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Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Anthony Davis Enigma

Anthony Davis is expected to miss at least four weeks of action after spraining the MCL in his left knee. Davis is a 10 year veteran, and he played in fewer than 70 games in seven of his first nine seasons. While it is true that the last two seasons were both shortened due to COVID-19, it should be noted that Davis missed 36 out of 72 games in 2020-21, and he missed nine out of 71 games in 2019-20. Charles Barkley calls Anthony Davis "Street Clothes" which, like many jokes, is funny because it contains more than a grain of truth; no one would laugh if Barkley called Karl Malone "Street Clothes," because Malone rarely missed a game despite being a very physical player.

Davis' talent and versatility are undeniable. His career numbers look impressive--23.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 2.3 bpg, .514 FG%, .796 FT%--but they often appear to be "empty calories" that provide a feeling of fullness without supplying real nutritional value. To his credit, Davis played at a very high level during the L.A. Lakers' 2020 playoff run that culminated in a championship, but prior to that time he did not have a consistent, demonstrable impact on team success, and since that time he gives the unmistakable impression that he is quite satisfied with being a one-time NBA champion who has received some individual honors and accolades.

I do not consider Davis to be even close to all-time great status and, as I noted in my article about the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team, I was surprised that the voters selected him:

He was not one of my final cuts for the top 76 (though he does rank somewhere in the top 100), nor did I think that he had cultivated the level of media adulation that Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, and Damian Lillard have. Honestly, after his name popped up on the list, I had to pause for a moment to figure out why Davis made the cut. For most of his career, he has justifiably been known as a highly talented player who is injury prone, who seems reluctant to play through the kinds of nagging injuries that do not sideline all-time greats, and whose numbers do not seem to have much impact on winning. Davis played very well as the second best player for the Lakers' 2020 championship team, but he regressed last season and, frankly, he has seem disinterested in playing hard ever since the Lakers won the title. Is Davis the 2020s version of Pau Gasol? Davis is more talented and accomplished than Gasol, but the similarity is that Gasol was not on a Hall of Fame trajectory prior to joining the Lakers and he lacked the ability to lead a team to a title--but being the second option behind Kobe Bryant as Bryant pushed and prodded him to be aggressive helped elevate Gasol to Hall of Fame status. James has had a similar impact on Davis' career--but should winning one title alongside James be enough to lift Davis into the top 76 all-time? 

Davis' career numbers are gaudy: 23.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, six straight seasons averaging at least 20 ppg and at least 10 rpg. However, most of that productivity took place while playing in New Orleans for teams that were not championship contenders, and those statistics have a "looter in a riot" feel to them: TNT's Kenny Smith often says that players who put up big numbers for mediocre teams are like looters in a riot, obtaining things that they could not obtain under normal circumstances (to be clear, he has not applied this tag to Davis). 

I cannot say that it is crazy to put Davis on the 75th Anniversary Team, but I am comfortable with my decision to leave him out.

There are two main issues with Davis: He is injury-prone, and even when he is healthy he is not a high-energy player--he puts up numbers because of his supreme talent, but he does not seek to dominate/destroy the opposition.

One might argue that injuries are not a player's fault, particularly if the player is in shape. Right after Davis sustained his most recent knee injury, ESPN's Richard Jefferson defended Davis by stating that any player who took the hit that Davis took would have gotten hurt and fallen to the ground. Although Jefferson is correct about that particular injury, anyone who has watched Davis play knows that Davis regularly falls to the court and then exhibits body language plus facial expressions that indicate he is one step away from death's door. I don't know if he is clumsy, has a low pain threshold, likes to create drama, or is just consistently in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I cannot think of a truly great player who spent as much time writhing on the court in agony as Davis has. Every time I see Davis grimacing, I remember that Kobe Bryant shot--and made--two free throws after completely tearing his Achilles, and then he walked off of the court without assistance. Can you imagine how Davis would react if he actually suffered a truly serious injury?

