Entering the 2019-2020 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers consisted of two great players and a disheveled supporting cast. Their preseason over/under came in several games below the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers, while data-fueled projection systems gave them almost no chance to win it all. Yes, they finally traded for Anthony Davis, but in doing so the Lakers gave up a treasure chest of assets and, after Kawhi Leonard spurned them to join the Los Angeles Clippers, any real depth.
Fast forward a year. Not only did a surprisingly cohesive Lakers team easily earn the number one seed in the Western Conference, they also rolled through the playoffs while major rivals wilted. Through the first two games in these Finals, they’re dominating an injury-riddled Miami Heat. There are a number of reasons for this—LeBron James’ VIP residency in the fountain of youth and coach Frank Vogel’s defensive wit included—but the number one factor, and the reason they look set to contend for titles the foreseeable future, is simple: Anthony Davis.
Today’s small-ball NBA was not programmed for centers to thrive. The post-up has gone the way of the DVD. Offensive rebounds belong in a bygone era. Speed is good and threes are gold. There’s no one reason for this evolution, but the Warriors’ ascent captures some of the big ones. For the past five years, most contenders have tried to build themselves in Golden State’s image. Doing so required explosive, perimeter-oriented offense and rangy defenders; interchangeable skill-sets without any fixed position.
So what happens when a center becomes the best player in the world at the exact same time a majority of the league has decided his position is obsolete? The answer is Superman moving to a planet that just destroyed all of its Kryptonite. And Davis is Superman. Nevermore than in Game 2 of the Finals, when he scored 32 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, and only missed five of his 20 shots.
It’s not that Davis wouldn’t crush whatever stood in his path in any era, but as the 27-year-old mows through playoff frontcourts constructed to corral three-point shooters and switch onto score-first wings, absolutely nothing can be done to slow him down. The 7-time All-Star capitalizes on small-ball’s blindspots while being immune to the typical advantages it gives perimeter-oriented weapons: he can play at any tempo, inside or out, on both sides of the ball (Davis could have easily won Defensive Player of the Year, and eventually will.) He makes the strategy look rusted and hollow.
Right now Davis is a playoff-leading +168, and Denver’s Jamal Murray, who played 175 more minutes than Davis, is the only player with more points. The Lakers fall apart on both ends when he’s not in the game. Davis has supreme confidence in his jumper and the footwork, handle, and patience to shred any one-on-one matchup in space. He also remains the game’s most devastating lob threat.
But at the end of the day, his elevation boils down to the simple fact that he’s pretty much always bigger than everybody else, while also having the athletic grace of a lean wing. His shoulders are broader. His arms are longer and reach higher. There’s no impeding him in the post, and if you have someone on your team who can, they probably aren’t comfortable contesting his shots on the perimeter. Right now there’s maybe two humans alive who check off those boxes—and one of them, the Heat’s Bam Adebeyo, missed Game 2 of the finals with a shoulder injury.
The mismatches that Davis creates were most glaring in Round 2 against the Houston Rockets, where Davis spent most of his defensive possessions guarding (/not guarding) Russell Westbrook and then heading to the other end with a humongous size advantage over the 6’6” P.J. Tucker, his primary defender. While making 60 percent of his shots, Davis averaged 25.4 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 4.0 assists in that five-game evisceration. AD: 1. Small ball: 0. (Here’s a more detailed look at how great he was in the first two rounds.)
After Davis drilled a buzzer-beating 3 against the Denver Nuggets, Charles Barkley asked him why, as one of the most physically imposing players on the planet, he isn't aggressive more often. Davis acknowledged the criticism instead of refuting it, even though in recent weeks he’s started to look like someone who finally realizes there’s no scheme or coverage on Earth that can bother him:
Paul Millsap was Denver’s primary choice against Davis in the Western Conference Finals. This is what Davis did to Paul Millsap:
And watch the play below. How many players can 1) force a double team on the block, 2) quickly make the right pass, 3) relocate behind the three-point line later in the same possession and have enough composure to fake a defender like Jimmy Butler into a fly by, then knock down the three? Maybe Kevin Durant? Anybody else?
Now, if the Lakers win the title and Davis is named Finals MVP, it’ll be hard to look at his last 20 stellar games on the biggest stage and not see him as the world’s most unstoppable player. There’s every reason to assume that, so long as Davis’ game continues to improve, key teammates stay healthy, and LeBron doesn’t fall off a cliff (which, let’s be real, LeBron will be a top 10 player until he’s 58 years old) then the title will go through the Lakers for the next few seasons.
Bam Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmp are destroyers of worlds in their own right, but no one man is enough for aggressive AD, a foul magnet who can shoot, drive, pass, and unleash a series of fluid post moves that are both powerful and elegant. He’s equally destructive without the ball as when it's getting squeezed between his massive hands. Leaving him alone is not an option, no matter where he’s standing or floating towards. Danger is constant.
In a league where wins and losses are decided behind the arc, the Lakers have been chastised all year for not having enough good three-point shooters and not shooting enough threes. They entered the postseason with the 11th best offense in the league, 21st in 3-point percentage and 23rd in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions. It was possibly their fatal flaw, but in the end it didn’t matter because Davis represents the future much more than he does the past. He can be historically efficient on a team that doesn’t abide by the three.
This doesn’t mean threes don’t matter. Of course they do, and players who can make a bunch at a high rate are still highly valuable. But in the same way teams felt the need to downsize so they could match up with Draymond Green, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson (and LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh before them), Davis just might be good enough to force a shift in the opposite direction. What happens when every team that’s built to contend has invested in personnel and embraced a style that isn’t equipped to deal with his size and brimming dominance?
This puts the Lakers in the driver’s seat. Assuming Davis signs a five-year max contract, they’ll spend the rest of his prime finding pieces who can give him even more room to operate. And for everybody else, what does slowing Davis down even look like? He can take over with his back to the basket, but there are so many dimensions to his repertoire that simply getting bigger won’t be enough. When he has the ball, putting size on him along the perimeter and then supporting it with legitimate rim protection at the basket is a start. Contest those long twos and hope he misses (which he hasn’t done during the playoffs).
But all that’s easier said than done. And in the meantime, Davis may force other general managers to rethink what they want to spend money on, and which players are suddenly more valuable than they were five months ago. If this sounds reactionary, well, NBA trends are dictated by the very best players, not the other way around. (See Jack Nicholson in The Departed: "I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”)
Right now, Davis is on the cusp of upending several established norms in a way only the sport’s true generation-defining figures ever do. Think of him as a historical pivot point: as Davis sets foot in his own prime, tangible changes need to be made by almost every other team if they want a puncher’s chance to get past the player he’s become.
Originally Appeared on GQ