Anthony Davis started to say that he and LeBron James blend together as a basketball duo with the made-for-each-other properties of peanut butter and jelly. Then Davis caught himself.
“I can’t be jelly,” Davis said.
Referring to Dwyane Wade, James’s former All-Star running mate in Miami, Davis said, “D-Wade is jelly.”
This was a quick but memorable chat we had at Barclays Center last season. Respectful of the bond and championships James shared with Wade on South Beach years earlier, when Wade was the one universally known as James’s most talented teammate ever, Davis searched for an adjacent metaphor that felt more appropriate.
“Maybe we’re peanut butter and bananas,” Davis said, sounding unsure for one of the few times since he joined the Los Angeles Lakers.
The conversation stays with me — and not only because Davis was so descriptive. I registered it as a measure of his contentment and belief, at an embryonic stage in his partnership with James, that they were already on course to become as dangerous a combo as they looked on paper.
It also sticks in my head as the last time I successfully managed to break away from a pack of colleagues to secure some one-on-one time with a coveted subject, however brief, in an N.B.A. locker room after a game. Several of my fellow N.B.A. reporters and I refer to the practice as “sidling” — in tribute to a “Seinfeld” episode in which one of Elaine’s work colleagues, referred to as “a real sidler” named Lou, repeatedly managed to get close to her before she could detect him. In the current climate, such sidling is not possible because the news media’s access to locker rooms went away indefinitely last March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The usual wave of nostalgia I am prone to get swept up in duly hit me recently when I did the math and realized that one year had passed since that successful sidle in January 2020 — with no telling when the next opportunity will come. Yet there is some satisfaction knowing that my last locker-room sidle was such a good one, providing a handy window into the union that ranks as one of the few sure things in today’s N.B.A.
Most teams have played at least 20 games, which is a traditional marker for front offices to assess their teams, but not this season. Not when game postponements and coronavirus-related lineup disruptions are so prevalent. Complicating evaluations further: Training camps were condensed, practice time and pregame shootarounds are scarce, and off-court bonding opportunities are drastically reduced.
“I think it’s going to take a little bit longer to get a real sense, for any team in the league,” Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka said in a recent television interview with Spectrum SportsNet.
What can be said, six weeks into such an uneven season, is that the Lakers remain on a tier unto themselves no matter what the standings say, thanks largely to their starry twosome of James and Davis.
As good as the James-Davis pairing was in last year’s championship season, it may be even more potent this year.Credit…Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Nets created the most ambitious assemblage of offensive talent in league history by trading for James Harden on Jan. 14 to play alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Denver’s Nikola Jokic have made big men fashionable again by promptly establishing themselves as certifiable candidates for the Most Valuable Player Award with their performances in January. The Utah Jazz (with a recent 11-game winning streak) and the Los Angeles Clippers (with the league’s best record as of Tuesday morning at 16-5) have likewise made strong opening statements.
Yet you wouldn’t put any of those teams on the Lakers’ level. You can’t. Not with the Nets looking so vulnerable defensively and depth-wise in support of their flammable trio. Not until Embiid can sustain his ridiculous near-triple-double production for a longer stretch. For Denver, Utah and the Kawhi Leonard-led Clippers in the West, a question nags at them all, even in prosperous times: What if James and Davis are getting better together?
“They’re better than last year,” Sixers Coach Doc Rivers said last week, already treating the matter as decided.
After leading the league in assists last season for the first time, James is trying something new: He’s on pace to shoot a career-best 40.9 percent from 3-point range and is attempting nearly seven 3s per game. James also has played each of the Lakers’ 22 games, squelching any notion that, at age 36, he would be skipping chunks of the regular season to preserve his body after the shortest off-season (72 days) in league history.
The standards for Davis are so high after he won his first championship in October that his 22.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game have actually generated criticism that he has started slowly, including from Davis himself. Maybe he won’t be the Lakers’ leading scorer ahead of James again, as he was last season, but Davis’s ability to play so many positions and cover so much of the floor remains the driving force behind the Lakers’ fearsome defense.
