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What it took for Anthony Davis to get to this moment

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Anthony Davis is used to individual success. The 2012 No. 1 overall pick is a seven-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player. This season, he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and sixth for MVP, while being named first-team All-NBA and first-team All-Defense.

But the 2020 NBA playoffs in the Orlando, Florida, bubble have given Davis something new: team success. His first Western Conference finals appearance brought his first game-winning postseason buzzer-beater. Now he has his first real chance at a championship.

The Los Angeles Lakers, led by Davis and LeBron James, are just two games away from their first NBA Finals appearance in 10 years. Here’s how Davis arrived at this point with an opportunity to cement his legacy.


Living up to the hype

Since the one-and-done era began in 2006, there have only been three consensus No. 1 high school players before entering college. Thanks to Austin Rivers, Anthony Davis was not one of them.

Standing 6-foot-3 as a high school sophomore in 2008, Davis shot up nearly six inches as a junior, taking the recruiting world by storm in the summer of 2010 and earning scholarship offers from the likes of Syracuse, Ohio State, DePaul and eventually Kentucky. Weighing just 187 pounds, Davis’ production was hit or miss as he grew into his thin frame. He was utilized as the primary ball handler and distributor on a mediocre Perspectives Charter high school team in Chicago with nowhere near the strength or polish he has now.

But when NBA scouts got their first glimpse of Davis during the high school All-Star circuit in April 2011, he began to cement his No. 1 status for the 2012 NBA draft. In particular, one private scrimmage the day before the McDonald’s All American game stood out. Davis’ shooting touch, timing as a shot-blocker and feel for the game immediately made an impression. And his mobility was on a different level than his peers’; Davis’ long-term potential was clear.

Even though he was incredibly productive and helped Kentucky win the national championship, it was obvious Davis was only scratching the surface on the type of player he could develop into, as he was fifth in usage rate on that Wildcats team. After making only three of his 20 3-point attempts in college, Davis has already converted 84 3s this season and a career best 83.3% of his free throw attempts, a testament to how much his game has grown since he entered the NBA.

While it was always easy to project Davis becoming a perennial candidate for defensive player of the year, few envisioned him running off a screen and nailing a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off movement to win a playoff game like he did against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night.

Other prospects have been projected to go No. 1 at least a full year before the draft in the one-and-done era — including Greg Oden, Andrew Wiggins, Markelle Fultz — but only Davis has backed up the hype that surrounded his rise. — Jonathan Givony

Jonathan Givony is an NBA draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and international teams.


Above the forehead, nice and high

The buzzer-beater Davis made Sunday night was the glorious payoff for years of unglamorous shooting work Davis put in early in his career, reinventing his shot mechanics.

Davis made only three total 3-point shots in his first three NBA seasons. But even as a young player, he was acutely aware of where the game was headed and that his ability to shoot from 3-point range would influence his overall value. So he spent hundreds of hours in quiet gyms tweaking his form, ensuring his jumper would become a legitimate NBA weapon.

When Davis entered the league in 2012, his shot release was relatively low on his forehead.

“I was shooting the wrong way; I was more of a push-out shooter, from my chest,” he said in 2015. “When you shoot from your chest and in front of your face, you lose sight of the rim.”

That didn’t matter in AAU games or even at Kentucky; Davis would simply dominate games with his other skills. But the NBA is a different beast, loaded with big men such as Nikola Jokic who will devour lower shot releases.

“I kind of moved it up to the right side of my right ear, above my head,” he recalled of his adjustments. “Which helps me see the rim a lot easier.”

With the New Orleans Pelicans, Davis worked with assistant coach Kevin Hanson to elevate his release point. The pair recognized that the NBA’s best shooting bigs all released the ball over their heads. Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and LaMarcus Aldridge leveraged high releases to both clear their vision of the target and to prevent defenders from blocking their shots.

Davis’ jumpers are now among the hardest shots to block in the league.

On Davis’ Western Conference finals Game 2 buzzer-beater, the 7-foot Jokic came within a few inches of getting a finger on the ball, deflecting it and saving the game for Denver. But Jokic just couldn’t reach it. The shot was too high. It started above Davis’ forehead and finished nice and high.

This year, opponents have blocked only two of Davis’ 592 jump shots. That 592nd one was pretty important. — Kirk Goldsberry

Team success matching individual success

This is already the deepest playoff run of Davis’ NBA career, but that’s not because anything has changed about him as a player. After leveraging his way to join James and the Lakers, Davis finally has supporting talent worthy of his own performance.

Back when Davis was first agitating to be traded from New Orleans, I put together a quick metric to investigate the question of how many wins you’d expect from a team with a player of his value (as measured by my wins above replacement metric, WARP). The answer to that question depends from year to year based on Davis’ health and his development as a player, but it’s typically around 45 to 50 wins. Never once during his seven seasons with the Pelicans did they hit that expectation.

In many ways, this analysis measures how good everything else is around a player in an organization — his teammates, the coaching, etc. The one time New Orleans came close to average in this regard, the Pelicans swept the favored Portland Trail Blazers out of the playoffs in 2018 before losing to the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors.

