Anthony Davis is used to individual success. The 2012 No. 1 overall pick is a seven-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player. This season, he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and sixth for MVP, while being named first-team All-NBA and first-team All-Defense.
But the 2020 NBA playoffs in the Orlando, Florida, bubble have given Davis something new: team success. His first Western Conference finals appearance brought his first game-winning postseason buzzer-beater. Now he has his first real chance at a championship.
The Los Angeles Lakers, led by Davis and LeBron James, are just two games away from their first NBA Finals appearance in 10 years. Here’s how Davis arrived at this point with an opportunity to cement his legacy.
Living up to the hype
Since the one-and-done era began in 2006, there have only been three consensus No. 1 high school players before entering college. Thanks to Austin Rivers, Anthony Davis was not one of them.
Standing 6-foot-3 as a high school sophomore in 2008, Davis shot up nearly six inches as a junior, taking the recruiting world by storm in the summer of 2010 and earning scholarship offers from the likes of Syracuse, Ohio State, DePaul and eventually Kentucky. Weighing just 187 pounds, Davis’ production was hit or miss as he grew into his thin frame. He was utilized as the primary ball handler and distributor on a mediocre Perspectives Charter high school team in Chicago with nowhere near the strength or polish he has now.
But when NBA scouts got their first glimpse of Davis during the high school All-Star circuit in April 2011, he began to cement his No. 1 status for the 2012 NBA draft. In particular, one private scrimmage the day before the McDonald’s All American game stood out. Davis’ shooting touch, timing as a shot-blocker and feel for the game immediately made an impression. And his mobility was on a different level than his peers’; Davis’ long-term potential was clear.
Even though he was incredibly productive and helped Kentucky win the national championship, it was obvious Davis was only scratching the surface on the type of player he could develop into, as he was fifth in usage rate on that Wildcats team. After making only three of his 20 3-point attempts in college, Davis has already converted 84 3s this season and a career best 83.3% of his free throw attempts, a testament to how much his game has grown since he entered the NBA.
While it was always easy to project Davis becoming a perennial candidate for defensive player of the year, few envisioned him running off a screen and nailing a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off movement to win a playoff game like he did against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night.
Other prospects have been projected to go No. 1 at least a full year before the draft in the one-and-done era — including Greg Oden, Andrew Wiggins, Markelle Fultz — but only Davis has backed up the hype that surrounded his rise. — Jonathan Givony
Jonathan Givony is an NBA draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and international teams.
Above the forehead, nice and high
The buzzer-beater Davis made Sunday night was the glorious payoff for years of unglamorous shooting work Davis put in early in his career, reinventing his shot mechanics.
Davis made only three total 3-point shots in his first three NBA seasons. But even as a young player, he was acutely aware of where the game was headed and that his ability to shoot from 3-point range would influence his overall value. So he spent hundreds of hours in quiet gyms tweaking his form, ensuring his jumper would become a legitimate NBA weapon.
When Davis entered the league in 2012, his shot release was relatively low on his forehead.
“I was shooting the wrong way; I was more of a push-out shooter, from my chest,” he said in 2015. “When you shoot from your chest and in front of your face, you lose sight of the rim.”
That didn’t matter in AAU games or even at Kentucky; Davis would simply dominate games with his other skills. But the NBA is a different beast, loaded with big men such as Nikola Jokic who will devour lower shot releases.
“I kind of moved it up to the right side of my right ear, above my head,” he recalled of his adjustments. “Which helps me see the rim a lot easier.”
With the New Orleans Pelicans, Davis worked with assistant coach Kevin Hanson to elevate his release point. The pair recognized that the NBA’s best shooting bigs all released the ball over their heads. Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and LaMarcus Aldridge leveraged high releases to both clear their vision of the target and to prevent defenders from blocking their shots.
Davis’ jumpers are now among the hardest shots to block in the league.
On Davis’ Western Conference finals Game 2 buzzer-beater, the 7-foot Jokic came within a few inches of getting a finger on the ball, deflecting it and saving the game for Denver. But Jokic just couldn’t reach it. The shot was too high. It started above Davis’ forehead and finished nice and high.
This year, opponents have blocked only two of Davis’ 592 jump shots. That 592nd one was pretty important. — Kirk Goldsberry
Team success matching individual success
This is already the deepest playoff run of Davis’ NBA career, but that’s not because anything has changed about him as a player. After leveraging his way to join James and the Lakers, Davis finally has supporting talent worthy of his own performance.
Back when Davis was first agitating to be traded from New Orleans, I put together a quick metric to investigate the question of how many wins you’d expect from a team with a player of his value (as measured by my wins above replacement metric, WARP). The answer to that question depends from year to year based on Davis’ health and his development as a player, but it’s typically around 45 to 50 wins. Never once during his seven seasons with the Pelicans did they hit that expectation.
In many ways, this analysis measures how good everything else is around a player in an organization — his teammates, the coaching, etc. The one time New Orleans came close to average in this regard, the Pelicans swept the favored Portland Trail Blazers out of the playoffs in 2018 before losing to the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors.
