There is no context for Anthony Davis

Two months of incomprehensibly elite play

BY DAVID THORPE

The Lakers entered the bubble missing Avery Bradley, one of their best defenders. LeBron James was only sometimes dominant, and other times noticeably icing his groin. They didn’t just lose five of their first eight games, they also had things break in an unlucky way so they faced the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Home-court advantage didn’t exist this year, so they didn’t even have that, and sure enough, the Blazers took Game 1. On TNT, Charles Barkley predicted a Blazers sweep. 

A few minutes into Game 2, with the Lakers clinging to a 5-point lead, guard Alex Caruso made a mistake: He fed the ball to Davis, running down the middle of the floor, at full speed.

On its face, it was brilliant. Davis had left one Portland big man, Hassan Whiteside, in the dust. The other, Jusuf Nurkic, was not in the paint. This was an opportunity. I expected Davis to post up deep near the rim, but Caruso found him much earlier, still on the move, headed into the teeth of CJ McCollum and Gary Trent Jr. “Little guys” like that know all about open-court defense, the enormous Davis was in their area, at their pace. 

“Strip coming,” my brain said. 

But that’s not what happened. Davis dribbled right through McCollum and Trent Jr., drew a foul, and made a graceful layup.

There are four screens in my office. Hundreds of nights a year, over decades, there has been basketball on the TV. Almost everything that happens has happened before, or is a little evolution. Every once in a long while, I sit on the couch, where I swear I only drink water, and say to myself “holy crap.”

This was one of those. It wasn’t an NBA first—Amar’e Stoudmire came to mind—but it made an impression.

As the playoffs unfolded, Davis unleashed more new miracles, including his inner Dirk Nowitzki. He made four of six 3s in scoring 43 to knock out the Blazers, then beat the Rockets’ “small-ball” lineup in Game 2 with 15-24 shooting. In addition to 3s, floaters, and runners, he was now routinely making long 2 pointers. Those are not high-percentage shots for most players, but Davis was smooth, confident, and accurate. 

They kept coming. In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against the Nuggets he famously drained a catch-and-shoot game-winning 3 over the outstretched arm of Nikola Jokic. In Game 4, he was an offensive machine, a blur of jumpers, tip-ins, drives, fast-break dunks, high-level post seals, and pivots. He finished with 34 points on 15 shots, and as the rare LeBron teammate with superior on court/off court metrics. He wasn’t just doing amazing things, he was doing great bunches of amazing things, over whole games.

Fast forward through some majestic performances by LeBron James and Jimmy Butler to Game 6 of the Finals. The Heat had become the scary underdogs—if they could merely hang around, the pressure would all fall on the Lakers. 

With 90 seconds left in the first quarter, Andre Iguodala, long one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, had Davis where he wanted him: 19 feet from the rim. The Lakers were up four. A stop here, a bucket … a Heat “mission accomplished” moment seemed imminent. 

The Lakers would surely seek plan B on this play. Davis had time on the clock. He plays with LeBron. He could have passed. He could have posted deeper, or tried to work his way closer.

Instead he selected a move you’d expect from prime Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant. After a couple of smooth dribbles, he drained a step-back, long 2-pointer right in Iguodala’s face.  Alarm bells sang in my head. 

Halfway through the second quarter, Davis raced the floor and posted near the rim, awaiting a long hit-ahead pass. Rajon Rondo delivered the ball, but two converging Heat defenders stymied a quick attack. So Davis wisely dribbled away, for a better passing angle. Bam Adebayo frustrated that, so Davis used good footwork and did what no big man would do: launched a very tough floater. I shook my head as it splashed through the net.

Less than a minute of game time later, Rondo brilliantly prevented a Butler dunk. Instead, Butler double-pumped, looking to draw a foul. I’ve seen plays begin like this a million times. And here’s how they don’t end: Butler didn’t even get a shot off. Davis shut the whole play down WITHOUT EVEN JUMPING.

Incredible. His timing was perfect. Had Davis gone to help on Butler too quickly, his man Bam would have been an easy lob target. Too slowly, and Butler got to attack Rondo one-on-one. He just held his position and easily deflected the pass out of bounds. 

Immediately following that play, Kendrick Nunn ran a dribble hand-off with Bam on the left elbow—a play the Heat love. One elite athlete has the ball, the other can catch lobs thrown to 12+ feet in the air.

We teach big men in that situation to play “cat and mouse,” to lure the dribbler into committing a choice early enough in the play that the defender still has time to recover. Nunn drove; Davis retreated, taking Bam away from the ball, to the right side of the court. What a field day for the Heat. A wide open path for the left-handed Nunn to a left-handed layup on the left side of the court. 

Almost too good to be true. In a way that surprised the hell out of Nunn, and me on my couch. Davis closed with shocking speed, and swatted the shot to a teammate for a Lakers fast break. 

On the ABC broadcast Jeff Van Gundy spoke for all of us when he said, “what a defensive sequence by Anthony Davis.” 

What did we just see from Anthony Davis? 

