SALT LAKE CITY — Ask Anthony Davis about the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award and the first thing he brings up is failure.
“A couple of years ago, I feel like I should have won it,” Davis told ESPN, looking back on his third-place finish in the 2017-18 season behind Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, who has now earned the honors two seasons in a row.
It was the second top-five finish of his career — he also lost out to Kawhi Leonard a couple of years prior. Now, in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers, the eight-year veteran could very well be in the driver’s seat to take home the hardware for the first time.
“I think he can and will win Defensive Player of the Year this year,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said this week. “I think there’s no one in the league like him defensively in terms of being able to guard all positions, protect the rim the way he does and deflect the basketball, contain the basketball. There really isn’t anyone in the league like him and if our team defense continues to play at a high level throughout the year, I think he’ll win it going away.”
The Lakers came into Wednesday’s game against Gobert and the Jazz ranked fifth in the league in defensive rating, third in points allowed per game and seventh in opponent’s field goal percentage, with Davis coming off perhaps his most impressive individual defensive showing of the season.
On Tuesday night, with L.A. clinging to a five-point lead with three and a half minutes left in Denver’s arduous altitude, Davis found himself in an isolation matchup guarding the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic. Davis squared him up as Jokic held the ball on the right wing just inside the 3-point line, unfurling his 7-foot-6 wingspan as his first line of defense. Jokic, seeing his passing lanes were shut off and with little chance to blow by Davis considering the Lakers big man’s positioning, put the ball on the floor and his back into Davis, essentially starting his post-up 20 feet from the hoop.
Three pounding dribbles with his left hand warranted Jokic precious little real estate near the hoop, as Davis leveraged his spindly frame into Jokic’s much larger body. Jokic spun back, angling toward the paint, but Davis recovered quickly. And when Jokic barreled near the basket to put up a mini hook shot, Davis swatted it away.
As the game wore on, he found himself matched up in single coverage with both Jokic and 6-foot-4 point guard Jamal Murray, and the results were the same: miss, miss. The Lakers held on for a 105-96 victory.
“I take pride in my defense,” Davis said. “Anytime late game when guys feel like they can score on me, I take it personally and try to play without fouling and get stops for my team. In those situations, two of their best players, you want to make sure you want to stay home and do what I do best and play defense and make them take tough shots.”
It wasn’t a one-night thing either. Coming into Wednesday, opponents were shooting just 37% this season with Davis as the closest defender, the second-lowest field goal percentage allowed among all players who defended at least 175 shots this season, according to Second Spectrum.
He had three more blocks Wednesday in a 121-96 win over Utah, increasing his league-leading average to 2.7 per game, which included an impressive rejection after he flew by Bojan Bogdanovic on the perimeter in the third quarter. Davis bit on the pump fake, recovered quickly and swatted Bogdanovic’s 3-point attempt from behind.
“Look, this is a 3-point shooting league, so that type of play happens all the time when you run at a shooter, and they shot-fake and try to reload it,” Vogel said. “A lot of teams, a lot of players, they settle for the first contest. But … we land, plant, and we get a second contest on your own guy. That’s just part of the modern NBA. One of the culture pieces that we’re trying to build. That’s an extra effort type of play. Usually, you don’t get a block on it like AD did, but again, he’s a special defender and made an extra-effort play.”
Davis has put in as much effort to understand Vogel’s concepts in a defensive system that asks him to cover a lot of ground.
“I think the biggest thing for me that was different is the way the game has changed guarding 4s,” he said. “A lot of people run the corner action where they put the 4 in the corner, they set a pin-down [screen] and now I’m chasing and being in pick-and-rolls where I’m guarding the ball instead of guarding a screener.”
Guarding the ball has never been a soft spot for Davis. According to Second Spectrum, Davis is fifth among 166 players who defended at least 75 drives this season, giving up just 0.753 points per chance. That complete defensive game shows up beyond the box score.
“If you’re going to win, you got to believe you can win, and when you have that type of guy by your side either behind you when you’re guarding on the perimeter or having passed him off and switching and he’s guarding on the perimeter it gives you a whole new level of confidence that you’re going to prevail against even good teams,” Vogel said. “So he’s not only impacting the direct plays that he’s involved with, but the confidence as a group.”
LeBron James, who openly admitted during the 2016 Finals that he was “highly upset” he never won DPOY when assessing his career up to that point, is trying to build Davis’ confidence so he can then pass it on to the group.
“Having a growth mindset is being able to adapt to whatever the game is presenting itself and now in today’s game, the game is adapted where a lot of 4s and 5s are on the perimeter,” James said. “It may be different from what you did early in your years. And he’s adapted to that and he’s been obviously successful you’ve seen what he’s been able to do on that side.”
It has shown up in clutch situations, whether it be a game-saving block on Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes at the buzzer to get L.A. its 10th win of the season, or beating Brandon Ingram to an inbounds pass to clinch the Lakers’ 16th win of the season in New Orleans, Davis has been that guy.
Rajon Rondo says the Pelicans considered him their “Mr. Everything” on defense when they played together in New Orleans. Davis is trying to apply everything he saw from his defensive idols growing up — Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett — and incorporate it into his game.
“Dwight, just with this shot-blocking ability and the way he is able to control the paint on the defensive end and alter shots, and KG, how he just was tenacious on the defensive end,” Davis told ESPN. “So, put those two guys together, that’s who I try to be.”
He has the approval of one of his muses already, with whom he now shares a locker room.
“I’ve watched him grow over the years to blossom into a really great player on both ends of the floor,” Howard said. “So, really proud to see him sticking by his word and doing what he has to do every night to make this team better.”
With the first quarter of the season in the books and the 19-3 Lakers showing no signs of slowing thanks to their blockbuster acquisition, why stop there?
“I got him as MVP and Defensive Player of the Year,” Rondo said. “So, if he only gets one, I’ll be pissed. My expectations are really high for him so we have to continue to win as a team and hopefully, the rest of the world will understand and see that he’s a really big part of why we are who we are.”