LOS ANGELES — As the Lakers drive to win the West and threaten for banner No. 18 — as oddsmakers favorite to do — the spotlight rightfully will be on LeBron James. He turns 37 this season, but last season was in the MVP chase mid-season and will need to be that good again when it matters if he wants his fifth ring.
However, Anthony Davis playing like an MVP will be the key to LeBron getting that ring.
Two things happened with the addition of Russell Westbrook and the overhaul of the Lakers roster this offseason (only four players remain from the title team in the bubble). First, while Westbrook brings exceptional athleticism and will fill the stat sheet, he messes up the team’s floor spacing because he is not a shooter. Second, the overhaul turned the Lakers from a defense-first team into one more based around offense.
The best solution to both issues is more Anthony Davis at center and him playing at an All-NBA center level again — like he did the last year the Lakers won the title.
“There was the expectation, and that was discussed, and I expect to play center,” Davis said on media day as part of a longer answer about playing the five, although his wording made it fair to question how much he wants the role. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen. Me and Frank [Vogel, Lakers head coach] talked about it a couple of times and that’s the plan right now. Nothing is set in stone, but we want to see what that looks like, and I’m comfortable with that. Obviously, there’s times where Dwight [Howard] or [DeAndre Jordan] might get the start at center depending on games, but for the most part, I think the plan is to go with me playing center.”
Davis was the lone Lakers’ star to play in the team’s exhibition opener on Sunday against the Nets (and he only played the first quarter), but he started at the four with Jordan at center. Davis did play about four minutes at the five near the end of the quarter, matched up on Nicholas Claxton at first and later LaMarcus Aldridge. Davis moved well and looked good in his minutes, although there were the normal preseason moments of rust as well (such as a traveling call).
AD opens up the #NBAPreseason scoring!
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Vogel said on media day “it’s still to be determined” how much Davis will play center, but that the split will be more like the 2020 season (when Davis played 40% of his minutes at the five, according to Cleaning the Glass) compared to last season (9%).
Davis is a three-time All-NBA First Team center for a reason — he is elite at that position. More importantly, what he brings to the Lakers when at the five is what the team needs to cover potential holes on this roster.
The first is floor spacing. Davis took 33% of his shot attempts from 16 feet and out two seasons ago (20% from beyond the arc), and he had hit 33% or more of his 3s for three straight seasons, until last season when that fell to 26%.
In the bubble playoffs, Davis took 35.4% of his shots from 16 feet and out, and he shot 38.3% on 3-pointers — AD shot the best of his career in the bubble, and the Lakers need that Davis this season. With defenders ignoring Westbrook at the arc in the halfcourt, the Lakers need the threat of Davis’ shot to pull opposing centers away from the rim to create driving lanes (or post-up space) for LeBron and Westbrook.
On the other end, the Lakers need Davis as a rim protector and switchable big. Losing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and other perimeter defenders in the offseason (with an aging Trevor Ariza asked to play that role now), the Lakers will lean a lot more on their big men to clean up the mess left by guys getting blown by on the wings. Jordan and Howard are big, drop-back bodies in the paint, but age has robbed both of the All-Defensive Team athleticism required for the role. Davis can both switch on the perimeter and get back to defend the rim at an elite level.
Davis is a dark horse Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season, and the Lakers need him playing at that level if they are going to contend.
Since he arrived in Los Angeles, the LeBron and the Lakers have said this is Davis’ team, but that has felt like lip service at times. Not this season.
“The guys have talked to me about ‘this is your team, we go as you go,'” Davis said. “Kind of the same thing that we did my first year here, but I think adding a couple guys, it makes that job a lot easier, where it takes a lot of stress and a lot of load off of one guy. Where we can have four, five, six guys that can do what they have to do to win basketball games.”
Davis may not like the grind of a long NBA season at center, but he also understands what is at stake and what he needs to do.
“And at the end of the day, we all have to sacrifice to reach our common goal, and that’s to win a championship,” Davis said.
If the Lakers are going to hang another banner at Staples, it will be because Davis played like an MVP when it mattered most — and he will do it at the five.