Nov. 24—Throughout the restless weeks when a portion of the fan base was openly wondering if the Lakers’ best option was to trade Anthony Davis, one critical concept eluded them.
If you trade Anthony Davis, you can’t get back a player nearly as good as he is.
The 29-year-old has spent the last four games reminding the basketball world of his ceiling — a double-double machine who can change the game on both ends of the court. Without LeBron James at his side, Davis has averaged 35.5 points, 18.3 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 2.5 blocked shots while leading the Lakers to a 3-1 record. While they fell short against Phoenix on Tuesday night, they had a shot against the second-place team in the Western Conference — which to the team felt like progress from their early-season lows.
“We were in the game all night but we just couldn’t get our outside shot going tonight, which would have been big for us,” said Davis, after authoring a never-before-done 37-point, 21-rebound, five-block, five-steal night against the Suns. “And we possibly could have gotten the win. Who knows. But I like the way we played tonight for sure.”
Unlike some of the Lakers’ early losses, that sentiment wasn’t entirely out of place. The Lakers (5-11) looked reasonably competitive armed with the best version of Davis — and in playing his best basketball, Davis might start shifting discussions of what the franchise needs to do next.
Ever since his acquisition in 2019, Davis — who finished third in 2018 league MVP voting — has always been viewed as a secondary piece to LeBron James, admittedly one of the greatest players of all time. While James and others touted the messaging that the team would play through Davis, on many fronts, he’s been James’ sidekick. As recently as September, it seemed notable that General Manager Rob Pelinka pledged to build a contender around James — and did not mention Davis in that sentiment.
But as great as James has been, he’s turning 38 next month, and he’s admitted his production, especially his efficiency, has been below his standard. More and more, Davis is the straw stirring the drink, and the past few weeks have offered a glimpse of what a Davis-centric team looks like.
According to the stat site Cleaning the Glass, Davis has a plus-9.3 differential when he’s on the court vs. when he’s off, the highest mark on the team. The Lakers’ victories over Brooklyn, Detroit and San Antonio have somewhat inflated this figure, but his production — he’s never before had 30-plus points and 16-plus rebounds in four straight games — help back it up. Davis’ best lineup thus far has been the starting group Coach Darvin Ham has put around him, which is loaded with wings who can shoot, including Lonnie Walker IV, Troy Brown Jr. and Austin Reaves.
Since Davis has moved to nearly a full-time center, he’s shifted his shot selection: He’s only taken three 3-point attempts in his last 77 shots. That has led to both a higher shot efficiency (62.3% shooting in the last four games) and a lot of time at the free-throw line (46 for 50). Rather than trying to force Davis into a power forward role where he can’t space the floor because of his 3-point shooting, the Lakers have called upon him to play like the big man he’s often tried to avoid being.
“Every time I see him and engage with him in conversation, ‘Coach, man, I feel good. I feel good. I feel good,'” Ham said. “And I’m like, ‘Great. I’m going to keep feeding you.'”
The Lakers’ letdown on Tuesday night is emblematic of what’s dogged them this entire season, and really for several seasons now: They made just four 3-point shots. Even Davis wasn’t shy about saying it was why the Lakers couldn’t win, with the Suns’ 16 3-pointers erasing a 29-3 point edge the Lakers had in free throws.
It’s been obvious for some time now the Lakers (who are still last in 3-point percentage at 30.6%) need shooters, and given the premium on shooting, they probably need to acquire those players by trade. But the discourse about the Lakers using their best trade assets (their 2027 and 2029 first-round draft picks as a package) has largely centered around whether 37-year-old James is good enough to justify selling out a big part of the team’s future.
But as long as Davis can stay on the court, he’s shifting the conversation: Building around one of the NBA’s most talented two-way stars still in his prime is a much more intriguing notion than giving James a playoff shot in his sunset (if he has indeed dropped off due to age). While Russell Westbrook has been more efficient as a bench player in the last few weeks, it is widely understood that the Lakers might give themselves a better chance to contend if they break his contract up into several role players — and with Davis playing at an All-NBA level, the picks might start to burn a hole in the front office’s pocket.
For Davis’ part, he says he wants to play like this every night, regardless of whether James is playing alongside him.
“Nothing changes for me when he comes back,” he said. “We’ve seen it before when he’s playing, a couple years ago. Nothing’s changed.”
And yet if he keeps it up, a dominant Davis could very well change how the Lakers view the need to change things up and actually push to contend.
(c)2022 San Gabriel Valley Tribune, West Covina, Calif. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.