The Lakers top the league in defensive efficiency, allowing just 104.8 points per 100 possessions, with the versatile and ultra-mobile Davis anchoring L.A.’s resistance. The myriad options he provides Lakers Coach Frank Vogel may be best illustrated by the way Davis memorably guarded Miami’s Jimmy Butler in Game 4 of the N.B.A. finals, then made a rare start at center in the clinching Game 6 victory when Vogel wanted a lineup that could play faster.
With six new players on the roster, there are still issues to resolve before the playoffs. Vogel is smoothing out his rotation, and team chemistry will need more time to ferment to reach the levels of togetherness that steeled the Lakers during their stay inside the bubble at Walt Disney World last season. Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schröder had bigger roles on their previous teams. Talen Horton-Tucker, like Alex Caruso before him, is an emerging role player. Questions abound about how Vogel can possibly find minutes for everyone.
Yet with James and Davis to lead the way, after they agreed to new mega contracts with the Lakers almost in tandem in early December, there are roughly 29 coaches who would trade problems with Vogel. The Lakers played in the Disney World bubble through Oct. 11, but hushed concerns about that very tight turnaround by winning their first 10 road games. Going 5-2 on a 15-day road trip that finally came to an end Tuesday, when the Lakers flew home from Atlanta, only figures to boost their resilience quotient.
No James team will ever be devoid of drama, given the scrutiny James invites as an all-time great and how demanding he can be on teammates. Evidence is mounting, though, that James has never coexisted so comfortably with a co-star. Not even Wade.
Age is presumably a factor. James is eight years older than Davis, secure in his legacy and at a point in his career when he needs more help than he would care to admit. But it also reflects supreme respect for Davis’s talents — how he is perfectly suited, as a two-way menace who looks ominously bigger than his listed height of 6-foot-10, to complement James’s all-court game.
“If you saw their chemistry off the floor, it’s no wonder they’re the best duo in the N.B.A.,” Jared Dudley, the veteran Lakers forward, said of James and Davis.
Davis tried to put it into words for me in Brooklyn a year ago. It’s one of the few things he hasn’t managed to pull off since forcing a trade to the Lakers.
My opportunity to sidle over to his locker came while a pack of reporters had encircled James. I approached Davis, after covering him a fair bit in his New Orleans days, and told him his presence seemed to make James happier and looser.
“He makes me happy,” Davis said.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Responses may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)
Stein: You can’t say that all of last season’s bubble triumphs have been undone — that’s hyperbole — but I understand the reaction. I don’t like the idea of crowds, either.
My position from the start of the season was that, beyond the considerable safety concerns involved, it’s not even fair. Teams that can admit reduced crowds hold a competitive advantage over the teams whose local jurisdictions mandate that buildings stay empty.
Utah has increased its capacity to about 3,900 spectators from 1,500 since you voiced these concerns, but none of this is new or exclusive to the Jazz. As noted here, Atlanta and Miami last week became the eighth and ninth teams to start playing in front of reduced crowds at home. On Tuesday, Phoenix made it 10 by announcing that it, too, would begin admitting up to 1,500 fans starting on Feb. 8. The N.B.A. is allowing each of its 30 teams to make the call on letting fans in or not if local laws permit indoor gatherings.
I can admit, though, that I reacted as you did when I heard last week that momentum was building toward the staging of an All-Star Game in Atlanta that would require players who were selected to be there March 6-7. Flying a bunch of the league’s best players to one location for an exhibition game in the midst of a pandemic seems especially unwise and needlessly risky — and I would imagine that there are All-Stars who will be reluctant to go.
If (when?) this substitute game comes together, admirable philanthropic pursuits supporting historically Black colleges and universities and Covid-19 relief efforts will be part of it, but I would have voted for restricting N.B.A. All-Star business in 2021 to All-Star voting only. Safety first.
Q: Why do headline writers use “spoil” so often? It was used on many stories after Cleveland’s Collin Sexton had his career night against the Nets on Jan. 20. Doesn’t the use of this word imply that the win rightfully belonged to the Nets, and that the Cavaliers took something that wasn’t theirs? — Andy Moore (Pittsburgh)
Stein: Questions about headlines are best answered by editors rather than writers, since writers typically don’t write the headlines that land on their stories. But I had to try to respond because the copy editor energy in your question was so good.
