Why the Anthony Davis and LeBron James Pairing Will Be Different

A championship run with the Lakers would recast last season, for James, as an instructive setback on the way to a fourth title; for Davis, it would justify his trade as a necessary move to a team worthy of his abilities.Tyler Kaufman / AP

Saturday afternoon, the other size-17 shoe dropped. Anthony Davis, the all-everything center who had spent his first six professional seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans, was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers. In return, the Lakers parted ways with some mid-tier players—including Lonzo Ball, once a sports-media fixture, but now just another guard with a shaky jump shot—and a bundle of future draft picks. The deal officialized one of the most anticipated moves in recent NBA history. L.A. was Davis’s presumed destination since before he formally made his trade request in January, and the two teams had reportedly been in talks before February’s trade deadline.

The trade also sent the minds of basketball fans reeling forward, even as the championship celebration of the just-crowned Toronto Raptors is still ongoing. The Raptors’ title run read like a fable of patience, of the sometimes quiet work it takes to build a winner. It was the sort of outcome adored by high-school coaches and film-scouring aficionados. But L.A.’s acquisition of Davis, which pairs him with LeBron James and could vault the team to the top tier of contention, speaks to the excitement of the quick fix. Two of the NBA’s best players have teamed up in the league’s glitziest and most history-rich locale, each with a legacy to burnish and an unhappy narrative to reverse. Winning is not guaranteed—partnerships as pedigreed as this one have been known to falter—but intrigue certainly is.

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“That would be amazing,” James said last December when asked about what it might be like to play with Davis. “Like, duh. That would be incredible.” The question was hypothetical, the answer phrased to emphasize it as such. At the time, early in James’s first season in Los Angeles, the Lakers looked the part of a promising young squad, and James was every bit the MVP candidate fans expected. Then came a mid-season injury, a fall down the standings, rampant trade rumors, the stalled deadline deal for Davis, and, for the first time in his 16-year career, credible questions about James’s ability to lead a franchise. In April, the team president, Magic Johnson, abruptly stepped down, appearing on ESPN the next month to describe an organizational culture of infighting and backstabbing. The Lakers missed the playoffs—a first for James since his third season.

Davis, meanwhile, was far along on the most frustrating of superstar trajectories, producing excellence for a team treading water. The 2018 postseason had held promise, with Davis winning the first playoff series of his career, but the 2018–19 regular season signaled a reversion, as the team dropped below .500 and fell out of the playoff race. Davis’s play sparkled; he would end up with 25.9 points, 2.4 blocks, and a career-high 12 rebounds a game despite logging the fewest nightly minutes since his rookie year. But his trade request set off predictable controversy, especially since he had signed with James’s agent and longtime friend Rich Paul before the start of the season. In March, Davis appeared on James’s HBO show, The Shop, to defend his autonomy: “As a player, as the CEO of my own business, I got the power. I’m doing what I want to do and not what somebody is telling me.”

It is the nature of professional sports that winning validates what leads up to it. A championship run with the Lakers would recast last season, for James, as an instructive setback on the way to a fourth title; for Davis, it would justify his trade as a necessary move to a team worthy of his abilities. The possibilities are heady. Despite talk of his decline, James remains a singular force on the basketball court, with the strength and athleticism to move wherever (and through whomever) he chooses, the skill set to excel in every statistical category, and the savvy necessary to transpose his talents into team-wide strategy.

The 26-year-old Davis has everything a modern big man needs: a seven-and-a-half-foot wingspan, dexterous touch at the rim or on the perimeter, an ability to leave the floor faster than everyone around him. Talking to me about Davis last winter, the Hall of Fame power forward Kevin McHale, now an analyst with Turner Sports, cited the center’s expertise across modes of frontcourt play. “He can set the high screen and roll, he can get out in front of the break and post up, he can flash-cut to the post, bam, go get the ball, you can drive, he can filter in behind you, he can get a one-dribble dunk,” McHale said. “His best attribute is his ability to move and cut and play and just allow his teammates to find him.”

The Lakers need only look to the earlier part of this decade for proof that off-season excitement doesn’t always bear out. Before the 2012 season, the team acquired the point guard Steve Nash and the center Dwight Howard to play alongside Kobe Bryant; the predicted fast track to title contention instead devolved into a year defined by injury and ill-matched personalities. James’s high-wattage team-ups throughout his career—with Dwyane Wade in Miami and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland—have suffered through early difficulties before hitting their strides. In Davis, though, James might have his easiest complement yet, a player who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to excel, whose preferred way of affecting a game doesn’t overlap with James’s own.

There is happier precedent in Lakers history as well. In 1975, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to L.A. in much the same way Davis did, requesting a trade from the Milwaukee Bucks—with whom he had spent six seasons and won one title—and informing the team that he wouldn’t re-sign; the resulting run of five championships quieted whatever grumbling about legacy existed at the time. Abdul-Jabbar’s might also prove an instructive case to James. His success with the Lakers came in large part from his knowing how to cede the stage to Johnson, then a dynamic young point guard. Over the coming years, this might be the first collaboration in which the aging James learns to play a secondary role.

In the shorter term, the NBA has its lead story. The Golden State Warriors are hampered; the league is wide open. Rapt attention will be paid, in the coming months, to every player-acquisition move the Lakers make in support of those stars. While the roster isn’t yet set, the stakes already are. If Davis and James make as good a match on the court as predicted, everything else is prologue.