Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, the Los Angeles Lakers’ performance in their six bubble games thus far have been less than convincing. There have been myriad issues propping up, most of which fans and the team believe will be fixed when the games start to matter more.
One issue, however, has been the recurring misuse of Anthony Davis. In three matches, the big man scored fewer than 15 points and teams who have had months to game plan for him have begun to double team him on nearly every catch and force him to beat them with his passing, something that is not a strength of the 27-year-old.
While some of that is the rust from not playing for four and a half months and having new faces to play with, it’s still a concerning trend that has surfaced at other parts of the season. Over the course of the season, the July acquisition has averaged only 4.8 points per fourth quarter, shooting 40% from the field as he has often been relegated to taking jumpers rather than getting to the rim and drawing fouls (two free throw attempts per fourth quarter).
It’s hard to look at a season where Davis has led the Lakers in nearly every statistical category as one where he hasn’t been maximized but it’s also clear that the Lakers haven’t taken full advantage of his abilities. Between the lack of personnel (e.g. shooters on the wings) and the offense not always being run pristinely, especially when LeBron James is on the bench, there have been many moments when the Lakers’ superstar has been taken out of the flow of the game.
If the Lakers are to make a deep run into the playoffs and hopefully win their 17th NBA championship, they are going to need Davis to produce at a much higher level. So, how can they maximize the big man when the postseason officially begins next week? The answer could come from watching his monster postseason run in 2018 with the New Orleans Pelicans.
That year, the Pelicans made their second playoffs appearance with Davis as their franchise player and managed to completely upset the Portland Trail Blazers, sweeping them out of the postseason. They then lost to the Golden State Warriors in the second round. Still, Davis’ performance – especially against the Blazers – was an all-time string of four games. In that series alone, he averaged 33 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, shooting 57.6 percent from the field and getting to the line nearly 10 times each game.
When revisiting that series, the first detail that sticks out is how often Davis played the center position. Weeks earlier, DeMarcus Cousins had torn his Achilles tendon leading to Davis becoming the full-time starter at the five alongside Nikola Mirotic. That trend continues into the postseason and outside of about three minutes in game one alongside Cheick Diallo, Davis did not play a single second with another paint-anchored big man.
Mirotic, in fact, was a major component of the Pelicans’ success. A stretch big, Mirotic continuously pulled out defenders from the paint to clear space for Davis. When the Blazers did collapse to prevent easy looks at the rim, Mirotic could either hit shots from deep or put the ball on the floor and put even more pressure on a scrambling defense.
Ultimately though, the Pelicans’ success came from how they played through Davis. While the Lakers have tried to use him in the post especially in hunting mismatches, the Pelicans got their star the ball on the move allowing his quickness and length to continually destroy the Blazers in the interior. Davis did take jump shots at times but they came more in the flow of the offense, as the Blazers bigs gave him space due to fears that he could take them off the dribble, rather than him catching at the elbow and jab-stepping a few times before taking a contested fadeaway.
Some of Davis’ made field goals can be seen in the video below and you can probably count on two hands how many of them come off him catching the ball outside of the paint.
Two years have passed since that series so Davis isn’t exactly the same player. He has become a more comfortable shooter from deep and Frank Vogel has said he wants the big man to shoot even more threes. Additionally, he now plays with LeBron James who puts infinitely more pressure on the rim than Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo could. But the Lakers can still take lessons from the most successful stretch in his career in New Orleans.
The first thing Vogel can and likely will do is continue increasing Davis’ minutes at center. That has already been a trend in the bubble games and it seems as though Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee (probably more so) will continue to lose minutes as AD plays the majority of his 40 or so minutes a night in the middle. Just by virtue of the increased space in the paint, Davis should be able to get much easier looks at the rim, ideally catching the ball in deep positions where all he has to do is to use his length to finish.
The next adjustment should simply be running better offense for the star big man. He will get his post-ups still and he has been efficient in those play types all year. But Davis is at his best when he catches the ball in the paint with a head full of steam; he is nearly unstoppable in those situations. It limits the need for him to make a decision because the defense doesn’t have time to meet him in the paint.
That likely means more pick and rolls especially between him and James where the defense will have to pick their poison in defending the star duo or hope that the Lakers’ shooters continue to struggle. The Lakers haven’t run a ton of that action all year, likely to keep their cards close to their chest but it should be a major component of their offense in the postseason especially in late game situations. In those situations, Kyle Kuzma or Markieff Morris can serve as a Mirotic clone, working as a second screener that can pop out for open threes or to clear the space for Davis.
Finally, the Lakers can use Davis’ screening ability even outside of pick and rolls. The Lakers have a few players who can come off curls and make the right reads to shoot or pass with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma and Danny Green the three most likely to use that action. If those shooters are hitting, defenses will have to hedge off Davis to contain them, possibly giving him a lane to the basket where a good pass can get him an easy dunk or a kick-out pass to a shooter on the weak-side. If defenses switch the action, then Davis has a mismatch he can either post up against or exploit on the offensive glass.
Ultimately, much of how the Lakers maximize Anthony Davis in a playoff series is based on the personnel around him. Limit his minutes with a true center, give him smart passers and good shooters, and use those shooters as decoys to get him the ball in space and more often than not, he will take advantage of those scrambling defenses. But if you’re asking him to post up other bigs or to create off the dribble in iso situations, Davis will revert back to those fading hooks or jump shots that frankly bail defenses out. Much of that decision making is on him but the Lakers – namely Vogel and James – must do better to incorporate him in the offense as well.