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Fantasy basketball: What’s behind Anthony Davis’ incredible return to form?

The only surprising thing about Anthony Davis‘ return to form is how many NBA observers are surprised about it.

The past couple of weeks haven’t added up to “the best run of Davis’ career.” This isn’t “the best Davis has ever played.”

Davis’ last two games? Where he posted a combined 99 points, 27 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 3s, 6 blocks? Pretty darn good. But stats-wise? Only Davis’ third-best two-game performance.

And the mojo-recapturing, narrative-altering, gravity-redefining “career game” Davis deposited on my Beal-less Wizards? The 55 points, 17 boards, 3 blocks, and 2 3s? To be charitable, I’d rate it as just the seventh-best fantasy game in Davis’ career.

I’m not being argumentative. Have you seen Davis’ career stats? Or did you see Davis after Saturday’s game, lobbying in vain to get reporters to put the game in its proper historical context?

And since Saturday? Whoa, Nelly.

To absorb all the palaver being disseminated by gobstopped analysts, who last year were jockeying for best position to label Davis “soft?” It’s to lose all proper perspective. Such is the Laker Effect, the abandonment of all reason and rationality in the face of a title drought of… a little over two years.

I just live here. I am not a Lakers fan. Lakers Exceptionalism is real and really, really annoying. There is no tougher commute on planet Earth than a 90-minute drive from Pasadena to El Segundo while listening to Lakers fans pitch trade ideas on AM radio that even Santa Claus would term “unrealistic.”

This is Anthony Marshon Davis. Eight-time All-Star. Four-time All-NBA. Four-time All-Defensive Team. Still just 29 years old. An MVP-caliber star for the 2020 NBA Champions. I’m pretty sure he didn’t plan on playing hurt last season. Or mastermind the Westbrook trade.

But still, all last summer — heck, all last month — it was “what can we get for Davis in a trade?” That Davis “would never be the same player he was in the bubble.” Or that “injuries have taken their toll.”

One might forget Davis has reanimated from bouts of chronic injury (by my unofficial count) 900 times in his 11-year career to reclaim his peak form. Here’s Davis’ career line in games played: 64, 67, 68, 61, 75, 75, 56, 62, 36, 40, 20 (to date). Davis has always missed a high percentage of games. Injuries are always taking their toll.

But to my ear? Those repeated “soft” shots thrown Davis’ way on TV last season felt over the line. Because if you examine Davis’ 2021-22 stat line, you’ll find evidence Davis was playing through his injuries whenever possible. And that even in a diminished state, Davis still averaged 23.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.3 steals last season.

In 2021-22, Davis completed a two-year swan dive in 3-point production and free throw production. In the 2020 bubble title run, Davis averaged 1.2 3PG and shot a 33.3 3FG%. Last season: 0.3 3PG and just a 18.6 3FG%. Davis had a career year at the line in the bubble, sinking 7.5 FTM at an 84.6 FT%. Last season: 4.5 FTM, 71.3 FT%.

In his two post-championship seasons — and age-wise, the two years where an NBA player peaks — Davis posted his two worst TS% campaigns. His lowest PERs since his rookie season.

One of my favorite deep-cut fantasy metrics is Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). I find it’s a great state-of-the-union stat. As in: a metric to leverage when determining if a player is suddenly doing something very, very wrong… or very, very right. Davis collapsed from a 5.4 VORP to back-to-back 2.0s.

But for the biggest tell that something was mechanically off with Davis? The sudden spike in mid-range jumpers. In 2020-21, Davis took a gobstopping (applicable here) 23.2% of his shots from 10-16 feet. And he only made 41.5% of them.

A talent like Davis does not take a quarter of his shots from such an inefficient spot by design. He’s doing it for the same reason his free throw percentage plunged: the man was playing hurt. Trying to contribute. Probably just to quiet all that “soft” stuff.

All of this agita. And for what? When it’s always been clear that there’s only one debate here worth having: why not just switch Davis back to center?

Because throughout my fantasy writing career, I’ve repeatedly witnessed that when a tweener commits to the bigger of his two positions, it’s good for his fantasy fortunes.

Once an NBA season starts to roll, there aren’t many moves that can radically boost a player’s fantasy value overnight. There’s the obvious; injuries, trades, and promotions to the starting five. Coaching changes. GMs getting sudden urges to tank.

But in fantasy? Nothing beats a tweener committing to the bigger position. It doesn’t matter if said player is an SG/SF, SF/PF, or PF/C: when a player goes big, it’s dinner. He’s absorbing more bumps, bruises and elbows. But he’s not weakening his legs chasing down a smaller guy on defense. He doesn’t have to make as many switches on the perimeter.

Want an accurate superlative to affix to what Davis is doing? Here’s one: if this holds, 2022-23 will be Anthony Davis’ most efficient offensive campaign.

There are a couple of ways to substantiate that superlative. The easiest is via Offensive Rating. Davis’ Offensive Rating currently towers at 129, seven points per game higher than his career high. Davis is leading the league in PER at 31.9, which would be a career-best. His TS% is a career-best 65.6%.

In fantasy, it’s nice when elite bigs contribute in unexpected areas like steals. But in terms of overall production — especially in the age of Points leagues — we really don’t care about categorical diversity. We just want more production. We would much rather have Davis reserve his energy for the offensive end of the floor, where Davis’ playing center generates efficiency and increased opportunity.

Davis’ elite rebounding arrives at both ends of the floor, but we’re happier with Davis’ improvement on the offensive glass. Because this gives him a chance at put-back production. And as you’ve guessed, Davis’ offensive rebounding rate is a career-best 10.6%. And he’s a league leader in second-chance baskets. And those put-backs come from 0-3 feet, so they’re as efficient as FGAs get.

Davis is on track to attempt his lowest amount of 3-pointers since 2016. But in Points leagues, we are happy to lose the 3s. Because the shift to center is creating this self-powered dynamic of boosted offensive production, where all of the improvements amplify one another; offensive rebounding, true shooting percentage, second-chance points… and free throw production.

2022-23 isn’t shaping up to be Davis’ most productive year at the stripe. But it’s already looking like his most efficient one. He’s back to drawing contact because of a shift in offensive mindset, a shift dictated by position but also by Davis’ sublime pick-and-roll abilities.

If you’ve watched Davis recently, you’ve noted how he’s tilting the floor on offense. He’s playing downhill, not on occasion, but at every opportunity. This is where Davis’ elevated flow and rhythm manifest themselves.

Like I mentioned about Joel Embiid a couple of weeks back, the best bigs own a singular flow. And in my opinion, when Davis plays downhill that’s where his special skill set coalesces. He’s activating his most aggressive mindset but playing in space, pace, and rhythm.

Davis doesn’t just screen and then explode to the rim. Next time you watch him, watch how he works with Westbrook and offers his point guard myriad options and paths to the basket. Then see how he’ll shift those options depending on his partner; LeBron James, Dennis Schroder or Austin Reaves. Davis can leverage his vision and pace to generate spacing… the kind of spacing strong outside shooting also generates (that the Lakers don’t have.)

On the fantasy front, I appreciate what Davis and the Lakers are doing at present because they’re an outlier. The Lakers are still not a good 3-point team. LeBron is on a hot streak at present, but on the whole, it’s never going to be an elite-shooting group.

But what Davis is creating — and the Lakers’ subsequent success — could prove that sublime inside play and screening ability can be just as destructive to a defense as a murderer’s row of sharpshooters.

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