It’s hard to imagine Anthony Davis improving upon the season he just had. Following a regular season where he put up flashy stats and came second in the Defensive Player of the Year race, the 27-year-old helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to their 17th championship with playoff performances that felt routine and historic all at once.
But the Lakers, through an offseason featuring many changes to a roster that dominated the NBA in many ways, seem to be counting on Davis even more for the upcoming season, banking on unlocking him as the true engine of the team as LeBron James gets older, even if the latter hardly shows any signs of slowing down.
That’s no more evident than the decisions the Lakers made in the frontcourt. By signing Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol and bringing back Markieff Morris after his own outstanding postseason run, the Lakers are showing they have full belief that Davis’ versatility can get the best out of some players with major question marks about their productivity.
In Harrell, Davis gets a frontcourt partner similar in ways to the duo of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. A pick-and-roll monster, Harrell is never asked to do much more than set hard screens, catch the ball at the rim, and finish over often bigger opponents. He won’t be asked to make plays with the ball in his hands or to spread the floor, putting that onus on Davis, a role he played for the majority of the regular season before shifting over to a more central role in the playoffs.
Davis struggled with his jumper and his passing early in his Lakers career but as the season went on, and certainly in the playoffs, he became nearly automatic shooting from range and could comfortably navigate double teams sent by a variety of opponents. Harrell is coming off a poor postseason showing that has left many doubts about what he could provide the Lakers in high-pressure situations. It’s hard to think of a better frontcourt partner for the former Clipper, one who can give him space offensively while covering for his mistakes defensively. The Lakers are banking on limiting Harrell’s responsibilities and thus getting the best out of the big man; Davis alone gives them the ability to do this.
On the other end of the spectrum is Gasol, a veteran center with plenty of accolades to show for his long, productive career. Gasol, drafted by the Lakers ages ago before being traded for his older brother who helped bring two more championships to LA, is coming off his own postseason struggles but just a year prior, he played a major role for the Toronto Raptors’ tremendous run to an NBA championship.
A true center unlike Harrell, Gasol promises to slot in next to Davis in an effort to reduce the toll of banging against bigger centers on his body. But while defensively, Gasol will man the middle for the Lakers, offensively he can provide the same assistance for Davis that the Brow does for Harrell. A 38-percent shooter this last year, Gasol will draw opposing big men to the perimeter, creating the space for Davis and his elite finishing ability to shine as they did in that playoff run. Beyond the shooting, Gasol’s greatest skill – his delightfully accurate and feathery passing from any spot on the floor – should unlock Davis even further.
To use a soccer analogy tailored for the Barcelona native, Gasol will imitate the simple but special passing of a prime Xavi, Iniesta, or Busquets, giving Davis’ “Messi” the freedom to roam the floor and find those small pockets of space that he can exploit in a flash. It may not be as fast-paced and frenetic as Pep Guardiola’s games Tiki-Taka that Gasol surely was influenced by early in his career but the same “take the ball, pass the ball” mentality may prove to be just as effective in Los Angeles as it was in Barcelona.
I likely don’t have to tell you about what Morris meant to the Lakers once he joined the team after hitting the buyout market. Unlike Harrell and Gasol, Morris isn’t a traditional big and, as the Lakers learned at times in the playoffs, doesn’t have the size or ability to play center for the purple and gold. But even as a smaller “big,” Morris gives the Lakers toughness and physicality. Offensively, he spaces the floor much like Gasol (and was a flamethrower from deep in the postseason) but adds the extra ability to put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts if teams continue to crowd the paint against Anthony Davis and LeBron James.
Playing alongside Morris turns Davis into a true center, one who can attack the rim relentlessly with plenty of space and protect the rim with equal ferocity. No, Morris isn’t the pure talent that Gasol or Harrell are and he may not feature quite as often as the new acquisitions. But he does provide his own unique versatility and skillset that works wonderfully alongside Anthony Davis.
All three of these players have a different skillset and all three have varying weaknesses that allow room for concern when wondering if the Lakers can replicate the unmatched success they enjoyed last season. But the Lakers seemingly have ultimate faith in their strengths to show out and provide the team with an even higher ceiling as they attempt to repeat their title run.
The key to that is a 6-foot-10 unibrow unicorn, a versatile tool that unlocks seemingly doors of every type and function. He did so last year with great success but the Lakers are counting on Anthony Davis to get even better and get even more out of his teammates. It would not be wise to doubt him.