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But the deal that netted them a championship, the franchise’s 17th, wasn’t just a trade for the present. It was a deal for the future — the next great Laker celebrating a championship.
Davis isn’t leaving. The way he’s played in his first season in purple and gold, it’s obvious he’s just getting started. He’s been the perfect partner for LeBron James and it’s hard to imagine a better situation.
Davis can become a free agent after the season. He said he doesn’t know what he’ll do, that he’s not 100% sure, but no one around the NBA expects him to go anywhere. Even his noncommittal answers about his future Sunday shouldn’t cause anyone any worry.
He’s found his NBA home, at least for now, and the Lakers are in position to keep contending with an all-time player directly in his prime.
These Finals showed that Davis, 27, is the “unicorn” James knows him to be, a player with a silky jumper, a devastating above-the-rim game and every defensive tool in the bag. Even up 22 with just more than four minutes left, Davis hit the floor to slap a loose ball away and cause a shot-clock violation.
He had 19 points and 15 rebounds in the clincher.
And now that he has a championship, who knows what comes next? Maybe the boost from his first title pushes Davis even higher.
James saw himself in his partner in the last moments of Game 6, the look of disbelief running over Davis’ face. James was 27 when he won his first title in 2012. He knew what his friend was feeling.
“I definitely saw myself in that. And what it did for me in my career, it basically let me know that the work I put in on my craft, and the way I play the game, how I was taught to play the game when I picked up a basketball when I was 8 years old, it’s OK to play that way and be able to win,” James said. “No matter how many people tell you, you should maybe shoot more, you should maybe do this more, you should maybe be like him more, it let me know that the way I play basketball and the way I was taught to play basketball is the right way to play it, because you do see results.
“And then it just continues to boost your confidence. Not saying that AD doesn’t already have confidence, but it takes it to another level.”
Statistically, Davis has always been a monster. Now, for the first time as a pro, he’s a winner.
Sunday, Davis didn’t have to dominate — the Lakers ran over Miami in unison. But the Lakers’ defensive dominance? So much of that comes from having the player who they believe was easily the best defender in the NBA this year.
He fought off ankle and heel injuries during the deep playoff run. And even though questions about his physical toughness still exist, he did end up playing in all but one of the team’s games in the bubble — a healthy scratch before the postseason.
And maybe the most defining on-court performance in the bubble happened when Davis smoothly pushed the ball off his fingertips and splashed home a game-winning three to beat Denver in the second game of the Western Conference Finals — an all-time shot by an all-time player.
After the dagger, Davis said, “Kobe!”
“It’s for sure the biggest shot of my career,” Davis said that night. “When I left [New Orleans], I just wanted to be able to compete for a championship. And I know that moments like this comes with it.”
Before Game 5, coach Frank Vogel called it his favorite memory from the team’s playoff run.
“I think that was obviously an epic moment in NBA history, not just our team’s journey this year,” Vogel said. “But to see such a dynamic player have such a big moment in a big game like that, that’s the first thing that comes to my mind.”
Like everything that’s happened in this organizational turnaround, LeBron James was a central figure. He picked the Lakers. And when Davis left longtime agent Thad Foucher to join James and Klutch Sports, the promise of Friday’s return to glory began to unfold. Less than an hour after the agency switch became official, James tweeted, “Welcome to the family.”
The wishful thinking began to feel like an actual probability in December 2018 when James told ESPN that he’d love to team up with Davis. By the end of the following January, Davis told the Pelicans he wanted to be traded.
Speculation that he, like James, wanted to join forces in Los Angeles complicated the market for him. At one point his father, Anthony Davis Sr., said he didn’t want Davis in Boston, a team with the assets to compete (and outdo) any offer from the Lakers.
Hard feelings inside the Pelicans organization had some believing that no deal would ever be fully consummated because the spite was so strong. But once New Orleans turned basketball operations over to David Griffin, who had previously won a title with James in Cleveland, talks escalated and the deal got done.
“I’m excited about it, and I would put our roster up against anybody,” Davis said when he was introduced on July 13. “I feel like that in a seven-game series, that we would come out victorious.”
Before the season began, James vowed the Lakers would play through Davis on offense while counting on him to anchor a renewed teamwide focus on defense.
James was able to concentrate on playmaking for others — he’s always seemed like he had more Magic Johnson in his game than Michael Jordan.
“I was ecstatic, very excited,” James said on media day about the trade. “I know the caliber of player that AD is, not only from a basketball standpoint but a leadership standpoint and what he can bring to any franchise. … I think it is a great opportunity for this franchise to have an all-around person.
“The basketball will speak for itself.”
It turned out Davis and James were right. And even though some sentiment favored the Clippers or the Bucks, the pairing was too much for everyone in their way.
Davis had a 40-point, 20-rebound double-double in his fourth game as a Laker, a 50-point game in December and an eight-block game in January. In February, he made the game-winning free throw for Team LeBron at the All-Star game and in March, he sent the Lakers into the pandemic break with a … miss?
Davis couldn’t hit a last-second three to beat Brooklyn in the Lakers’ last game before the restart, a shot that stewed with him during the shutdown and one that he more than erased in the bubble against Denver.
“Same spot, slightly different play and I missed a shot. I was upset with myself. And [James] said, ‘Man, we gonna live or die with you shooting that shot,’” Davis said after his winner. “I got the same opportunity tonight. Ready to make it. Special moment for me. Special moment for the team.”
In the bubble, the tightness between the two has been on full display. They wait on the court for each other, enter the locker room together and exit interviews together. James proclaimed it’s worked because there’s no jealousy between the two. Davis said there was an exception.
“He made a promise to me, and so far he’s kept it. Hopefully I don’t have to be envious of that much longer. I want a ring, and he has three of them,” Davis said early in these Finals. “That would be the one thing for sure that I would be jealous about.”
He doesn’t have to be jealous anymore. He got what he came to L.A. for, and the Lakers got that and more. They got their title. They got their future. All in one trade.
“It’s just part of your legacy,” Davis said. “To say you’re a champion, not everyone can say that.”
He can. And the Lakers’ plan for the future is for him to say it again and again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.