By the end, the Staples Center crowd had saluted the summer’s big catch with multiple standing ovations. There were plenty of “M-V-P” chants too — and rightfully so. Davis’s historic night marked the official launch of his 2020 MVP campaign.
“I don’t think he’s even scratched the surface yet,” LeBron James warned. “We’re all still getting comfortable on the floor. He was wonderful tonight, spectacular in all facets. We needed it.”
After forcing his way out of New Orleans this summer, Davis now plays on the NBA’s grandest stage. He dunks and drop steps beneath the retired jerseys of legend after legend, and statistical accumulations reverberate in ways they didn’t when he was a small-market Pelican.
This was the fourth time Davis has scored 40 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in a game — the most among active players — but it was the first time his achievement drew immediate comparisons to Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. Those three Hall of Famers are the only other Lakers to reach the 40/20 club in the past 50 seasons, and all three are former MVPs and champions.
“It’s an honor,” Davis said, after setting a franchise record by making 26 free throws. “Great company. To be here and to be a part of this franchise and to do something special like that, on a list with those legends, it means a lot to me.”
The mild-mannered Davis is a far better player than he is a hype man, but the massive media apparatus that tracks the Lakers’ every move will have no trouble filling in the gaps. In what has become a nightly occurrence, more than two dozen reporters jockeyed for space postgame in front of Davis’s locker, displacing or inconveniencing multiple Lakers players. So far, he hasn’t played to the crowd, deflecting questions with bland statements of fact.
The 2020 MVP race is off to a captivating start, with or without bluster from Davis. Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns have all put together strong opening weeks. James deserves mention too, although Davis has been the superior two-way performer during the Lakers’ 3-1 start.
To claim his first MVP, the 26-year-old Davis will need to separate himself from James, navigate a wide-open field and, of course, remain healthy. His best MVP finish — third place in 2018 — came when he appeared in a career-high 75 games and valiantly led the Pelicans on a late-season playoff push.
Injuries remain a touchy subject for Davis, who flatly denied any problems with his shoulder following the Lakers’ victory over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday. In fact, he had aggravated it while missing a dunk and was still feeling the effects two days later. Davis dealt with multiple shoulder injuries during his time in New Orleans, and he headed to the locker room during Tuesday’s game for treatment. Upon his return, he appeared to favor it at times and blanched when Lakers center Dwight Howard attempted to pull him up the court with both hands.
“It was bothering me a lot,” Davis admitted later. “It was very sore. I came to the back and adjusted some things. It felt good so I went back out. It’s still a little sore.”
The malady hardly curbed his impact, as he brilliantly finished a spinning lob on a half-court pass from James and tutored Jaren Jackson Jr., the promising Grizzlies forward, all night. During a third-quarter takeover, Davis paraded to the free throw line for 18 attempts and managed to score 20 points while taking just one shot from the field.
After watching his various big men cycle in and out of the game with foul trouble, Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins acknowledged that Davis “took advantage of everyone on the floor.” He spoke with the blank tone of a man who knew his roster simply wasn’t equipped with an adequate answer.
To his new superstar partner, Davis’s barrage was validation for the Lakers’ bold decision to part with multiple prospects and draft picks in a June blockbuster.
“[Tonight] just solidified why we went out and got him,” James said. “Tonight was one of those games. He was big time.”
The James/Davis partnership runs both ways, though, and the latter has plenty to gain too. Fame, recognition and postseason success all proved elusive in New Orleans, and he landed in Los Angeles seeking progress on all fronts. Davis’s quick chemistry with James, his instant connection with his new fan base and now his first statement game in LA have made it clear that there will be no looking back.
His future, meanwhile, is already starting to come into focus.