Can Anthony Davis grow into Lakers’ leader?

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Anthony Davis was at Lakers Media Day and wonders if Anthony Davis can grow into the Lakers' leader.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — With words, Anthony Davis didn’t appear comfortable about proclaiming the Lakers as his team.

“I think it’s the Lakers’ team,” Davis said. “I play for the Lakers.”

With actions, however, Davis seems determined to fulfill a role the Lakers hope they can carve out for him entering the 2023-24 season.

Davis looks ready to become the Lakers’ face of the franchise. He showed it with his commitment toward his extensive off-season training that involved plenty of shooting, boxing and circuit-based workouts. He demonstrated it with his improved health from his right foot injury that sidelined him last season for 20 games. He conveyed it with becoming increasingly vocal around the Lakers’ coaching staff, LeBron James and his younger teammates.

“It’s my responsibility. Being one of the leaders of the team alongside ’Bron, it’s my job to help those guys and help the young guys,” Davis said. “It’s to continuously be on them and let them know what we need and how we can get better and give them advice so we can all be together and unified to be able to compete for a championship.”

To help the Lakers compete for their 18th championship, James undoubtedly will have to delay Father Time during his 21st season while still remaining one of the league’s most dominant players. For the Lakers to eclipse the hated Boston Celtics for most NBA titles, they have to rely on the continuity they invested in with retaining key role players (D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt) while adding on the margins (Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish, Jaxson Hayes, Christian Wood).

Even if those variables will help lessen the speed bumps the Lakers may encounter on their title quest, they may mean little if Davis doesn’t take the torch the franchise hopes to bestow on him.

Davis needs to dominate on both ends of the floor to ensure the Lakers’ offensive and defensive engines hum efficiently. Davis needs to dominate to lessen the strain on James, whose record-season of scoring brilliance ended with post-season exhaustion.  Davis needs to dominate to shield the Lakers’ incumbent role players from more defensive attention and their newcomers from possible learning curves.

“He’s only 30 years old, so there’s a huge, huge role still ahead of him in how he can lead this franchise and hopefully put some more banners up here,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “I’m totally excited about him personally, and the summer I personally witnessed with him getting into the gym.”

Because of what they witnessed, the Lakers hardly hesitated with granting Davis a three-year, $186 million extension that ensures he remains under contract through the 207-28 season. Sure, Davis played in only 194 out of a possible 308 regular-season games in his four seasons with the Lakers. Yet, the Lakers stayed aware that Davis hadn’t experienced a major injury since missing 20 consecutive games from Dec. 18. 2022 through Jan. 24, 2023 with a stressed right foot. Sure, the Lakers have called on Davis in recent seasons to become more consistent. Yet, the Lakers believe Davis answered that call during the Lakers’ post-season run to the Western Conference Finals.

“The theme was ‘We want to commit to you, but we also want you to commit to us,’” said Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations and general manager. “One of the aspects we addressed with him in that exchange was becoming a leader and becoming the hardest worker.”

Interestingly, Davis pushed back on the off-season narrative that he has suddenly become more dedicated.

Pelinka’s recollection that the contract talks spawned conversations about a better off-season regimen? “My workouts didn’t change because of the extension,” Davis said.

Those videos that circulated on social media of Davis boxing? “I box every summer; that’s the one time it got posted,” Davis said.

Or how about the Lakers coaches and teammates talking about Davis changing his shooting workouts? “Just a lot more reps,” Davis said.

This could be a sign of Davis slightly pushing back against direct or implied criticism about his work ethic and durability. This could be a sign of the Lakers shedding light that they appreciated that he found ways both to work smarter and harder. Either way, Davis has shown with his actions that he could fulfill the Lakers’ vision as their next franchise player.

“I’m getting back toward being a threat on all three levels,” Davis said. “I’m not sure where it’s at until we’re getting into practices and into games. Anybody can shoot in workouts and make shots when there’s no pressure on them. We’ll see when camp comes around and preseason games through the course of the regular season. But I feel good. Physically, I feel good with my game and ready to get started.”

The Lakers envisioned this for Davis ever since acquiring him from the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2019 offseason. And why not? The Lakers gave up a promising young wing player (Brandon Ingram), point guard (Lonzo Ball) and role player (Josh Hart) along with three draft picks.

So even before the two played a game together in the 2019-20 season, James proclaimed Davis as the No. 1 offensive option. It mostly came to fruition. While James led the NBA in assists per game (10.2), Davis took care of most of the scoring load. In related news, the Lakers won the NBA title in their first season together.

The Lakers then signed James and Davis to extensions both to keep that championship window and give James time to hand the reins gradually to Davis. That did not exactly happen the way the Lakers hoped. 

The Lakers appeared burned out in a 2020-21 season that started nearly two months after winning an NBA title. After breaking up parts of their 2020 NBA championship team in favor of more youth, the Lakers lacked enough time to sharpen chemistry. It did not help that James and Davis both nursed overlapping injuries.

Following a first-round exit to Phoenix, the Lakers then sacrificed more of their depth for Russell Westbrook in hopes to relieve James and Davis. Instead, the Lakers missed the 2022 playoffs entirely amid Westbrook’s struggles, lack of depth and more injuries.

And now? The Lakers attribute last season’s playoff push with the trade deadline moves and Davis’ improved health. They remain convinced they can build off of those promising signs with more time together in training camp. To safeguard against Davis’ durability, the Lakers also added a center that Davis described as a “very athletic rim protector and lob threat” (Jaxson Hayes) and another center known more as “ scorer” (Christian Wood).

Nonetheless, Davis sounded optimistic he could become known more for how many games he dominates than for how many games his misses.

“That’s my goal every year to play 82,” Davis said. “I didn’t do anything differently. I took some time off. I got back in the lab and ready to get started. Nothing’s changed. Every year, you want to come out and help the team win. Especially my role, I know I’m a big piece to this team.”

It might be a stretch to think Davis will play in every single game, given his history. It’s not a stretch to think, however, he can become the franchise’s cornerstone. Just like with his off-season work, Davis’ success will depend more on his actions than his words.

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