If LeBron James could pick any other person on Earth to be his running mate, it would be Anthony Davis. There are other superstars who’d be productive and pleasant in a winning situation, but none can accentuate James’ strengths, capitalize off them, and conceal his defensive limitations.
Davis lands in Los Angeles at an ideal and fascinating time. There is no unbeatable juggernaut in LeBron’s path, thanks to the Warriors’ injuries. He’s about to team up with a fellow megastar and arguably the most talented teammate he’s ever had. (Dwyane Wade was awesome in 2010-11, but there are numerous reasons why it shouldn’t surprise anyone if 26-year-old Davis exceeds that impact).
Moreover, the two cross paths at a reputation-curving pivot point in their careers. Both failed to make the playoffs last year. Both were humbled. And now, both exist on the same frequency. Empathy won’t be an issue because they desperately need each other. Davis will help LeBron delay the age-related physical decline that invaded his body last season, while LeBron’s general omniscience should summon a more realized version of Davis than any we saw in New Orleans.
LeBron is about to enter his 17th season and has played 10,000 more minutes than any other active player. (Yes, 10,000. Read that again). His time at the top of the league’s food chain is ending, if not over.
But at the same time, LeBron still deserves more touches, responsibility, and decision-making power than whoever else is on his team. While any other star teammate would, in one way or another, veer into his lane by needing and/or wanting the ball, Davis is comfortable eating off his teammates. Since 2015-16, he’s scored 3316 points on assisted two-pointers, despite missing 59 games over that period. No other player has more than 3000.
Self-creation has never been the primary way Davis gets buckets. Twenty-seven players averaged at least 20 points per game during the 2017-18 season. Among that group, only Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis averaged fewer seconds and dribbles per touch than Davis. Throw in his physical dimensions, discipline, and awareness that makes Davis a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and he checks every box James should want in a co-star.
The big picture advantages for the pairing are self-evident. Davis should lower James’ usage and let him rest more, both on the sideline and on the floor. He yanks opposing big men into foul trouble, and is as comfortable steadying the game’s tempo as he is sparking it into a sprint. (Since 2014-15, Davis has ranked above the 92nd percentile in the percentage of non-shooting fouls he drew per team play, according to Cleaning the Glass.)
That help goes both ways. Minus a brief, somewhat-unnecessary collaboration with DeMarcus Cousins, Davis’ Pelicans’ tenure was defined by a tragic evasion of needle movers. His Pelicans teammates weren’t scrubs — Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, and a couple others weren’t bad — but the talent level still topped out at “All-Star snub.” Years from now we’ll look back at the first seven years of Davis’ career as a worst-case scenario for building around a young superstar. In LeBron, Davis now has a consummate problem solver by his side. What neither has is all the time in the world, and how they interact in year one is everything.
On paper, LeBron and Davis should elevate each other’s very best qualities from the start.
In 2017-18, James Harden and Clint Capela, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams, and Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic were the top three duos that generated more assisted baskets at the rim than anyone else. Fourth was Davis, from Rajon Rondo. Fifth was … Davis, again, from Holiday. That supreme ability to finish in the paint will add a vibrant set of colors to LeBron’s palette. James was born to orchestrate a half-court offense with someone this galactically awe-inspiring, and those two in transition is legitimately one of the scariest visuals an opposing basketball coach can imagine.
But their most direct connection will be in the pick-and-roll. Davis induces a special brand of panic whenever he dives towards the basket. No pass is out of his reach, and halting whoever has the ball usually turns into the defense’s secondary objective. But there’s only so much a defense can do when James, who’s impossible to stop downhill with one man, is the ball-handler. (LeBron finished 7.5 plays per game as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last season, up from the 5.2 he averaged over the previous three seasons, per NBA.com. Expect that number to go up a little bit.)
Watch Karl-Anthony Towns as Holiday barrels into the paint off Davis’ drag screen.
The spacing here is critical, with three Pelicans lined up behind the three-point line on the left side. Towns is responsible for the help, but if he leaves his feet to contest Holiday’s layup, Davis will dunk on his head.
And look at what happens here to poor Jarrett Allen. A simple ball fake in Davis’ direction shifts Brooklyn’s seven-footer two feet into the paint.
James has played with roll partners that demanded respect before, but Davis is one of the feared divers of all time.
Not every defense will drop Davis’ man. Some might duck under the screen and welcome an open pull-up for LeBron. Those with appropriate personnel will switch. Some may trap LeBron and force AD to create in a 4-on-3 situation. Help defenders will swarm the paint and force kick-out passes to the three-point line, especially in the playoffs. James will find teammates on the perimeter, but we don’t yet know who, exactly, will be taking those shots. This obviously matters. (Free agents like JJ Redick, Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Ross, Marcus Morris, Wesley Matthews, Danny Green, Wayne Ellington, and Seth Curry will all be affordable and should be on the Lakers’ radar this summer). But assuming they’re even average spot-up threats, LeBron and Davis will supply ample opportunity on the back side.
One of the most intriguing ways they’ll collaborate is off ball. LeBron will set and receive pin-downs and cross screens with Davis (and vice-versa) in ways that generate terror. The simplest form will come with LeBron curling off the baseline and using his momentum to infiltrate a defense that’s mid-rotation, lower on the floor.
Expect Los Angeles to borrow a few sets from Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry’s playbook, too. In one simple action the Pelicans occasionally ran last year, Davis would start in the corner, receive a wide pin-down screen from the initial ball-handler, then flare behind the three-point line. He hasn’t had the most success from deep, but not all of Davis’ attempts can come at the rim. Swapping several long two-point jumpers — nearly a quarter of his shots over the past two seasons were mid-range pull ups — for open threes is part of his evolution.
Doing so is also necessary to create wider driving lanes for LeBron. A tenet of James’ success over the past few years has been his ability to feed big men from the outside, knowing one or two open threes early on tends to make an opposing big man hesitate with help. During his second stint with the Cavaliers, LeBron assisted on 502 of Kevin Love’s baskets, more than any other teammate by a significant margin. Chris Bosh was his number one assist partner in his final three seasons in Miami, too, and in 2017, James assisted more of Channing Frye’s threes than Draymond Green did for Klay Thompson.
There are straightforward ways to get Davis going from the perimeter, like a pick-and-pop higher on the floor. There are also some more elaborate actions. The Pelicans found different ways to hide what they really wanted to do. Sometimes Davis would be the one who set a wide pin-down, then whoever he picked free would immediately return the favor.
This stuff was complicated enough to stop before, and with LeBron either directly involved in the screen or drawing attention at the top with the ball in his hands, defenses will have no other choice but to wilt.
Regardless of who else is on the team, these are some ways LeBron and Davis will work together. If new coach Frank Vogel elects to stagger their minutes, one or both can feast on opposing bench units more than they have before. They’ll of course be a devastating duo on the fast break.
James has teamed up with some hypnotic talent in the back half of his career, but placing him beside Davis is like introducing Martin Scorsese to Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s invigorating, a mind-expanding partnership that not only alters how he’ll navigate through the season, but also each game, quarter, and possession. The potential is boundless.
Even though they sacrificed most of their future to make this tandem real, what matters is the short term. And, assuming they use their cap space to sign logical complementary pieces, nobody will have a higher ceiling than the LeBron-AD Lakers, at least for this coming season.