Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade made headlines recently by agreeing with retired player-turned-TV-analyst Kendrick Perkins that Anthony Davis complements LeBron James better than any teammate in LeBron’s career — which of course includes Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Chris Bosh and Wade himself. While that may be true, what’s really taken Davis’ game to another level this postseason are the minutes when LeBron is on the bench.
Despite Davis’ tremendous regular season — 26.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game while playing first team All-NBA defense — the Lakers simply weren’t very good when he was running the team without LeBron on the floor. The Lakers had a minus-3 net rating in 677 minutes during the regular season while Davis was on the floor without James, according to NBA.com, with the offense plummeting from 111.2 points per 100 possessions to 106.4 with Davis as the main offensive force.
Those numbers were used as evidence in LeBron’s MVP campaign (he finished second, and was), and caused some to question the Lakers’ ceiling if their offense required the 35-year-old James to be on the court in order for it to succeed.
That script, however, has completely flipped in the playoffs.
The Lakers aren’t just dominating with their two best players on the court together. They’re dominating even when James is on the bench, and that has everything to do with Davis’ tremendous offensive performance. In a postseason that has included his first-ever Western Conference finals and NBA Finals appearances, Davis is averaging a team-best 29.3 points per game while shooting 58 percent from the field. He’s been nearly unstoppable for stretches, including a 14-for-15 start en route to 32 points, 14 rebounds (eight offensive) on 15-for-20 shooting in the Lakers’ 124-114 Game 2 win over the Heat on Friday.
“I’ve been playing with AD a couple of years now and I expect him to get 50 every night,” Lakers guard Rajon Rondo said after Game 2. “I may take for granted just playing with a guy like that who’s so efficient, shooting 99 percent from the free-throw line, take a big out on the floor and put the ball in the basket. He’s just so versatile. He’s damn near playing like the best player in the game. Hands down.”
With LeBron on the bench this postseason, the Lakers have a plus-9.5 net rating and virtually the same offensive rating (117.5) as they do with LeBron on the court — a huge turnaround from the regular season. Yes, a lot of that has to do with Lakers coach Frank Vogel figuring out the rotations, role players stepping up and the re-emergence of Playoff Rondo form his cocoon, but Davis has also been much more comfortable embracing his role as the main offensive threat.
It’s not even his just scoring — he can score in his sleep — but his efficiency has gone through the roof. During the regular season, Davis had an effective field goal percentage of 54.7 percent with LeBron on the bench, compared with 62.6 during the postseason. The increase in efficiency has been buoyed by unprecedented midrange prowess — Davis made 35 percent of his midrange jumpers during the regular season, and during the playoffs that has skyrocketed to a mind-boggling 50.5 percent. It’s an indication of just how confident and comfortable Davis has been during the postseason, which has increased his aggressiveness on the offensive end of the floor.
“When AD plays aggressive, it just gets us going. Whether he’s aggressive off the dribble, aggressive catch and shoot, aggressive on the boards, aggressive on defense,” Lakers guard Alex Caruso said after Game 2. “He is one of the most unstoppable players in the league. I love watching it because I know he is unstoppable whenever he wants to be.”
Part of that aggressiveness comes in handling double teams, which come more freely when James is on the bench. Davis is much more poised than he was during the regular season, patient when he has to be but also not overthinking things to the point of detriment. Miami mostly played zone when LeBron was on the bench in Game 2, but watch in this clip from Game 1 as Davis patiently surveys the court from the post, makes his move, waits for the double team and makes a simple kick-out pass to Markieff Morris for a wide-open 3-pointer.
It’s basic stuff, but our very own Sam Quinn detailed how Davis’ improved post passing has allowed the Lakers to generate bench offense at a more consistent rate. Against the zone on Friday, he moved off the ball to draw defenders away from shooters for wide-open looks. Watch as Davis flashes to the middle, drawing Heat guard Kendrick Nunn away from Caruso, who buries the 3-pointer.
“Obviously defensively, he’s a unicorn, in my opinion, Defensive Player of the Year,” Vogel said after Game 2. “But his shot making, the many ways that he can hurt you offensively in the post, throwing to the basket, working the baseline like he did against the zone, working the middle, shooting 3s from the perimeter is just very unique, and you can just see his determination to win this championship on both sides of the ball, but I thought tonight you saw even more on the offensive end.”
Davis has stepped up in so many ways in the postseason, but his biggest impact on the Lakers, who are two wins away from the NBA title, might be elevating his game to keep the offense dominant even when LeBron James is on the bench.
“His mindset is he wants to be a champion,” Vogel said. “He’s extremely motivated to play at a high level and you’re seeing it every time he steps on to the floor.”