Because Davis’ talent was so obvious, and the same was true of the dysfunction around him, the losing never stuck to him in the same way as other players in similar situations — say former James teammate Kevin Love, whose Minnesota Timberwolves teams lost 114 games more than expected based on his value before his trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Still, until Davis could enjoy team success commensurate with everything he had accomplished individually in the NBA, nagging questions about his value were always going to persist. So it’s been nice to see Davis finally being put in a situation to succeed and responding exactly as well as we’d expect. — Kevin Pelton
Titles, not moral victories
The last time Davis was eliminated from the playoffs, he walked slowly to the bench as the clock wound down and dapped coaches and teammates. It was May 8, 2018, and Davis had just dropped 34 points, 19 rebounds, three steals, a block and an assist in the season-ending loss.
There were reasons for optimism within the Pelicans franchise; it was only Davis’ second playoff appearance in his sixth NBA season, and the Pelicans had taken the mighty Warriors and their vaunted Hamptons Five lineup to five games in the second round. Davis had matched former league MVP Kevin Durant for most points per game in the series (27.8) and was the only player on either team to average 40-plus minutes.
But after he gave end-of-series hugs to Draymond Green and the other advancing Warriors, it was clear that a second-round breakthrough wasn’t enough.
“There’s no moral victories,” Davis said in the post-series news conference. “There’s a lot [of positives] that we could take from this season, but anytime you don’t win a championship, I’m not sure how much success you really had.”
That September, Davis switched agents and signed with Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Davis told his teammates before the season began he was thinking of asking for a trade.
By the following January, Davis had formally requested that trade through his agent, with James’ Lakers as his top choice. Davis was booed on the road and in his home arena, and he was held out of games as the trade deadline came and went. He did not dress down the stretch as New Orleans’ disappointing 2018-19 season ended under a cloud of trade rumors.
For all of the promises to build around Davis, the best the Pelicans could give him was that 2018 second-round exit. So he found a way out.
Just a season after his trade to Los Angeles was granted, Davis has reached his first conference finals and is two games away from his first NBA Finals. This is why he endured the heckling, why he pushed to join James: Title contention is what the Lakers represented. — Andrew Lopez
Kendrick Perkins asserts that there’s no way the Nuggets will come back and win the series against the Lakers, adding that Denver might even get swept.
Harmony leading to victory
When the Lakers traded for Davis last summer, it at least slightly reminded some of the last time they’d acquired a future Hall of Fame big man in the final year of his contract. That hadn’t gone so well.
In 2012, Dwight Howard never bonded with then-team standard-bearer Kobe Bryant, and Howard left for the Houston Rockets after one season. With Davis, that doesn’t look to be at all the case. While Davis can — and likely will — opt out of the final year of his contract after the season to become a free agent, he has bonded so well with James and the team that his contract situation is rarely mentioned.
James has been nurturing the relationship with Davis — the big man has openly acknowledged leaning on the elder James for guidance as they advance deeper into the playoffs — because in many ways, their futures are tied together.
If Davis leaves as a free agent, James’ final years in L.A. would be greatly diminished. But so far, they’ve built a bond, on and off the court.
In the locker room, that bond has been on full display. The Lakers’ locker room was a crowded place every night this season when media members were granted access. James and Davis would always manage to communicate with each other through the crowd.
They’d shoot each other knowing glances as they eavesdropped on each other’s interviews. When there was room to speak directly, they’d hold a hand over their mouth and whisper. Other times, James would make funny faces or sing loudly, trying to make Davis laugh as he answered questions.
In a way, they were trying to conceal the substance of their relationship with all the jocularity. But in another way, they were very publicly confirming just how close they’d grown.
That might not seem like a big deal, but rarely do two superstars find such an easy friendship so quickly, without egos bumping into each other. This is particularly true for James, who has not always gotten on so well with star teammates.
There’s no drama around whose team it is. There’s no intrigue around whether Davis feels like James’ star power diminishes his own. There have been few contract whispers over the course of the season.
To appreciate how rare this type of superstar relationship is, one need only look a few lockers down. Howard has returned to the Lakers at age 34, willing to do anything to chase a ring alongside Davis and James. — Ramona Shelburne
Investing in a legacy
When Davis arrived in Los Angeles, he left $4 million behind. That’s the baked-in insurance should certain max-level players be traded, commonly referred to as a “trade kicker.” And though sometimes a player must waive his bonus to facilitate a transaction (Kyrie Irving relinquished his $5.8 million kicker to allow the move to the Boston Celtics in 2017), Davis was under no obligation to forgo the extra money when he left New Orleans.
“I’m all about legacy,” Davis said in February 2019. “The money comes and goes. When I get done playing or leave this earth, what is my legacy going to be?”
To be fair, Davis had motivation to pass up the money. His trade to L.A. came a few weeks before the start of free agency, and eliminating his kicker — combined with tearing the roster foundation to just James and Kyle Kuzma — freed up enough cap space for the Lakers to pursue Kawhi Leonard.
Even without Leonard this season, waiving that $4 million helped Davis take steps toward building a greater legacy with this team; it gave him equity in the roster.
Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka consulted the All-Star big man on every subsequent move the team made. And months into the season, Davis told me that he had no second thoughts about the decision, believing that it served its purpose in making the team better.
When Davis gave up the money, he ended up investing in his partnership with the Lakers — and it’s already paying dividends. — Dave McMenamin