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Health and some subtle tweaks have helped Anthony Davis refine his game, making him once again one of the best two-way players in the league.
When the Los Angeles Lakers stormed through The Bubble in 2020 (you’ll recall they went a dominant 16-5 in those playoffs), they did it on the backs of arguably the two best players in the world — LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
And while it is natural James has lost some of his luster (the man has been in the league for two decades), his heir apparent has been unable to take his rightful place on the throne because of the myriad of injuries he’s since suffered.
After two up and down seasons, the fable of “Bubble Anthony Davis” had become more of a tall tale than a staple feature of NBA lore.
However, Davis is healthy now, and he’s used this opportunity to recapture his former glory.
Anthony Davis is playing like prime Shaquille O’Neal
The hallmark feature of Davis’ Bubble run was his pristine outside shooting. And after hitting an abysmal 38 percent from the midrange and 19 percent from the 3-point line last season, he’s reignited some of those old flames, improving those percentages to 44 percent and 29 percent, respectively.
The re-emergence of his jumper has been a useful feature in his toolbox, but it isn’t the reason he’s a 28-point-per-game scorer again. The credit there goes to his monster interior presence.
In the very first week of the season, we established that the Lakers have some terrible spacing. It’s not that they aren’t trying. Coach Darvin Ham has done an admirable job putting them in proper position with his 4-out, 1-in approach. It’s that they don’t have the personnel to make their spacing matter.
The Lakers are 30th in the league in made 3s and 3-point percentage. It doesn’t matter that they have four players out on the perimeter ready to hoist 3s at a moment’s notice. No one in their right mind is going to close out hard to contest those particular shooters. This leads to defenses packing the paint. In response, Los Angeles has decided they are going to do that too.
Realizing that trying to be a modern team with this roster was futile, the Lakers have started running actions closer to the basket to put their talented paint scorers in more favorable positions.
A perfect example of this can be seen with their usage of the snug pick-and-roll (a pick-and-roll set inside the 3-point line). The Lakers lean on this ball-screen variation a ton in order to secure deep paint position for Davis’ rim runs and post-ups.
Davis is currently lapping the field in interior scoring. His 14.8 points in the paint per game is 3.5 points higher than second-place Jarrett Allen (per NBA.com). And overall, as a team, the Lakers average the second-most points in the paint per game.
Davis’ ability to manufacture these high-value shots at volume also enables him to garner a lot of free throws (unquestionably the most efficient shot in basketball). His 11.3 free throw attempts per 100 possessions put him in the 97th percentile leaguewide, leading to him being in the 92nd percentile in scoring efficiency overall.
Another downstream effect of the Lakers using Davis like a modern-day Shaquille O’Neal is that his interior gravity is now creating open 3-point chances.
In their Tuesday evening thriller against the Celtics, after getting burned by the snug pick-and-rolls for the first three quarters, Boston decided to start contact-switching ball-screens that featured Davis.
For those at home, this technique requires that the screener defender maintain contact with the screener until the other defender has switched on to him. This strategy is usually used as a delay tactic to delay the rolls that Davis frequently participates in.
The drawback with this method is that it opens up a half-second window where the ball-handler can attack, and the Lakers used this opportunity to launch a couple of relatively open 3-pointers.
And while we noted the Lakers are a poor outside shooting team (making the open chances Davis’ gravity creates less meaningful), it is a step in the right direction to see them being able to force defenses to adjust to them in some manner.
Is Anthony Davis back to being a DPOY Candidate too?
More than anything he brought to the table offensively, Davis made his bones as an elite performer on the defensive end.
So far this season, his statistical indicators on this end have been promising. Defensive EPM – arguably the best one-number metric on the market thanks to its blending of tracking data in its algorithm – has him in the 96th percentile defensively.
Opponents are shooting 5.7 percentage points worse on field goal attempts defended by Davis, which is seventh among the 57 bigs who have played at least 20 games this year (per NBA.com).
But unlike most of the other paint protectors, he also makes a difference in the passing lanes. Of the players to contest 10 or more shots per game this season, only Davis averages three deflections per game.
On a recent episode of the Thinking Basketball podcast, Ben Taylor explained how Davis can simultaneously account for shots at the rim and the passing lanes by using a technique Hakeem Olajuwon mastered once upon a time.
When Davis faces an adversary at the rim, he stations one hand up vertically to challenge the shot and extends the other horizontally to safeguard against any potential last-second opt-out passes.
At the team level, the Lakers have the ninth-lowest opponent rim frequency in the association (per Cleaning the Glass) — a reflection of Davis’ ability to not only contest shots but deter them from materializing altogether.
Where does Anthony Davis rank in the league right now?
Despite his outstanding statistical indicators, it is evident from watching that Davis is a hair below the generational defender he was in a few seasons prior. Injuries and some added weight have decreased the speed of his jumps while increasing the stiffness in his movements, which has taken away from his paint protection powers and ball-screen versatility a bit.
Still, due to the nature of his position (bigs tend to have the most impact on defense) and overall institutional knowledge, it’s likely that he’s still a top-10 defender in the NBA today.
And when you pair that with his insanely efficient volume scoring and the downstream effects his interior gravity causes, you have a recipe for a player who is firmly an All-NBA level performer.
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