NBA

How Anthony Davis Became the Forgotten NBA Superstar

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This is an excerpt from Ben Golliver’s NBA Post Up weekly newsletter. Register to get the latest news & commentary and the best #NBATwitter and R/NBA jinks delivered to your inbox every Monday.

Three years ago, Anthony Davis was in the same spot as Kevin Durant this summer, thanks to polarizing trade demand that made him a summer headliner and an easy target for critics.

Although Davis was clumsy in executing his exit strategy, especially at first, he got his wish: a high-powered partnership with LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers. Together, James and Davis delivered the 2020 title through a mutually beneficial relationship. James carried the heaviest load on offense, Davis organized the defense and their combined skill and athleticism showered the competition with bubbles.

For Durant, Davis’ life after controversy and protracted bare-knuckle negotiations is a reminder that grudges over his failed power play with the Brooklyn Nets should dissipate somewhat over time. Durant’s turn in the spotlight, meanwhile, underscores how Davis has become the NBA’s most forgotten superstar since leaving Disney World with the Larry O’Brien Trophy two years ago.

Davis has all the credentials to be one of the faces of basketball. He’s a former No. 1 pick who had a stellar freshman campaign at Kentucky and won an Olympic gold medal as a teenager. He’s an eight-time all-star in the NBA’s hottest franchise, a silky-smooth scorer and versatile defender all rolled into one. And he’s just 29, younger than Shaquille O’Neal when he parted ways with Kobe Bryant and younger than Kevin Garnett when he joined the Boston Celtics.

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The plan, it seems, was for Davis to take over from James as the Lakers’ primary option and battle peers like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid for control of the league. Instead, Davis has played just 76 games combined over the past two seasons, succumbing to injuries that derailed the Lakers.

After peaking in the bubble playoffs averaging 27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game and providing reliable worldwide defense, Davis cruised through a first-round outing against the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 playoffs and only appeared in three games after the all-star break last season. There were consequences: Davis was not selected as an all-star for the first time since his rookie year, and the Lakers went from preseason conference favorites to an embarrassing 11th place finish.

Ongoing health issues weren’t the only issue to dampen Davis’ brilliance. Los Angeles’ disastrous 2021 offseason deprived him of like-minded defensive contributors like Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope while pinning him down with Russell Westbrook, a ball-dominating guard who lacked the setup skills by Rajon Rondo.

As a result, a bulkier Davis found himself trying to cover up too many weak links on defense and struggling to find rhythm on offense, as his shooting percentages on three-point attempts and mid-range jumpers fell off a cliff. Remarkably, the Lakers only went 17-23 with Davis on the court – a stunning reversal from their 2020 title campaign when they were 62-21 through the regular season and playoffs when he played. Meanwhile, James, who recently signed a maximum two-year extension, continued to grab headlines and produce at an elite level, postponing a franchise buyout from Davis.

The Lakers’ 2022 offseason, to date, hasn’t done Davis much of a favor. A Westbrook trade has yet to develop and a deal for Patrick Beverley with the incoming free agent class – highlighted by Lonnie Walker IV, Thomas Bryant and Juan Toscano-Anderson – hasn’t made a difference. Los Angeles hired Darvin Ham to replace Frank Vogel as coach, and the former Milwaukee Bucks assistant quickly got to work talking about Davis and his importance to the Lakers.

“When he’s healthy like he was in 2020 in this bubble race, he’s top five in the easy league, top three,” Ham said on a Showtime podcast in July. “It won’t work without AD. … He’s the centerpiece of this championship table that we’re trying to build.

Even setting aside the overambitious title talk, Davis finds himself at a reputational crossroads. His future in the Hall of Fame is secure – Basketball-Reference.com gives him a 98.5% chance of being inducted – but he has wandered off on what once seemed like a predestined journey to become an inductee.

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Tough questions will be inevitable if Davis endures another injury-plagued or otherwise disappointing season. Can Davis be the best player on a title team? How much worse will his injury problems get in his 30s, considering he only played twice in over 70 games in his 20s? As James nears 40, how long can the Lakers afford to wait for Davis to return to bubble form before exploring alternatives for their future?

The good news for Davis is that he can play the upcoming season without contract worries as his current contract runs for the 2024-2025 season. Still, the reasons for skepticism about the Lakers persist: Westbrook’s style of play and max contract are major hurdles; James dealt with his own recurring injury issues; and Davis still isn’t surrounded by enough defenders anymore.

Much like Durant, Davis has avoided fame at times, usually preferring to let his game do the talking. This strategy works well during winning seasons, but it creates a vacuum that is easily filled with criticism during tougher times. When disappointments pile up, audiences are likely to move on to more charismatic personalities.

While Davis weathered his storm of 2019 and won a ring, the real greats are finding ways to do it again and again. He still has time to get things back on track, but nothing to lose.

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