD—the one that looks the closest to the version who led the Lakers in scoring his first year in Hollywood—and Los Angeles may be onto something.

Anthony Davis has picked up his play with LeBron James out. 

What’s stood out in the way Davis has played over the last few games? Playing to his size has helped. The makeshift starting lineup of Patrick BeverleyTroy Brown Jr., Lonnie Walker IV, Austin Reaves and Davis actually puts a modicum of space around AD, and he’s capitalized. Since James has gone out, Davis has attempted slightly more shots within 15 feet of the hoop compared to the start of the season. Over the course of the last few weeks, he‘s also mostly excised threes from his game, a wise decision for a center with an iffy jump shot.

Davis of late has clearly been making a concerted effort to hang out near the rim. Not only is he making modest gains in attempts closer to the hoop, he’s become west-of-the-Mississippi Joel Embiid when it comes to free throws. Davis is averaging 12.2 trips to the charity stripe a night in his last five, including three games with double-digit attempts. Against the Pistons on Nov. 18, AD shot a whopping 21 free throws. Before Nov. 11, Davis hadn’t shot at least 10 free throws in a game all season. He’s currently hoisting 8.8 free throws a game in November, which would be his best average for a month outside of the bubble since February 2020.

Meanwhile, all of this is happening while Davis anchors a legitimately good defense. The Lakers are in the top 10 of defensive rating so far this season and have had the seventh-best defense over their last five in the midst of the AD scoring binge.

Simply put, this is the version of Davis the Lakers dreamed of acquiring more than three years ago. Five games clearly does not make a season, and sustaining this level of play is obviously an incredible challenge. There’s a reason very few players can do it. Still, we know Davis is capable of playing at an MVP level. And this is the first time in years he’s shown a glimpse of living up to those lofty expectations on both sides of the floor.

What does that mean for the Lakers? Well, first of all, Davis has to keep it up. If this is merely a blip, then it means absolutely nothing. If AD is back, though, then the next step is to see what James looks like when he returns. LeBron, through 10 games, is averaging 24.9 points a night, his lowest scoring average since his rookie year, which was the only time he hasn’t averaged at least 25 in a season. James’s efficiency hasn’t been good so far this season. Maybe what he needs is both a jolt of belief and slightly less pressure to score, both of which could help his numbers look more LeBron-like. If that happens, then the conversation credibly switches back to trading-the-two-firsts watch, because the Lakers can absolutely make the playoffs if both James and Davis are playing at a top-15 level and surrounded by coherent talent.

There are big steps remaining for the Lakers to take. Just to be clear, we’re looking for Davis to maintain a level of play he hasn’t had for years, LeBron to play two years younger, and for the front office to nail a trade with some combination of picks and likely Russell Westbrook. A lot is riding on some low-probability outcomes. Still, for a franchise that has been so thoroughly run into the ground the last few seasons, Davis’s possible return to form is a rare bright spot for Los Angeles. And if this is the AD we see for the foreseeable future, it may finally be time to take the Lakers seriously again. 

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This post was originally published on Sports Illustrated

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