The newsiest aspect of the game in question, for a broad audience, was the debut of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving as teammates. I don’t see it as sinister to assert that the Cavaliers spoiled the Nets’ hopes for a grandiose opening act for their new star trio.
Habit is surely a factor here, too. Virtually every game in every sport has a favorite and an underdog, which feeds into the “spoil” concept. Perhaps most crucially, “spoil” is also a headline-friendly word because it’s short, which will always matter to newspaper copy editors dealing with limited headline spaces. I’ve done just enough copy-desk work over the years to understand that.
Q: I’m curious to know if Amar’e Stoudemire is the first N.B.A. player or coach to observe Shabbat this seriously. Also: Is he is forfeiting salary for those days? — Andrew Esensten (Palo Alto, Calif.)
Stein: In my 28 seasons covering the league, speaking strictly about players and coaches, Stoudemire’s insistence that he avoid work on Shabbat is certainly the strictest observance I have seen.
Ben Falk, who worked in the front office in Portland and Philadelphia before beginning his excellent Cleaning The Glass website, had the blessing from both of those teams to put religion first from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, as chronicled in this Sports Illustrated article by Chris Ballard. Tamir Goodman played Division I college basketball at Towson University without playing on Shabbat — after turning down a scholarship offer from Maryland because it was impossible to secure that time off.
Those, though, are the only basketball examples I can readily cite. It’s difficult to answer more definitively than that.
I don’t want to diminish the significance of the Nets’ gesture to allow Stoudemire to be away from the team from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown every week for religious reasons, because it is a wonderful gesture. Yet there’s no denying that this would be much more challenging to work through with an active player or if Stoudemire was a more prominent member of the Nets’ coaching staff.
Stoudemire is a player development assistant in his first season with the club. The Nets have several player-development coaches and a big staff in general. Mike D’Antoni, Ime Udoka and Jacque Vaughn are the three assistants who sit beside Coach Steve Nash during every Nets game.
Stoudemire, in other words, does not have a role with the Nets in Year 1 that compels him to be with the team every second or to join the traveling party.
Only two players were averaging 100 touches per game as the N.B.A. moved into February: Denver’s Nikola Jokic (102.4) and Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis (100). They are both listed at 6-foot-11.
In his third season, Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks started 2 for 21 on 3-pointers and is shooting 29.3 percent from long range, which ranks 168th leaguewide. Doncic’s overall statistical production remains spectacular, and he creates numerous good looks from 3 for his teammates that aren’t being cashed in, but his 3-point shooting is cause for concern. He shot 32.7 percent on 3s as a rookie and 31.6 percent last season, struggles magnified by Dallas’s dearth of outside shooters after trading Seth Curry to Philadelphia and the team’s early woes. Injuries, coronavirus-related disruptions and a road-heavy schedule are all factors, but the Mavericks’ 8-13 start is one of the league’s most alarming through the season’s first six weeks.
While the Lakers thrive, the Heat were only 2-8 in the 10 games that Jimmy Butler missed while awaiting clearance to rejoin the team via the league’s health and safety protocols. Coming off the shortest off-season in league history at 72 days after last season’s trip to the N.B.A. finals against the Lakers, Miami (7-13) has played several games with a depleted roster and awoke Tuesday at No. 13 in the Eastern Conference.
Saturday is the first anniversary of Minnesota’s acquisition of D’Angelo Russell in a trade with Golden State. Russell and his close friend Karl-Anthony Towns have played together in only five games in that span because of injuries and the Timberwolves’ exclusion from the N.B.A. restart last summer.
Last Sunday was the 40th anniversary of the N.B.A.’s first international broadcast — 13 days after the game was actually played. On Jan. 31, 1981, Primarete Indipendente TV in Italy aired a Boston Celtics home victory over the Los Angeles Lakers from Jan. 18, 1981. This season, when opening night rosters featured 107 international players from 41 countries, Sky Italia will broadcast at least 10 N.B.A. games per week. There were only four international players in the league during the 1980-81 season.
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