Lakers Are Determined to Play Anthony Davis at the 4, but Is That Really Smart?

Alex ReglaFeatured Columnist ISeptember 10, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers NBA basketball team introduces Anthony Davis at a news conference at the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo, Calif., Saturday, July 13, 2019 (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

Within a "positionless" era of the NBA stands one of its most important pillars willing to plant his flag. Of course, with a few caveats.

At 6'10" and 253 pounds with one eyebrow, Anthony Davis is not only one of the league's most dazzling embodiments of modern basketball with his combination of size, shooting ability and guard-like coordination; he's also a positional throwback.

"I like playing the 4," Davis told reporters during his introductory press conference with the Los Angeles Lakers. "I'm not even going to sugarcoat it. I like playing the 4. I don't really like playing the 5."

He would slyly put his hand on new head coach Frank Vogel's shoulder after stating this and concede he would play the 5 if need be.

This is not a new preference for Davis. In fact, it is a stance the perennial All-Star has stuck with since entering the league. During what has already been a brisk seven seasons in the NBA for the 2012 No. 1 pick, he has played center more than power forward in only two, according to Cleaning the Glass. Last year, he spent a career-high 65 percent of his possessions at the 4 spot for the New Orleans Pelicans.

Although some believe Davis' optimal spot on the floor—both individually and for his team—will eventually come at center, he has found success playing power forward. In his final two seasons with New Orleans, for instance, the Pelicans posted a better point/efficiency differential in lineups where he played power forward over center. It's success his new team will hope carries over this year.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 22:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans and DeMarcus Cousins #0 of the New Orleans Pelicans walk of the court during a NBA game against the Chicago Bulls at the Smoothie King Center on January 22, 2018 in New Orleans,
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

While there is a case to be made that Davis at the 5 on this Lakers team, in particular, makes the most schematic sense in terms of being more switchable on defense—expanding half-court spacing and unlocking lineups that feature the squad's best players—there is merit for Davis to spend a majority of the regular season at the 4.

The most prominent argument: It will help keep him fresh and intact for what is expected to be a deep playoff run. The Brow is reportedly "comfortable" playing center in the postseason, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania, but the team has to get there first in a wide-open Western Conference. Davis being available as much as possible will play a substantial role in that.

Lakers fans have also learned firsthand in recent years that injuries can happen to anyone at any time. Reducing extraneous risks that can come with playing center is worth potentially sacrificing a few regular-season wins—especially for a player with an extensive injury history.

The Lakers appear happy to oblige Davis' request. Likely not because statistical evidence proves they should, or because of the logistics of their roster construction, but because it's what he wants.

And what Davis wants is paramount.



Finding the Center

Although it looks like Davis could be in Los Angeles for a while, he could still be a free agent after the 2019-20 season ($28.8 million player option for 2020-21). Based on how the Lakers have handled the big man thus far, it's clear they aren't taking any chances.

L.A. has made a concerted effort in finding a center to help limit Davis' exposure to the physical tolls that come with bodying the likes of Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns.

First, the team re-signed the basketball enigma that is JaVale McGee to a two-year, $8.2 million deal in July 2018. The 7-footer proved more than serviceable for the Lakers last year before falling ill with pneumonia, and by season's end, he would still end up starting 62 games, his highest total since 2010.

McGee's game and physical stature mostly represent the typical mold of center that Davis reportedly prefers to play alongside, according to Charania. McGee may not be a big-name player, but he has shown he can fulfill the responsibilities of a backline defender:

B/R

 

Last season, the 31-year-old contested the 14th-most shots within six feet of the rim despite averaging just 22.3 minutes per contest. Among the top 20 players in that category, McGee posted the fourth-best defensive field-goal percentage. It's a useful skill set that could allow Davis to play more of a free safety role than he has in the past.

Los Angeles also added DeMarcus Cousins, a big who had familiarity with Davis, in July.

