We all need to accept Anthony Davis for who he is as a basketball player. He’s not a back to the basket jump hook type of scorer, a 3-point shooter, or the ball-handling guard that he would’ve been at Cleveland State — and only at Cleveland State — had he not grown seven inches between his junior and senior year of high school. Davis is an excellent defender with outstanding lob catching ability, and a decent mid-range shot. That’s enough to give him a 23.9 ppg scoring average for his career, and make him a four-time All NBA first teamer.
However, that has not been enough for the Los Angeles Lakers this season. They defeated the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night to raise their record to 13-12 on the season. LeBron James, at 36 years old, has missed 12 of those games, and the Lakers have lost seven of those. The idea when the Lakers traded three players, two draft picks, and a pick swap to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis was to not only give James a great No. 2 to play with, but someone to lead the offense as a No. 1 option when James isn’t on the floor.
Since Davis’ arrival in 2019, the Lakers’ offense has still only been able to reach its peak with James on the floor. When Davis is playing without James, the Lakers offense doesn’t have much punch as a unit. This season the Lakers are 23rd in offensive rating at 107.5 points per 100 possessions. When Anthony Davis is on the court, the Lakers’ offensive rating is 106, when he’s off it’s 107.2. When James is on the court the Lakers’ offensive rating is 112.4, and when he’s off it plummets to 102.8.
During Tuesday’s NBA on TNT broadcast, Charles Barkley called out Davis for his play saying that he has to be one of the five best players “in the world” for the Lakers to be great. Shaquille O’Neal even allowed Kenny Smith to hit him in the head with a Krispy Kreme box to make the point that Davis wasn’t doing enough in the first half of Tuesday’s game.
They do make a point. If Davis was constantly putting opposing players in foul trouble, going to the free-throw line at least nine times per game, and controlling the game with the ball in his hands the way O’Neal and Barkley did when they played, the Lakers would not be hovering around .500. Instead, it’s 2021 and 10 seasons into Davis’ career he isn’t that type of a player, even at his best when he averaged 28 points per game for a time with the Pelicans. Barkley, O’Neal, Stephen A. Smith, even his coaches and teammates can say whatever they want, but everyone is going to have to accept that Davis is not a true No. 1 offensive option.
Davis is best when shots are created for him whether it’s a lob that no defender can reach or a clean look at a mid-range jump shot. If he’s forced to look for his own shot, there’s a chance he’ll only take nine shots in a game like he did in the Lakers’ loss to the Bulls in November. Even if he does take 20 shots, and make more than half, the way that he gets those shots doesn’t always help his teammates. He’s not like James whose every move keeps the opposing defense on pins and needles, which gives his teammates better opportunities on offense.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, James is in his 19th season and can’t consistently carry that load every night like he did on Tuesday scoring 30 points with only six missed shots. That’s why the Lakers brought in Russell Westbrook, but he’s also aging, and his performance against the Celtics, while also strong with 24 points on 9-16 shooting with 11 assists, has been erratic in his 14th NBA season.
The Lakers may still recover and perform better in the playoffs than they did in last season’s first-round exit, but at the top of the Western Conference the Suns and Warriors have pulled far away from them like Usain Bolt in a 200 meter dash. James will have to be dominant for the Lakers to compete in the present, but in the future they are going to need a younger ball handler that can create for himself, for others, and put real pressure on a defense.
Is the answer Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers, Dejounte Murray of the San Antonio Spurs, do they give up the few draft picks they have remaining in this decade and make a run at the Blazers’ Damian Lillard.
Whatever the Lakers do, the answer can’t simply be to push Davis to do more on the court. It’s not going to happen, and the basketball media castigating him for not doing more is just going to cause someone to bust a blood vessel. Davis is who is and there are plenty of teams in the NBA who would be just fine with his production. He may play great defense and can fill up a boxscore, but he’s not a No. 1 offensive option, and if anyone wants to talk themselves into believing he can be something different than that’s on them.