NFL linebacker Chris Spielman epitomized toughness, and he once declared, "People ask me the things I'm most proud of. I tell them my effort level and my intensity were never questioned by anyone, any time, from pee wee to professional football. I've always played by a code, and it may be a stupid code. I told [my wife] Stefanie if I ever, ever got helped off a football field, it would be the end of my career. That's the first time [Saturday night] in my career I was ever helped off. I stand by my code."

If Davis adhered to Spielman's code then he either would have retired many years ago, or he would have reacted differently to the various non-career threatening injuries that he has experienced.

One of the saddest sights in life is unfulfilled potential. By any objective standard, Davis is not a failure: he is an NBA champion, a perennial NBA All-Star, and a person who has earned generational wealth by becoming a very successful NBA player. However, he is blessed with a rare combination of size, agility, and skill that should/could enable him to earn--as opposed to being given--a spot among the greatest players of all-time. Maybe a month of not being able to play will inspire Davis to come closer to maximizing his bountiful potential, but we have a decade's worth of evidence suggesting that what we have seen is what we will get: a supremely talented player who will play very well, but not as well as he is capable of playing--and a player who is either unable to stay healthy or unwilling to play through the kinds of minor injuries that do not sideline the greatest players; it is understandable that a player may not be able to play when he has a significant injury that impairs mobility and/or could damage health--which is Davis' current situation--but great players are typically willing and able to play when they are hurting from minor injuries, or sometimes even when they are hurting from rather significant injuries. Terrell Owens not only played in a Super Bowl with a broken foot, but he played at a high level; it is not fair to expect or demand such dedication, focus, and pain tolerance, but it is fair to expect a great player to figure out how to play through minor injuries. NBA players used to take pride in playing all 82 games, as opposed to begging for time to rest/"load manage."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:34 AM



At Wednesday, December 22, 2021 4:00:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Not sure why everyone is surprised by Anthony Davis. This is who he is and it was evident early in his career. Coming into the NBA, his lack of "motor" was the biggest concern. His inability to carry a team to the playoffs showed both his lack of availability (injuries) and his lack of fiery dominance found in the truly great ones.

The outlier is his performance in the 2020 bubble.

Those of us Lakers fans that were concerned with mortgaging our future by sending away multiple lottery selected players for AD, knew this was the most realistic outcome. He is not an alpha, nor will he ever be an alpha. The Lakers won the chip and that should have always been the most realistic hoped-for outcome. 1 championship.

There was never going to be a dynasty with AD. He is not, nor has he ever been, in the Lebron, Kobe, Shaq, Magic, Kareem, West conversation. And he and Lillard (and probably Anthony) remain the biggest travesties to be included in the 75 greatest players list.

At Wednesday, December 22, 2021 10:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not sure that people are surprised. I think that people who perhaps overestimated his impact are disappointed.

Regarding "mortgaging the future," there are two valid perspectives on that. Your perspective is that the Lakers should have held on to their young players with an eye to the future, while the Lakers decided to part ways with several players who are good now to acquire a legit number two option in Davis. How many franchises have won even just one title in the past 20 years? Even if LeBron "only" wins one title in L.A., that is not necessarily a failure for a player who is well past 35 years old.

There is no guarantee that the players who the Lakers discarded would be good enough soon enough to help LeBron win, nor is there any guarantee that those players would ever be good enough to lead the Lakers to a title after LeBron retires.

I am not sure that the Lakers acquired Davis with the notion that they were building a dynasty; I think that the expectation was to win at least one title, and to at least contend for one or two more before LeBron retires.

If the Lakers believed that Davis could be a number one option on a championship team after LeBron retires, then that was overly optimistic.

Regarding the 75th Anniversary Team, I never even considered Davis, and I was surprised that he was selected because I did not think that he was a media darling like Anthony and Lillard. I knew that Anthony, Lillard, and Harden--ugh--each had a good chance of being selected because they are media darlings.


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