The signing, heralded as one of the better value deals of the offseason, presented the team with someone Davis wanted and potentially gave the Lakers a third star after they whiffed on Kawhi Leonard in free agency.

Cousins' torn ACL in August ended those hopes.

Next, the Lakers decided to turn back the clock and give Dwight Howard a chance at redemption. Howard, who infamously played for Los Angeles during the 2012-13 season in similar circumstances as Davis is entering now, recently signed a non-guaranteed minimum contract after impressing in a private workout.

Davis was reportedly one of the Lakers players who spoke with Howard, per Charania, and he was convinced the former All-Star center was ready to defend opposing star big men, rebound and put his ego aside for the betterment of the team. In fact, Howard has had recent success defending elite bigs—namely with Embiid, a player specifically mentioned during his workout with the team.

During the 2017-18 season, Howard defended the Philadelphia 76ers star for the sixth-most possessions (92) in the league. Of those six individual defenders, Howard held Embiid to his third-lowest field-goal percentage and his lowest "player points differential" among the group. In that same season, Embiid shot nearly 2.5 percent better from the field with Davis covering him as opposed to Howard and had a positive point differential during those possessions.

The ability to slot Howard on an opposing team's best or most physical frontcourt player not only alleviates Davis' workload but also allows him to have more energy in other aspects of the game, such as helping secure boards or coming over as an elite weak-side defender. Those are things he's proved more than capable of doing in the past.

But even if Howard does buy into a reduced role, how will he fit? In 2018, 90 percent of his shots came within 14 feet of the basket, per Cleaning the Glass, and that won't pair well with another non-shooter in McGee. It may force Davis to spend more time on the perimeter, possibly lessening some of his value.

If nothing else, the signing gives the Lakers another traditional center. Just two seasons ago, after all, Howard quietly started 81 games for the Charlotte Hornets while averaging 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 30.4 minutes per contest.

      

Powering the Forward

For Davis, whether it's McGee or Howard out there with him, he'll be playing his desired power forward position. He'll also have something, or someone, he never had in New Orleans: LeBron James.

James, who has historically thrived next to versatile 4s—he dealt more assists to Chris Bosh, Kevin Love and Kyle Kuzma than any other teammates on his previous squads—offers Davis a dynamic lead creator, even entering his 17th season:

B/R

 

According to Andrew Patton's newly created "gravity" tool, James ranked in the 99th percentile in per-game gravity created heading toward the rim. That is an especially useful skill for Davis as the likely recipient of more lob opportunities and dump-offs than he's ever had before.

In what is expected to be one of the most seamless pairings of two star players in recent memory, the duo can serve as symbiotic amplifiers rather than opposing forces, with James the veteran creator and Davis the dominant finisher.

James has even had conversations with top Lakers officials on the importance of making Davis the team's offensive "focal point," according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. That's a giant nod of approval from the former league MVP and a clear sign the keys to the franchise are Davis' if he wishes to accept them. It's a blessing that is not lost on the Chicago native:

"First off, to have a guy like LeBron, someone of his caliber, go tell management and ownership and the coaches that he wants me to be the focal point is an honor. I know what comes with that, and that's a lot of heavy lifting. I want to be able to do that. I think I have the capabilities of doing that. And obviously with the team's support, it's going to be a lot easier on me."

The sentiment thus far from the Lakers organization is to make Davis' upcoming year one that is difficult to find fault in. The team has not pushed back on his positional preference and has even gone as far as re-signing one of the franchise's most polarizing players just to put him in a situation in which he can best succeed.

But can Davis live up to his end of the bargain?

There is little secret to how much the Lakers have riding on Davis. With the number of future assets and current players dealt to acquire the perennial MVP candidate, they desperately need him to be everything he's supposed to be—and more—if they want to compete for a title.

That is no small ask of a player who has already put up historic stats in his young career. But as he enters the organization and at the spot on the floor he has requested, that will be what it takes.

    

Stats via Basketball Reference or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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