Davis’ skillset is cutting-edge new, quite literally incomparable. If I told you he dominated the paint at both ends throughout a title run, averaging 28 and 10, we’d put him in the top 100 bigs of all time. If I added that he has rare athleticism for his size with great hands, power, speed, skill, and agility, we’d nudge him up among the NBA’s star centers like Kareem, Hakeem, Shaq, or Tim. But wait, there’s more:

  • Davis made 61 percent of his field goals this postseason inside the 3-point line, on par with Shaq’s best-ever playoff run. Rare.

  • Rarer: he made 30 of 32 free throws in the Finals. 

  • And … where it really gets mind-bending ... Davis made eight of 19 3-pointers in the Finals. 

David Robinson, Moses Malone, Robert Parish, Bill Walton—nobody has ever done all this at once. Davis is simply an offensive weapon that no NBA defense has ever faced before.

The arc of Davis’s career is that he was once short, slight, and, as a high-school freshman, a point guard. He had to learn how to move. David Robinson was once skinny and slight too. They have some similarities. Both grew tall later than most (Davis in high school, Robinson in college), and then grew very strong with impossibly wide and developed shoulders and arms—maintaining the ability to move and change directions like an elusive guard. It’s a killer combination. 

Robinson seldom makes GOAT conversations, but perhaps we underrate his effect. He’s the highest-ranked center of all time in Box Plus/Minus (BPM), which goes back to 1973. Among all players only Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Magic Johnson rank higher. He is number one since 1973 in defensive BPM. 

Basketball is definitely a game for incredibly tall men, but it’s equally advantageous to be brilliantly quick. It’s every bit the cheat code that size can be. Davis and Robinson, unfairly, offer both.

Kevin Garnett had many similar attributes—his athleticism and agility are unquestioned. He is also, in numbers and by the eye test, one of the most effective defenders of all time.  Again, though, the game is changing in important ways; Robinson and Garnett were only ever asked to guard opposing bigs and to focus on rebounding. 

Perhaps they could have shot 3s like Davis, perhaps they could have guarded wings like Davis. But they didn’t do those things, not much anyway. Davis just did. Never in NBA history have centers or big forwards been asked to cover so much ground: racing to contest shooters out to 28 feet, staying close to slashers who begin their drives far from the basket, contesting lights-out shooters without fouling, all while also patrolling the paint and protecting the rim. 

Remember, blocked shots alone are not enough. Preventing shots through sheer presence, like Davis did on that Butler drive, is also a huge way a big man can help his team. The shot clock is a sixth defender, so every time Davis keeps a shot from going up and extends the possession, his opponents know that the clock is winding down. Panic leads to poor decisions, and poor decisions lead to panic. Davis’s speed and effort to be present inside and out is every bit as unique a talent as are his prodigious offensive gifts. 

The best two months of big man play I’ve ever seen 

New things feel weird. When the Spurs routed the Heat in 2014, the offense dazzled and surprised me, one amazing moment after another. When it was all done, I told Henry Abbott, “I think the Spurs just played the best basketball ever.” Before long, Jackie MacMullan wrote my favorite basketball article with incredible insight from Gregg Popovich.

These two months of Anthony Davis felt similar. I settled into the couch for each Laker game with almost no idea what we’d see next. 

The game’s best players make their presence known consistently when their teams need them. I just didn’t know if Davis would be able to be that guy. Before this year, the Blazers were the only team he had ever beaten in a playoff series. Not being a primary ball handler or the focal point of most Lakers possessions, I wasn’t sure how much impact he could have.

Two months later, I have to consider the possibility that Anthony Davis may be the best big man of all time. 

Davis finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award, which was voted on before the playoffs. Now it’s hard for me to imagine he won’t be the favorite for years to come. 

On offense, he will continue to catch tough long passes and lobs in traffic, to be a dependable ball handler good enough to beat slower big men from the perimeter with ease. That should only get better for the next few years as he adds skills and grows in confidence. 

But what really distinguished him in Orlando was that his all-around elite big man performance came with long jumpers and 3 pointers at rates we’ve never seen. His form looked flawless, his confidence—and arc—through the roof. Was this because of work he put in during the pandemic? Has he finally discovered a new level of focus? Or was it because of the visual situation inside those gyms, with no fans, very different backgrounds, and far more space in the corners behind the sideline? It could be Davis just slept well or benefited from the very warm Florida summer. 

Or it could be that this is his new normal. Two months into next season, if Davis is down to 33 percent from 3 and not shooting as well on those step-back jumpers, we can begin to think it was just some Disney Magic that elevated him to unforeseen levels. Or, if he’s still shooting like this, a very different set of accolades will be headed his way. He might never match the gaudy box-score totals of Wilt and Kareem. But if David Robinson can be an all-timer in terms of helping his team win, with record-setting Plus/Minus stats, it’s hard to imagine any limits to what Davis might do. 

If I told you there was a player who could shoot like Dirk, finish inside like Wilt, and defend like Robinson in the paint and like Kawhi on the perimeter, would you agree this big man has a chance to be the best ever at his position?


TrueHoop’s friend Ed Caesar has written an incredible new book called “The Moth and the Mountain.” He has a special offer to TrueHoop readers: Prove you bought a copy before November 22 (you can reach him on Twitter @edcaesar) and he’ll schedule a Zoom event with you!