The arrival of Anthony Davis has coincided with the Los Angeles Lakers posting their best defensive rating in years. How has he helped fuel this transformation?
Let me be the first to mention Anthony Davis and Mark Teixeira in the same breath. (If you’ve already made this cross-sport comparison, please let me know. I’d love to talk about it.)
For the uninitiated, Teixeira was a prodigiously talented first baseman who split time between Texas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York throughout his long career in the MLB. During his time in New York, Teixeira was a staple in the middle of the lineup, where he routinely racked up at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs until the wheels eventually fell off, forcing him to retire.
Due in part to his presence as a player on the Yankees, the team with perhaps the most fervent fan base in all of sports, Teixeira’s offensive exploits largely and routinely overshadowed his sterling defensive ability.
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Baseball has a funny way of overemphasizing certain parts of the game. We love the home runs, the strikeouts and the diving catches in the outfield, but making hard-to-field ground balls look routine? Not as glamorous.
But Teixeira’s presence at first base gave everyone else in the infield a little extra leeway because they knew that he could range to his right to get balls that other first basemen simply couldn’t reach. It’s hard to quantify, but the number of would-be hits that the Yankees infield swallowed up during his time in New York can, in some way, be attributed to the extra space that he was able to occupy at first base.
Now in basketball, similarly, the more difficult we perceive something to be, the more riled up we are when someone on the court inexplicably accomplishes it. It could be Steph’s disregard for regular shooting distance, or Giannis’s thunderous dunks, or even Harden’s dribbling exhibitions that often end with a defender looking lost. But these are also the glamorous parts of the game, which is why we often reward offensive brilliance over defensive aptitude.
This is why, when the Los Angeles Lakers finally executed the long-awaited Anthony Davis trade in the summer, many fans and analysts couldn’t stop thinking about the endless possibilities of the LeBron-AD pick-and-roll or the inevitable LeBron-to-AD lobs that would enrapture everyone at the Staples Center on a weekly basis. But something funny happened on the way to all those fantasies.
Over the course of this young season, the Lakers have become what the Clippers set out to be: a tough, defensive-minded group that is often winning ugly. While Danny Green is undoubtedly a defensive menace and a strong addition on that end, much of the credit for this transformation has to go to Davis.
The Lakers, as it stands today, sit third in the entire league in defensive rating, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors (this title defense is going better than any of us expected). Over the last two seasons, the Bucks have turned into a defensive juggernaut, with Giannis receiving near-universal, and well deserved, acclaim for his role in that transformation.
Similarly, Davis has played the most crucial role (along with the aforementioned Danny Green acquisition and LeBron, you know, trying again) in turning the Lakers from a young run-and-gun, offensively-inclined team to the scrappy defensive bunch that we’ve watched this year. But, perhaps because he shares a team with LeBron, I haven’t heard nearly as much lauding of Davis’s responsibility for this stark change.
Like Teixeira covering extra ground at first, Davis’s presence affords his teammates the ability to apply a little extra pressure on the perimeter, knowing that he can clean up things on the backend. Additionally, his length and guard-like quickness allow him to muck up most pick-and-rolls where his assignment is the ball-handler and the roll man. With that specific play, a lot of bigs attempt to force the ball handler into a mid-range shot. The best ones are able to corral the ball handler while simultaneously defending any impending alley-oop.
Davis is an expert at this. He’s become a master at weaponizing his physical gifts to discourage opposing offenses from running pick-and-roll at him, essentially eliminating a crucial piece of every offense.
Davis has also been excellent in isolation situations. Among players who have defended at least 10 shots a game, Davis is first in field goal percentage allowed, with Giannis close behind. Davis has also been a deterrent at the rim, holding opponents to just 47.8 percent from in close. (The league average is 65.7%.)
But where Davis separates himself from his big-man contemporaries is in his ability to successfully switch onto trickier, craftier perimeter players. The story has been told thousands of times before, but Davis played guard at the outset of his high school career before growing eight inches in 18 months – added proof that he is not of this earth. I’ve heard countless growth-spurt stories where the most difficult part (aside from buying new clothes every two months) is maintaining the same level of coordination after-the-fact.
After Davis hit 6-foot-10 for good, he showed the nation, during his short stint at Kentucky, that he was able to maintain his change-of-pace ability, along with the lateral quickness and dexterity more commonly associated with guards.
This year, when Davis has been forced to venture out of the paint to contest jump shooters who are more than 15 feet from the basket, he’s held these opponents to a paltry 31.7 percent from the field. (The league average is 40.1%.) Now you might be thinking that percentage is propped up by a relatively small amount of contested shots, but Davis is challenging 6.9 such shots per game. The only big man contesting more such shots is Pascal Siakam, a more perimeter-inclined big man.
Davis is the engine that powers these defensive-minded Lakers. His presence unlocks all sorts of defensive possibilities, which allows coach Frank Vogel to play with different lineup permutations to mix-and-match what he needs on the offensive end of the floor, knowing that Davis can help any below-average defender punch above their weight class on that end.
Maybe we spent too much time in the offseason fantasizing about LeBron-AD alley-oops, rather than theorizing about how his preternatural defensive gifts might give his team a new, shocking defensive identity. Not glamorous enough, I guess.