The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Anthony Davis became the NBA’s forgotten superstar

Anthony Davis has had back-to-back disappointing seasons after helping the Los Angeles Lakers win the 2020 NBA championship. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

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Three years ago, Anthony Davis occupied the same hot seat that Kevin Durant occupied this summer, thanks to a polarizing trade demand that made him a summer headliner and an easy target for critics.

Though Davis was clumsy in executing his exit strategy, especially at first, he got his wish: a high-wattage partnership with LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers. Together, James and Davis delivered the 2020 title thanks to a mutually beneficial relationship. James carried the heaviest load on offense, Davis organized the defense, and their combined talent and athleticism overwhelmed the bubble competition.

For Durant, Davis’s life after controversy and extended bare-knuckle negotiations is a reminder that the hard feelings over his failed power play with the Brooklyn Nets should dissipate somewhat over time. Durant’s turn in the spotlight, meanwhile, underscores how Davis has become the NBA’s most forgotten superstar since departing Disney World with the Larry O’Brien trophy two years ago.

Davis has every credential needed to be one of the faces of basketball. He’s a No. 1 pick who enjoyed a standout freshman campaign at Kentucky and won an Olympic gold medal as a teenager. He’s an eight-time all-star playing for the NBA’s highest-profile franchise, a silky scorer and a versatile defender rolled into one. And he’s still just 29, younger than Shaquille O’Neal was when he split with Kobe Bryant and younger than Kevin Garnett was when he joined the Boston Celtics.

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The plan, it seemed, was for Davis to take the baton from James as the Lakers’ leading option and to battle peers such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid for control of the league. Instead, Davis has played just 76 games combined over the past two seasons, succumbing to injuries that derailed the Lakers.

After peaking in the bubble playoffs by averaging 27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists and providing all-world defense, Davis limped through a first-round exit against the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 postseason and appeared in only three games after the all-star break last season. There were consequences: Davis wasn’t selected as an all-star for the first time since his rookie year, and the Lakers tumbled from preseason conference favorites to an embarrassing 11th-place finish.

Persistent health concerns haven’t been the only issue dimming Davis’s shine. Los Angeles’s disastrous 2021 offseason robbed him of like-minded defensive contributors such as Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope while stranding him with Russell Westbrook, a ball-dominant guard who lacked Rajon Rondo’s setup skills.

As a result, a bulkier Davis found himself trying to cover up for too many weak links on defense and struggling to find a groove on offense as his shooting percentages on three-point attempts and midrange jumpers fell off a cliff. Remarkably, the Lakers went just 17-23 with Davis on the court — a stunning reversal from their 2020 title campaign when they were 62-21 during the regular season and postseason when he played. Meanwhile, James, who recently signed a two-year max extension, has continued to dominate headlines and produce at an elite level, postponing Davis’s franchise takeover.

The Lakers’ 2022 offseason, to date, hasn’t done Davis many favors. A Westbrook trade has yet to develop, and a deal for Patrick Beverley along with the incoming free agent class — highlighted by Lonnie Walker IV, Thomas Bryant and Juan Toscano-Anderson — haven’t brought in proven difference-makers. Los Angeles did hire Darvin Ham to replace Frank Vogel as coach, and the former Milwaukee Bucks assistant quickly set to work talking up Davis and his importance to the Lakers.

“When he’s healthy like he was in 2020 in that bubble run, he’s top-five in the league easy, top-three,” Ham said on a Showtime podcast in July. “This is not going to work without AD. … He’s the centerpiece to that championship table that we’re trying to build.”

Even putting aside the overly ambitious title talk, Davis finds himself at a reputational crossroads. His Hall of Fame future is secure — gives him a 98.5 percent chance to earn induction — but he has lost his way on what once felt like a predestined journey to becoming an all-timer.

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Tough questions will be unavoidable if Davis endures another injury-plagued or otherwise underwhelming season. Can Davis be the best player on a title team? How bad will his injury issues get in his 30s, given that he has only played in 70-plus games twice in his 20s? With James approaching 40, how long can the Lakers afford to wait for Davis to regain his bubble form before exploring alternatives for their future?

The good news for Davis is that he can play the upcoming season free of contract concerns; his deal runs through the 2024-25 season. Yet reasons for skepticism about the Lakers linger: Westbrook’s style of play and max contract are major impediments; James has dealt with his own recurring injury issues; and Davis still isn’t surrounded by enough plus defenders.

Much like Durant, Davis has shied from fame at times, generally preferring to let his game do the talking. That strategy works fine during winning seasons, but it creates a vacuum that is easily filled with criticism during tougher times. When disappointment accumulates, the public is apt to move on to more charismatic personalities.

Davis survived his 2019 storm and won a ring, but the true greats find ways to do it again and again. There’s still time for him to get things back on track but none left to waste.