The Los Angeles Lakers have been rapidly morphing all season. There’s been little consistency, a desired factor in the regular season for any team with championship aspirations. Most of this has been out of their control, as injuries caused the entire season to get off to a rocky start. COVID-19 didn’t help either, but still, there were definitely some self-inflicted wounds also causing the constant change in this team’s identity. It’s all led to the current state of the Lakers, a team almost exclusively using LeBron James at center while Anthony Davis continues to heal the MCL sprain in his knee.
I say exclusively not because Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan have been filling in the slim amount of other minutes LeBron is not at center (Howard did play 21 minutes last night against the Kings but had not played in three of the previous four games before that). No, the remaining other center minutes have mostly been filled by…Carmelo Anthony? And, for the most part, it’s working? The team has been without Davis for nine games now, and although continued COVID-19 absences prolonged a rough period for the team at the start of that time period, they now have nearly all their players sans Davis back and have won four of their last five.
So where will that leave Davis once he returns? He does seem desperate to play the four as opposed to the five…maybe he could be the four to LeBron’s five!
I’m kidding, of course. But seriously, one would be reasonable to think that Davis — as talented as he is — could disrupt the magic of the new small-ball Lakers just due to the fact that he is, well, a big. In addition, although he’s viewed by most general NBA fans as a sort of “unicorn” in the form of a floor-spacing, ball-handling big, he’s shown much less of the “floor-spacing” element this season than he has in the past.
He’s been especially bad from distance, only making 10 of his 56 3-point attempts this season (17.9%). His mid-range shot hasn’t been much better as he’s shooting 38.5% from 10-19 feet away from the hoop. The days of the 2020 NBA Playoff bubble seem far in the past, as Davis shot 48.1% there on the same types of mid-range shots, with his efficiency in that area slowly dwindling ever since.
The Lakers’ newfound spacing could regress with AD back in the fold, and it could even return to its miserable previous levels in lineups with AD, THT, and Russ all on the floor. That trio would assumedly see plenty of time together, and although they wouldn’t be featuring the anti-spacing juggernauts that Jordan or Howard are, there’s plenty of tape in on them with opposing defenses wise to let them shoot the three all night. The Lakers have shot 31.2% from deep when that trio is on the floor, with only a 103.2 offensive rating (the team has had a 112.5 offensive rating since Davis went down).
With that being said, it’s Anthony Davis. Focusing solely on his shooting — as some “Stat” Twitter accounts have done this season — does a disservice to his all-around game. He’s still fifth in the entire league in “stocks” per game (steals and blocks combined), as disruptive to opponent defenses as he has been his entire career. And although the Lakers’ offense has been revitalized via their small-ball tactics (14th-ranked offensive rating in past nine games), the defense has continued to flounder (23rd-ranked defensive rating in same time span).
But although Davis is fewer than two seasons removed from finishing as the runner-up Defensive Player of the Year, there might be an even more specific aspect of him being on the defense that will help the Lakers aside from steals and blocks. That aspect is getting another big guy on the boards, an area that the Lakers have been killed in since reverting to mostly small-ball lineups. They were able to actually beat the Kings in the offensive rebounding margin on Tuesday, but across the whole nine games that Davis has missed, they’re giving up the seventh-most offensive rebounds to their opponents.
And despite his shooting woes, AD is still averaging 23.3 points per game on 52.1% field-goal shooting, his best mark since his 2017-18 season back in New Orleans. He’s been able to get to the rim often, averaging the second most field-goal attempts in the restricted area across the entire league. With Howard out there sparingly and Jordan banished to the end of the bench (and possibly free agency soon), the floor may open up even more for Davis to help him join LeBron and Westbrook in their rim-attacking party.
That party has been an all-time rager, as the Lakers have been literally cutting defenses apart, deploying cut-after-cut with LeBron and Russ finding their comrades whenever they find a small window of space under the basket. Avery Bradley has especially capitalized on this, as Silver Screen & Roll’s Jacob Rude evidenced below. And who’s the second-best cutter on the team in terms of points-per-possessions while cutting? Anthony Davis (LeBron is first).
One of the many ripple effect benefits of playing small ball is the floor is opened up even more for Avery Bradley to make off-ball cuts that he's so good at. pic.twitter.com/qfBRgzVG6y
— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) January 4, 2022
So even with all of Davis’ problems before the injury and the possible regression we may see when initially integrating him back into the team, it stands to reason that Davis will only take this team to a whole other level when he gets back in the swing of things. This could happen even if his jump-shooting continues to be flat.
I asked LeBron what the Lakers might be able to take from their development of winning lineups with LeBron at the five when AD returns from injury. This was his response: pic.twitter.com/sb0NeVy0VG
— Cooper Halpern (@CooperHalpern) January 3, 2022
Just ask LeBron James. He knows a little about this thing called basketball, pointing out that AD is an “easy puzzle piece to fit in” and that they should have no problems getting him back involved.
The table will be set for Anthony Davis. All he has to do is sit down, and dig in.