What does it take to become one of the greatest NBA big men of all-time? Well, it definitely takes the same accolades and qualifications that the greatest players at other positions have. The players considered to be GOATs at their respective positions usually have multiple All-NBA and All-Star team selections, at least one or two MVPs or Finals MVPs (or maybe Defensive Player of the Year awards), and, of course, a GOAT wouldn’t be fit to be near the top of any list without the one thing lauded above all else when comparing legacies in the NBA — rings. Lakers fans have been lucky to see many big men through history accumulate these same accolades while planting themselves near the top of every all-time NBA player list, and we’re currently watching another one do the same. However, Anthony Davis has fallen behind one of his big man equivalents in the NBA, while he hasn’t separated himself enough from the others that don’t have nearly as much talent or accomplishments as he has.
Davis isn’t old by any means. This year, he’ll be entering his 10th NBA season at the age of 28 years old. However, although it’s common on this Lakers roster to see players with careers with 15+ seasons still going strong at age 35-or-older, those types of careers are far from a certainty. I don’t need to tell you that it’s hard to have a career like LeBron James, but having a career like Dwight Howard’s or Carmelo Anthony’s is also rare. Hell, even Trevor Ariza should be considered extremely blessed to still be wanted by championship-level teams as he enters his 18th season at 36 years old.
No amount of time is guaranteed. Even LeBron can feel immense regret about previous seasons of his career, and he has four championships, four MVPs, and 17 All-NBA selections. The most notable missed opportunity of LeBron’s career came in the 2011 NBA Finals when Dirk Nowitski and the Dallas Mavericks beat the heavily favored Miami Heat in LeBron’s first season with the team. In the video below, LeBron laments a specific game and situation within the series, saying “that shit burns me to this day”.
Anthony Davis should feel a sense of urgency when seeing the regret LeBron holds about an NBA Finals series 10 years ago. Although Davis will never be able to reach the level of status that LeBron has already attained, he still has new heights he can reach. However, Davis does have a physical element working against him that LeBron never had to deal with. That physical element is the long list of injuries that Davis has sustained throughout his career, most notably the multiple shoulder injuries that cause him to wear that special-looking undershirt you see under the purple-and-gold each game. These injuries further emphasize how this is the season for Davis to start a climb through the list of the best big men to ever play this game.
His counterparts surely won’t wait for Davis to seize a heightened legacy. Davis has long been compared to Giannis Antetokounmpo for their “unicorn” abilities to handle the ball and drive to the rim while still having the physical components that make them two of the best defending big men in the NBA. However, Antetokounmpo has put himself a tier above Davis by notching his second MVP this past year while also winning a Finals MVP in his first ever championship with the Milwaukee Bucks. Although Davis has also won a championship, he’s never won MVP, Finals MVP, or a DPOY award. Antetokounmpo has now done all of those things. That’s without mentioning players like Nikola Jokic (won MVP last season), Joel Embiid (probably would have won MVP if it wasn’t for his midseason injury), and Rudy Gobert (three DPOY awards).
Can AD leap above his current big men rivals and be compared to the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Tim Duncan when it’s all said and done? If he wants to, he will have to enter the 2021-22 season with an increased sense of urgency compared to what he exhibited in the small amount of time he played in the 2020-21 season. Despite the Lakers’ 21-6 start to last season, Davis only averaged 21.8 points and 7.9 rebounds in that span while also seemingly not giving it his all on defense. The team was being held up by the carry-over of amazing play from LeBron James, Alex Caruso, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from the Orlando bubble while AD struggled to come along with them. It’s seen in his points per game, but also in the D-LEBRON defensive metric from B-Ball Index. Below you can see AD’s D-LEBRON from 2014 to 2021, where he had his worst D-LEBRON rating since 2016. In that 2015-16 season, Davis was shut down for the remaining 14 games of the season due to a torn labrum that stemmed from shoulder issues he had all season.
The framework for an MVP season is there for Anthony Davis. Russell Westbrook is on the team now, and as Alex Regla of Silver Screen & Roll points out, he might be the second-best player to facilitate easy looks for Davis around the basket (the best player is already on the team and is named “LeBron”). There are plenty of defensive worries on this team, especially around the perimeter with the departures of Caruso and Caldwell-Pope. If Frank Vogel is going to do the impossible again and keep the Lakers near the top of the list of the league’s best defenses, that will more than likely be attributed to all of the opponents’ drives that Davis cleans up at the rim.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Davis has talent equal to or better than the likes of the Jokics, Antetokounmpos, Embiids, and the Goberts. However, he has to really, really want to be better than them. The Lakers are really going to need him this year, and if he comes in and delivers like he did in the 2019-20 regular season and the playoffs, that trophy case of his may end up needing some more room.
After that, the sky’s the limit.