Anthony Davis Is Leveling Up

Michael Pina
·6 mins read

LeBron James will always be the story, no matter what team he plays for or who else is on it. In the 17th season of his sensational career, James still looks like the MVP: not only has there been no perceivable decrease in his athleticism, but he’s also posting the second-highest True Shooting percentage of his career. And so even though James has gone out of his way to talk up Anthony Davis this season, his All-Star teammate has been closer to the background than he should be.

But right now Davis is staking his own claim to a different tier of greatness. Pure dominance was expected for AD since the day he was drafted number one, but up until now—for reasons that were and were not in his control—he hasn’t experienced the type of playoff success that peers like Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and even James Harden have seen. Now Davis is leveling up in eye-opening ways; there are mounds of empirical evidence that suggest he’s currently playing at a height nobody else can reach.

The players who’ve averaged at least 27 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists this deep into a playoff run are already in the Hall of Fame—we’re talking prime Kareem, 25-year-old Duncan, MVP Barkley, LeBron’s first year back in Cleveland, Bird, Hakeem, Wilt—and none did it with a higher True Shooting percentage than Davis’ current 65.9 mark, or while simultaneously having a first-team All-Defense effect all over the court.

Heading into the Lakers blowout win in Game 5 against the Houston Rockets, Davis led the bubble with a 34.2 PER, a number no player except LeBron (in 2009) has ever matched so deep into the postseason (Hakeem Olajuwon’s 39 PER in 1988 came in just four games).

After Game 5, Davis’ playoff PER dropped to 31.7, which is still top-10 all-time. But even stats like these don’t quantify how intimidating Davis is when he doesn’t have the ball, or the ways in which he toys with opponents who could not possibly defend him better. Shots like these two against the Rockets are soul crushing and feel like they’re worth 10 points instead of 2:

Davis is doing this on a team that wasn’t even built to optimize his talent—the Lakers don’t have enough playmakers (particularly those who are respected as scorers) or the high-volume three-point shooting that would create so much more space for him to play in. Point guard LeBron obviously helps (James has assisted Davis on more baskets than any other tandem in the league, and Davis is currently shooting an unfair 79 percent at the rim), but against a switch-happy Rockets defense designed to turn team-oriented basketball into a series of one-on-one confrontations, AD looked just as comfortable as an offense unto himself.

Before the playoffs began, I was skeptical about how LA’s offense would fare in the half-court without the benefit of Davis’ fast-break gallivanting. So far, their half-court offense has been excellent and they’ve managed to stay in transition more than any other team. And since their playoff-opening loss to Portland, the Lakers have made their threes. There are several inexplicable reasons for this, but some of it can be attributed to the great looks generated by Davis’ presence. Here, his roll to the rim sucks James Harden into the paint, giving Kyle Kuzma all the time he wants to knock it down:

Davis was magnificent all season long, but Los Angeles remained dominant whether he was on the floor or not: the team’s defense was slightly worse when he played and their overall point differential was slightly higher. In the playoffs, the Lakers die without Davis—even more dramatically than when James needs a breather.

As we’ve seen in these playoffs, there are effective plans of action for defending Giannis Antetokounmpo and strategic choices that can flatten out James Harden’s scoring punch. But so far no one has figured out an answer for Davis: limiting his impact right now is, tactically speaking, like standing in a downpour and trying not to get wet. He’s been a solid decision-maker in the face of perfectly executed double teams for the past few years, but now he’s shredding traps instead of trying to merely escape them:

And as a roll man, Davis’s screens leave such a small margin for error. Watch what happens when Ben McLemore realizes he’s about to switch onto Davis, then jumps back onto his original assignment before Jeff Green can recover. This is panic:

Some of this production is match-up contingent: Davis should annihilate the small-ball Rockets and an overtired Jusuf Nurkic. Particularly in minutes without James, he’s been pressured to take inefficient shots, and right now they’re going in. During the regular season, he shot 34.9 percent from the mid-range, which was third lowest among the 31 players who averaged at least three attempts per game. Right now he’s at 50 percent from there, especially when he’s open after setting a screen. And when they go in against tighter coverage, Davis looks irrepressible:

Without LeBron, the percentage of AD’s playoff points that have come from the mid-range nearly triples, and over half of his baskets are unassisted. But his overall efficiency hardly wanes, and the Lakers still manage to outscore their opponent by a healthy margin when he’s their lone All-Star. That’s partly due to how disruptive Davis is on the defensive end, whether helping on the weak side or engaged with the ball.

Davis’ primary value when defending a pick-and-roll resides in him not needing to commit until he absolutely has to. But that doesn’t mean he’s passive. Davis will drop far more often than not, but—depending on the matchup—he isn’t Brook Lopez or Hassan Whiteside. Instead he’ll stay close enough to take the pull-up three away, but with a cushion that limits ball-handlers thinking about a blow-by:

He rarely switches and the Lakers all but never ask him to blitz—especially when he’s at the five, which may not happen again as much as it did against the Rockets—but when they do, it’s essentially the scariest thing any ball-handler will ever see in their entire life. Merely dangling Davis’s mobility is a constant threat to deal with:

What we’re witnessing is the unnerving prime of a titan fully coming into his own. In real time, Davis is becoming the juggernaut pretty much everyone thought he would eventually be. He’s the hammer and the nail, capable of initiating the action and finishing it, too.

At 27 years old, with title-or-bust expectations, Davis has won one more playoff series in the last two weeks than he had in the previous seven years and has a higher scoring average than every player in postseason history except Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. He has long been pegged to become the most indomitable force in basketball. There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, but so far that’s exactly what he looks like.

Originally Appeared on GQ