The Los Angeles Lakers were hanging on to a 6-point lead when Anthony Davis put Game 4 of the NBA Finals out of reach. His deep 3-pointer with 40 seconds left was the shot of Tuesday’s contest, and it elicited the requisite “Bang!” from ABC’s Mike Breen. Like all confident shooters, the Lakers star held his follow-through as he backpedaled. But, because this was Anthony Davis, his goose-necked wrist was held aloft at an altitude actually befitting migratory birds.
Here’s another view of that shot, one that appears to have been filmed on a cellphone. In fact, it might be the most telling bit of footage from the entire Walt Disney bubble experiment.
LeBron James sidles up next to Davis, and the two swagger and celebrate being on the precipice of an NBA championship. This is the reality of bubble basketball: Without the Staples Center crowd backing them up, the biggest moment of these NBA Finals was punctuated by two dudes yelling in a mostly empty gym. But nothing was going to stop LeBron and AD from living their dream.
It’s never been difficult to picture Davis dominating the NBA Finals. It’s just that, before this year, he’s never even come close to reaching one. He spent his first seven seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans and only made the playoffs twice. The blame for these failures tends to be placed not on Davis but on the organization as a whole because, well, look at him. He’s one of the league’s most skilled players of any size, and it just so happens that his size is 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. Nearly every team in the association could be considered one Anthony Davis short of competing for a championship. And so, in 2019, he began to distance himself from the only franchise that had proved itself incapable of winning with Anthony Davis.
Despite his insistence that “all 29 other teams are on my list,” Davis’ ultimate destination was predetermined as soon as he requested a trade in January 2019. He wanted to join the league’s most successful franchise of the past 20 years: whomever LeBron James happened to be playing for.
After eight consecutive finals appearances, LeBron didn’t even make the playoffs in his first season with the Lakers. It was an uncharacteristic failure, but far from unfixable. He was just one Anthony Davis short of turning everything around.
James’ courtship of Davis was hardly a secret. Rich Paul, LeBron’s longtime friend, is Davis’ agent, and a trade to the Lakers was finalized in June of last year. James and Davis formed an immediate connection on the court. They cruised through the 2020 regular season, paused for a pandemic, and—as their fellow title favorites, the Bucks and Clippers, crumbled in Orlando—picked up where they left off during the playoffs. With the exception of one brief slump during the bubble’s seeding games, this has been a wire-to-wire championship run.
Even LeBron’s longtime running mate has been forced to concede that Davis is the best sidekick James has ever had.
But is “LeBron’s best deputy” an appropriate designation for a unicorn like Davis, one who hit the decisive shot in Game 4 and changed the series by locking down Miami’s Jimmy Butler on the defensive end? Maybe Davis is best seen as the LeBron here—the superstar who uproots himself and switches teams to pursue a title. But, given that LeBron couldn’t even make the playoffs with the Lakers, does that make LeBron … Chris Bosh? Or does LeBron’s advanced age mean he’s the Udonis Haslem to Davis’ LeBron? Oh, dear, I’ve made myself dizzy.
Regardless, it’s disorienting seeing Davis fill the role of sidekick. He was the most promising draft prospect since LeBron and, statistically, he’s lived up to the hype. In New Orleans, he made more appearances on the All-NBA first team (three) than the playoffs (two), so it makes sense that he’d want to transplant himself onto a title contender and round out his résumé. But by choosing the Lakers, he pretty much conceded that his achievements would be viewed in the context of LeBron James’ career, not unlike how Kevin Durant’s move to the Warriors has been seen by many (most? all?) as an admission of inadequacy.
Is it weird to want more for Anthony Davis? Scottie Pippen taught us that there’s no shame in being an overqualified sidekick, but his career trajectory meant that his success was inseparable from Michael Jordan’s. The lore was that Jordan molded his charge, so we as fans respected this hierarchy even when Pippen excelled on his own (to a lesser degree, admittedly) during Jordan’s baseball intermission. There is no such story arc in the case of Anthony Davis. LeBron said so himself.
Perhaps this “Batman-Robin” framework is a relic from a bygone era, one in which player movement was restricted and stars were more evenly dispersed. If Anthony Davis thought being called “LeBron’s best teammate” was an insult, he probably wouldn’t have forced his way to Los Angeles in the first place. Either way, he seems pretty happy about his decision.
Still, Davis remains deferential to LeBron. The night before Game 4, James sent a text to his teammates stating that Game 4 would be “must-win.” It’s the kind of inspirational fodder that retroactively becomes legendary, and Davis was more than happy to oblige in boosting the Legend of the Text. “We see the message from our leader saying this is a must-win,” he told reporters after the game, “and he just left it at that.”
Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to that courtside video of Davis nailing a dagger 3 in Game 4. After Davis makes his way back to the bench, LeBron keeps celebrating, pumping up the near-empty arena all by himself. In this moment, Davis was the star and LeBron was the hype man. That’s probably not how this season will be remembered. But that’s how it was, if only for a moment.