Anthony Davis Is The Center Of Everything
1:18 PM EST on December 5, 2022
After lifting his team to a bubble championship with two-way domination in 2020, Anthony Davis disintegrated. So did his team's hopes of contention. Hobbled by a series of lower body injuries, Davis appeared in a combined 60 games over the next two regular seasons. He strained his left groin in the first round of the 2021 playoffs as the Suns stomped the Lakers. In 2022 his prolonged absences helped the Lakers miss the postseason altogether. In this stretch he was surely the most talented player the NBA whose existence could flit out of collective memory for three months at a time. But AD has always kind of been that way, even when on the floor—flagrantly talented, frequently floaty and passive. This season, however, the 29-year-old has strung together enough health and will to restore old glory. On Sunday night, Anthony Davis notched 55 points, 17 rebounds, and three blocks in a win over the Wizards. He's now posted at least 20-10 in his last 10 games, and 30-15 in five of those. After a grim start the Lakers are still aspiring towards mediocrity, but they've stood on AD's shoulders to win eight of their last 10 and claw back to a 10-12 record.
Despite years of reluctance, AD has finally, begrudgingly accepted his fate in the modern NBA: He's a damn center. There's no wriggling out of those burdens anymore. It's time to absorb some elbows and wrangle some boards. In 2020 he could shield himself behind Javale McGee and Dwight Howard in two-big lineups, only playing center 40 percent of the time, according to Basketball Reference's positional estimates. In 2021 that figure was just 10 percent. By 2022, he was suddenly playing center 76 percent of this time. On the present Lakers roster there's nowhere for him hide. Shooting is already scarce enough and backup bigs Thomas Bryant and Wenyen Gabriel do not quite spell salvation. Davis has been the de facto center 100 percent of his time on the floor, and the upsides of this configuration are as clear as ever. He's locked the Lakers into permanent small-ball. That's given them the 10th-ranked defense, built on Davis's rim protection, which is docking opponent field goal percentage at the rim by four percent. Depending on the matchup, he's versatile enough to defend the pick-and-roll at the level of the screen or drop back to wall off the paint. He's that rare NBA five that takes nothing off the table.
On the other end, small ball gifts AD a constant mismatch against less mobile bigs. Having cut the threes out of his diet, he's hammering the paint with new vigor, even off the bounce. It's enough to make you wonder why didn't just try this stuff earlier. This season his average shot has come 7.2 feet from the basket, the lowest mark of his career by a huge margin, even in the inhospitable Lakers spacing. His midrange shooting has also returned back from hell, with a career-best (if unsustainable) 56 percent from 3-to-10 feet, which lets him punish opponents who sink too deep in the paint. And there's always his old bread-and-butter. He's the best lob finisher ever to take an NBA floor, big and balanced and blessed with delicate touch. He now has the good fortune of catching passes from LeBron James. Many a doomed Russell Westbrook drive can be redeemed with a you-figure-it-out dump-off pass to an enraged AD. That AD now seems capable of rage at all is its own good omen.
The recent "MVP" squawking from teammates isn't unwarranted; that's what should happen when your big man spends his weekend putting up 99 points with over 70 percent shooting from the field. But that campaign would require him to sustain this health and aggression over the season, and recent history offers no comfort on that front. It would also require to Lakers to go somewhere, and they're at least two big roster moves and a Patrick Beverley lobotomy from accomplishing that. But they can at least crow about this psychological and schematic victory: Davis is owning the bruising duties of an NBA center, working the same competitive advantages he's always enjoyed, that he now has no choice but to exploit.