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#pounditTuesday, September 29, 2020

Why the road to the NBA Finals in the West goes through Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis

Regardless of how you feel about LeBron James as a basketball player, there is no denying the impact he has had on the NBA. Even off the court, James is always thinking multiple moves ahead of his opponents. When James’ 13-year playoff streak was broken last season during his first campaign with the Lakers, it surprised no one to learn that the King had concocted a new plan.

That plan was appeasing Anthony Davis’ trade request by acquiring the seven-time All-Star from the New Orleans Pelicans.

With “The Brow” donning purple and gold, James took on a new challenge in his 17th season, making the transition to being the Lakers’ primary point guard. James passed this new test with flying colors, as he sits poised to capture his first assist title, while also leading the Lakers to the top record in the Western Conference. When the postseason begins, the Lakers can rest assured that James will continue to deliver his Hall of Fame-level contributions on a nightly basis. Still, it will be Davis, who will ultimately determine their fate.

The NBA returned in style with a potential Western Conference Finals preview, as the Lakers faced off against their intra-town rival Clippers. Although James delivered the game-sealing basket, the Lakers found themselves in a tied game with 20 seconds remaining due in large part to Davis’ 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists. The Clippers’ plan of deploying numerous defenders to slow down Davis became a necessity after he consistently leveraged his rare blend of force and finesse into foul calls. Drawing fouls is only half the battle, but Davis delivered at the charity stripe as he has all season long, converting on 16 of his 17 attempts.

At the one seed and two seed respectively in the Western Conference, a potential playoff series between the Lakers and Clippers would have no shortage of superstar talent. With Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers possess arguably two of the best wing defenders in the NBA. George and Leonard represent two of the only players in the league who have a chance of slowing James down, but even with the duo’s defensive prowess, Davis’ size advantage limits their impact.

When Leonard has matched up with Davis this season, Davis has shot 58.3 percent on 12 attempts. While George has had more success, it’s come on fewer looks. And despite his relative success, Clippers coach Doc Rivers seems reluctant to task George with defending Davis. Of all the Clippers’ that have defended Davis for prolonged stretches this season, Montrezl Harrell has fared the best, holding him to under 50 percent shooting on 15 attempts. Defending Davis will take a village, but even with the Clippers’ mid-season additions of Marcus Morris and Joakim Noah, they still lack a reliable option to attempt to slow down Davis.

The Lakers have gone as Davis has during the restart. Davis has looked like his superstar self when the Lakers have won, averaging 38 points, 10 rebounds, and 16 free throw attempts per game. But those numbers plummet down to 13.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 7.3 free throw attempts in their three losses. Having already clinched the top seed in the Western Conference, the Lakers will likely be conservative with Davis’ minutes moving forward. Without a clear incentive to win, their remaining seeding games will function primarily as dress-rehearsals for the stretch run ahead.

In the playoffs, Davis’ ability to read defenses will be vital for the success of the Lakers’ half-court offense. Watch how in the play below Davis catches the ball in the middle of the defense, then without giving them even a second to react, lobs the perfect alley-oop pass to Dwight Howard.

If Davis can punish out of position defenses with on-time passes like the one above, the floor will continue to open up for James and the rest of the offense. Another critical aspect for the Lakers’ postseason push will be the position Davis occupies in the lineup. On paper, Davis would appear to be the most gifted center in the modern NBA, possessing a two-way ability unparalleled by any of the leagues’ other big men. Despite this, Davis has spent 61 percent of his minutes at power forward, opposed to 39 percent at center.

Davis has stated his desire to play power forward in the past, and the Lakers are performing well when he shifts down to his preferred position, posting a net rating of +6.0. When Davis moves to center, however, the Lakers’ net rating increases to +7.0, one of the NBA’s top marks. At center, Davis can utilize his ball-handling and agility to compromise slower defenders, evidenced by the fact that the Lakers get to the free-throw line at a rate ranking in the 97th percentile with Davis at the five. The Lakers should continue to feature Davis at center for longer stretches in the playoffs in an effort to space the floor for their superstars.

At a time in his career when the lights have shined the brightest, Davis has delivered one of his best seasons in Los Angeles. But Davis’ season will be defined by what’s to come. Playing with LeBron James raises the stakes, rendering anything short of an NBA championship a disappointing season. Davis’ size and unique skill set present a seemingly impossible matchup for the Lakers’ Western Conference adversaries like the Clippers, Rockets, and Thunder. If Davis is operating at peak levels, the road to the NBA Finals in the West will go through “The Brow.”

Jack Reining covers the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JackReining3

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