NBA's 2020 Watch List: It's All on the Table for Anthony Davis
The basketball world just lived through the wildest NBA offseason of all time. Now we’re on the other side. A dozen stars have changed teams, contenders have been transformed all over the landscape, and next season's NBA looks more wide-open than it has been for the past 30 years. Now, as the basketball world passes the time at the end of the offseason, I can’t write another winners and losers column, and we can all survive without a final round of offseason grades. Instead, what follows is an attempt to imagine where things are headed. Who are the five most interesting players in next year's NBA? Whose stories will shape the league we're watching in 2020?
These are some answers at the end of July. Today, we focus on Anthony Davis as the first part of a five-column series we're doing this week. Here's part one.
Four of the five players on this list actually didn't change teams this summer, but we'll tip things off with one who did. Anthony Davis has never had a teammate half as talented as LeBron James, and now Davis is the player who can give LeBron one final chance to own the league. If we're entering next season knowing that we'll spend nine months talking about the Lakers, we might as well focus on the player who gives them a chance to be a real title threat.
The last full season Davis played, he averaged 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, and 1.5 steals. He shot 53.4% from the field, 82.8% from the free throw line, and 34% from three. He finished that season third in MVP voting, and when the playoffs began, and he spent the first 10 days mauling a helpless Blazers team and looking like the best player on the planet. Remember that series?
Game 1: 35 PTS, 14 REB, 2 STL, 4 BLK (14-26 FG)
Game 2: 22 PTS, 12 REB, 2 STL, 2 BLK (9-18 FG)
Game 3: 28 PTS, 11 REB, 3 STL, 2 BLK (11-18 FG)
Game 4: 47 PTS, 10 REB, 0 STL, 2 BLK (15-23 FG)
Those Blazers games were also an extended showcase for Jrue Holliday and a revival for Playoff Rondo, but what made Davis incredible was that it all looked so routine. And in the end, that series was the last time the whole world actually focused on Davis as a basketball player—not a trade target, not a self-described CEO, not an innocent victim of a misguided stylist.
April 2018 was our reminder that AD is one of the five most gifted players to hit the NBA in the past 10 years. He can make offense look effortless, he can cover an insane amount of ground as a free safety on defense, and most teams across the league just won't have an answer for what he can do on either end. Fast forward 15 months from that Blazers series, and all of that's still true. Davis enters the Lakers portion of his career at 26 years old, smack dab in the middle of his prime.
The summer of Lakers news contained multitudes. In no particular order, we lived through: Linda Rambis palace intrigue, Magic on First Take, COO Tim Harris, Ty Lue's birthday cake, new head coach Frank Vogel, assistant coach and usurper-in-waiting Jason Kidd, Rob Pelinka's cap space journey, that insider on Reddit, that Wizards trade, a solid three or four days where it looked like the Lakers would sign Kawhi Leonard and break the entire NBA, and at least one theory wondering whether Steve Ballmer was seeding the media with dark money in exchange for favorable Clippers coverage (not linking to this). In the end, the Kawhi strikeout gave way to a supporting cast comprised of overpaid wings (Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), shaky guards (Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso), boom-or-bust bigs (JaVale McGee, DeMarcus Cousins), and a sixth man who was deemed untouchable in trade talks, possibly because he exuded more of a Mamba mentality than any of the other young players (Kyle Kuzma—I love the Lakers).
I mention all that because two things can be true at once. On one hand, Lakers infrastructure is not necessarily any more stable at the end of this summer than it was at the beginning. On the other hand, the Lakers have had more success over the past two summers than most teams will have in the next 20 years. Two of the best eight players in the NBA now wear purple and gold. The supporting cast is flawed, yes, but the table is set for AD and LeBron to look superhuman and make it all work anyway.
On paper, Davis and LeBron could be the greatest 4-5 combination in NBA history. We'll see how often that lineup actually materializes. LeBron looks like he'll have to shoulder more of the perimeter creation responsibilities this year. Davis has already said he prefers playing the four, not the five, but that he's open to the latter come playoff time. In any case, wherever AD plays, life with LeBron should provide him with plenty of chances to dominate. Working in pick-and-rolls with James, AD could lead the league in scoring. He can anchor a defense that will definitely need the help. There's a real chance he could go out and steal MVP.
Davis is still only signed through the end of next season. As he told ESPN's Rachel Nichols last week, "Honestly, I'm just focused on this season. I don't know what's gonna happen, I have one year here. I'm going to make the best of this year, and when that time comes around in the summer or whenever the season's over, hopefully around mid-June, after we just had this parade, I'll need a couple days to think. Then we can talk about [the future]. Until then I'm trying to do whatever I can to help this team win a championship this year."
The lack of commitment is interesting—not because there's a realistic chance he would leave the Lakers next July, but because thinking through AD’s options is a reminder that he probably only has a few more cards to play. Even if he wants to use the free agency possibility to put pressure on the front office to be proactive, it's not as if the Lakers have a bunch of extra money they aren't spending. There are very few assets to trade (because most of them were used to trade for Davis). Davis would have to leave L.A. if he wants to have a dramatically improved roster a year from now, but hopping from team to team comes with its own risks. He'd probably alienate LeBron. He might complicate his relationship with Klutch Sports. And he'd definitely further complicate his standing among millions of basketball fans (if that matters).
There's also no guarantee that he'd be any closer to fame or titles elsewhere. The LeBron playbook worked for LeBron because he's LeBron—he creates an instant title contender the moment he signs, he's shrewd in building star alliances that can extend his prime, and he's the biggest star in the sport wherever he goes. AD may not meet any of those thresholds.
After seven seasons in the NBA, there are some people who will remind you that Davis still only has one playoff series win on his résumé. This refrain got louder when Davis was forcing his way out of New Orleans, with various skeptics hinting that maybe he's not as amazing as the numbers make him seem.
To that "what was he ever won?" question, I would offer three responses: A) Davis finished his last playoff loss putting up 27.8/14.8/2.2/2.0 on 47.8% shooting in a loss against Golden State's eventual title team, B) if Davis had spent the first seven seasons of his career in the East instead of the West, it's a safe bet that he'd have a lot more success on his resume by now, and C) skepticism isn't entirely unfair, either. That's what makes this season fun to wonder about.
Davis has the talent of a first–ballot Hall of Famer, but we need to see him win before this conversation can go any further. He wanted to be on a bigger stage with better teammates, with a chance to show the world that he's been elite all along. Now he has an opportunity to check every box. The world can probably count on at least one more elite LeBron year, and healthy LeBron should land the Lakers somewhere in the middle of the West. The upward mobility from there will depend almost entirely on Davis.
Let's see what he can do.