KISSIMMEE, Fla. — When Anthony Davis joined the Los Angeles Lakers in July 2019, he was greeted almost immediately by a vigorous talking head debate: How did the 27-year-old forward rank compared to Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving as the best teammates of LeBron James’s career?
There were reasonable arguments for all three superstars. James has preferred to dodge the question, saying in August that the three players — who all play different positions — represented distinct archetypes.
“I’ve had some great teammates in my career,” James said. “[Davis] is one of those unicorns, and he does things that some of my other great teammates are not capable of doing. But in the same sense, I’ve played with Dwyane Wade, and he could do some things that A.D. is not capable of doing. I also played with Kyrie Irving. He could do some things that [Wade] and [Davis] are not capable of doing. I’ve had the luxury of playing with some great players, and that’s just three of them.”
While that politically correct description is true, Davis now clearly holds the honor of having the best postseason run of any James teammate. James won titles in 2012 and 2013 with Wade on the Miami Heat, won a title in 2016 with Irving on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and advanced to the Finals four times with each of them. Yet none of those runs produced a postseason like the one Davis is having, with the Lakers now positioned to close out their championship run with a Game 5 win over the Heat on Friday. Davis has played so well that he must be regarded as a strong candidate for Finals MVP.
For the playoffs, Davis is stuffing the stat sheet to the tune of 28.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. Only six players have matched those numbers in each category over the course of a postseason: James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Durant, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon. All six are Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers.
Davis has also posted an excellent 29.8 Player Efficiency Rating, a stat that seeks to boil down his total contributions into a single measure of effectiveness. Only three players have posted a higher PER during a postseason run that lasted at least 15 games: James, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal. The best postseasons by Wade (24.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 26.3 PER in 2011) and Irving (25.2 points, 3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 24.4 PER) simply don’t measure up, and Davis currently has a higher PER than James, something no teammate has done during one of James’ title runs.
Posting outrageous statistics is nothing new for Davis, who averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds while leading the league in blocks in his second season at age 20. Davis seemingly has little interest in box score analysis, as he brushed off a question after scoring 34 points in his Finals debut to put him alongside O’Neal, George Mikan and Elgin Baylor in the Lakers’ record books.
“What makes it even sweeter is winning it,” Davis said. “That’s obviously a great honor, but I also want to be mentioned in categories with champions. That’s the next step.”
Indeed, Davis’ postseason run has been about more than just historic numbers: He hit a memorable game-winning buzzer-beater against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals, and he drilled a dagger 3-pointer to put away the Heat in Game 4 of the Finals. Along the way, he has been the best defensive player in the bubble and the Lakers’ decision to deploy him on Heat start forward Jimmy Butler — at Davis’ urging — was the most important adjustment in the Finals to date.
James praised Davis Tuesday as a “big shot-maker late in the clock, early in the clock, fourth quarter, first quarter, everything in between” and said that his defensive versatility should have earned him Defensive Player of the Year. Davis finished second to Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“We said that all year,” James said. “That guy can do everything defensively: guard the ball, guard the post, slide his feet with guards, contest, body up with bigs.”
Most importantly, Davis has decisively won his matchups in each round, shifting those series to fit his mold. He overwhelmed the Blazers’ shorthanded frontcourt, closing out the Blazers with 43 points on 18 shots in a Game 5 win. Houston’s small-ball strategy was no match for Davis, who bludgeoned the Rockets with five straight double-doubles. Against Denver, Davis outplayed Nikola Jokic, the best traditional center in the league, hit a dramatic buzzer-beater in Game 2 and scored 27 points in the elimination win.
The Finals were supposed to feature a showdown with Bam Adebayo, but Davis outplayed him in Game 1 before Miami’s all-star center left with injuries. The Heat’s backups simply had no chance against Davis, who made 14 of his first 15 field goals in Game 2 to finish with 32 points and 14 rebounds.
Perhaps the clearest indicator of Davis’ impact can be seen in the ongoing debate about Finals MVP. For the first time in James’ career, one of his teammates presents a serious threat to win the award.
Wade has three rings and was the most accomplished of James’ three sidekicks, but his best playoff run with James came in 2011, when the Heat fell to the Dallas Mavericks. By the time James claimed his first title and Finals MVP in 2012, he was the face of the Heat and the first in line for adulation. Irving was arguably the most central to one of James’ title runs, thanks to a sensational scoring stretch to help the Cavaliers come back from a 3-1 deficit to the Golden State Warriors in 2016. That title was the signature achievement of James’ career, and his superlative play left no question that he would claim Finals MVP.
Davis absolutely has a case this year despite a foul-plagued poor showing in Game 3. He’s been consistent, forceful, focused and energetic throughout the Finals, he’s delivered in key moments and he’s accepted challenging matchups. James might still claim his fourth Finals MVP if the Lakers can close out the Heat, but he’s never had a sidekick perform quite like this.
“We are two guys who want to win no matter the circumstance,” Davis said after Game 2. “It’s not always going to be pretty. Sometimes we are going to argue and have disagreements, but we know it’s coming from the right place. We know we have something special with us two and this team, and we’re just trying to capitalize on it.”