Since USC football has a bye this week, this week’s column is going to focus on a topic I’ve been ruminating on for a few weeks now. As the NBA season approaches and the hype continues to build, I’m most interested to see one outcome: how Anthony Davis fares for the Los Angeles Lakers this season.
Davis has been a fascinating case study in how the public views uber-talented players. He started out as a darling of all, the indisputable first pick in the 2012 NBA Draft who went to New Orleans and immediately dominated, putting up statistics that were unprecedented for players his age. His 30.81 Player Efficiency Rating in 2014-15 is the 13th best of all time and by far the best mark ever for a 21-year-old.
But as Davis’ career continued and his Pelicans teams struggled to even make the postseason, some began to question Davis for the first time. If he was so talented, why couldn’t he carry his teams to success in the sport most influenced by superstars?
Davis has made only two postseason appearances but was brilliant in both. He averaged 31.5 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks per game while being swept by the Golden State Warriors in 2015 and absolutely dismantled the No. 3 seed Portland Trail Blazers before bowing out to the Warriors again in the second round in 2018. The polarized discourse around how good Davis really was intensified. He could never quite seem to put it all together from both a team and an individual standpoint.
Then came Davis’ 2018-19 season, one of the strangest for a star in recent memory. On Jan. 26, the Pelicans lost to the Spurs 128-112, moving the team to a disappointing 22-28 record following the success of the previous season. Two days later, Davis’ agent Rich Paul — who represents his good friend LeBron James and runs the Klutch Sports Group, in which James is heavily involved — announced that Davis was requesting a trade.
The announcement wasn’t all that surprising considering the crappy teams the Pelicans had put around Davis, but what followed further soured his public image. Paul released a short list of teams with which Davis would re-sign that included the Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks before Davis made a confusing TV appearance during All-Star Weekend announcing all 29 other teams were on his list. That didn’t sit well with Pelicans fans and gave the public the idea that Davis was sending out mixed signals.
The Lakers desperately tried to set up a trade for Davis involving some of their promising young players, but after the deal ultimately fell through, the public nature of these negotiations contributed to these players underperforming as the Lakers sputtered to the 11th seed.
Then things got really ugly. Davis was held out of games by the Pelicans as trade talks continued. He only played sporadically after the trade deadline and missed the final seven games as the relationship between him and the Pelicans turned irrevocably icy. He showed up to the team’s final game wearing a “That’s all folks” shirt that, along with his unwillingness to honor his contract and the way that his agency handled the relationship with the Pelicans organization, pushed fans and media pundits alike to question Davis’ behavior and status as a true superstar. There were bad feelings all around: The Pelicans felt that Paul and the Lakers had tried to strongarm New Orleans into trading Davis to L.A. and seemed to take pleasure in denying the Lakers his services by turning down and leaking multiple trade offers.
But Davis was eventually traded to the Lakers in June for a boatload of future assets. Davis got exactly what he wanted — he’s in the nation’s second biggest market, and he’s playing for perhaps the league’s signature franchise with one of the greatest players of all time in James.
But I keep thinking about that old saying: Be careful what you wish for. The pressure is now on Davis in a way it never has been at any other time in his career. He’s on a better team, yes, but that means the excuses are gone and the expectations are higher. The spotlight in L.A. is a different animal from New Orleans, one of the NBA’s most apathetic fanbases. The Lakers have won the second-most championships of all time and have upheld a tradition of excellence that fans and the organization alike are desperate to return to this season.
There’s also the fact that James is the perfect partner for Davis, or any other player for that matter. With his size, court vision and basketball IQ, he is perhaps the greatest passing forward ever. James will live to feed the Brow, and that’s been evidenced by reports from training camp that the two already have a strong connection. It was also proven by the team’s first preseason game Saturday night, where the two combined for 37 points on 14-for-26 shooting in a win over the Warriors.
“We’re talking and trying to help each other out,” Davis said after the game of his relationship with James, according to ESPN. “The more we can do that, the easier the game will be for us and our teammates.”
Preseason excitement is great and all, but none of it matters once the regular season starts, and it damn sure doesn’t matter come playoff time. Davis is playing with one of the five greatest players ever; if he wants to take his place in basketball’s pantheon, he needs to come through this year. That means his usual stunning numbers and a case in the MVP race, but more importantly, a top three seed and a championship for the Lakers. No exceptions.
Davis is somewhat in limbo right now, caught between the all-time great everyone wants him to be and the misplaced talent that we all saw last season. He’s got a lot riding on this campaign — not only to retain his reputation in the short term but to vault into the conversation as one of the greats.
Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every Monday.