Because Davis’ talent was so obvious, and the same was true of the dysfunction around him, the losing never stuck to him in the same way as other players in similar situations — say former James teammate Kevin Love, whose Minnesota Timberwolves teams lost 114 games more than expected based on his value before his trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Still, until Davis could enjoy team success commensurate with everything he had accomplished individually in the NBA, nagging questions about his value were always going to persist. So it’s been nice to see Davis finally being put in a situation to succeed and responding exactly as well as we’d expect. — Kevin Pelton


Titles, not moral victories

The last time Davis was eliminated from the playoffs, he walked slowly to the bench as the clock wound down and dapped coaches and teammates. It was May 8, 2018, and Davis had just dropped 34 points, 19 rebounds, three steals, a block and an assist in the season-ending loss.

There were reasons for optimism within the Pelicans franchise; it was only Davis’ second playoff appearance in his sixth NBA season, and the Pelicans had taken the mighty Warriors and their vaunted Hamptons Five lineup to five games in the second round. Davis had matched former league MVP Kevin Durant for most points per game in the series (27.8) and was the only player on either team to average 40-plus minutes.

But after he gave end-of-series hugs to Draymond Green and the other advancing Warriors, it was clear that a second-round breakthrough wasn’t enough.

“There’s no moral victories,” Davis said in the post-series news conference. “There’s a lot [of positives] that we could take from this season, but anytime you don’t win a championship, I’m not sure how much success you really had.”

That September, Davis switched agents and signed with Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Davis told his teammates before the season began he was thinking of asking for a trade.

By the following January, Davis had formally requested that trade through his agent, with James’ Lakers as his top choice. Davis was booed on the road and in his home arena, and he was held out of games as the trade deadline came and went. He did not dress down the stretch as New Orleans’ disappointing 2018-19 season ended under a cloud of trade rumors.

For all of the promises to build around Davis, the best the Pelicans could give him was that 2018 second-round exit. So he found a way out.

Just a season after his trade to Los Angeles was granted, Davis has reached his first conference finals and is two games away from his first NBA Finals. This is why he endured the heckling, why he pushed to join James: Title contention is what the Lakers represented. — Andrew Lopez

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Kendrick Perkins asserts that there’s no way the Nuggets will come back and win the series against the Lakers, adding that Denver might even get swept.

Harmony leading to victory

When the Lakers traded for Davis last summer, it at least slightly reminded some of the last time they’d acquired a future Hall of Fame big man in the final year of his contract. That hadn’t gone so well.

In 2012, Dwight Howard never bonded with then-team standard-bearer Kobe Bryant, and Howard left for the Houston Rockets after one season. With Davis, that doesn’t look to be at all the case. While Davis can — and likely will — opt out of the final year of his contract after the season to become a free agent, he has bonded so well with James and the team that his contract situation is rarely mentioned.

James has been nurturing the relationship with Davis — the big man has openly acknowledged leaning on the elder James for guidance as they advance deeper into the playoffs — because in many ways, their futures are tied together.

If Davis leaves as a free agent, James’ final years in L.A. would be greatly diminished. But so far, they’ve built a bond, on and off the court.

In the locker room, that bond has been on full display. The Lakers’ locker room was a crowded place every night this season when media members were granted access. James and Davis would always manage to communicate with each other through the crowd.

They’d shoot each other knowing glances as they eavesdropped on each other’s interviews. When there was room to speak directly, they’d hold a hand over their mouth and whisper. Other times, James would make funny faces or sing loudly, trying to make Davis laugh as he answered questions.

In a way, they were trying to conceal the substance of their relationship with all the jocularity. But in another way, they were very publicly confirming just how close they’d grown.

That might not seem like a big deal, but rarely do two superstars find such an easy friendship so quickly, without egos bumping into each other. This is particularly true for James, who has not always gotten on so well with star teammates.

There’s no drama around whose team it is. There’s no intrigue around whether Davis feels like James’ star power diminishes his own. There have been few contract whispers over the course of the season.

To appreciate how rare this type of superstar relationship is, one need only look a few lockers down. Howard has returned to the Lakers at age 34, willing to do anything to chase a ring alongside Davis and James. — Ramona Shelburne


Investing in a legacy

When Davis arrived in Los Angeles, he left $4 million behind. That’s the baked-in insurance should certain max-level players be traded, commonly referred to as a “trade kicker.” And though sometimes a player must waive his bonus to facilitate a transaction (Kyrie Irving relinquished his $5.8 million kicker to allow the move to the Boston Celtics in 2017), Davis was under no obligation to forgo the extra money when he left New Orleans.

“I’m all about legacy,” Davis said in February 2019. “The money comes and goes. When I get done playing or leave this earth, what is my legacy going to be?”

To be fair, Davis had motivation to pass up the money. His trade to L.A. came a few weeks before the start of free agency, and eliminating his kicker — combined with tearing the roster foundation to just James and Kyle Kuzma — freed up enough cap space for the Lakers to pursue Kawhi Leonard.

Even without Leonard this season, waiving that $4 million helped Davis take steps toward building a greater legacy with this team; it gave him equity in the roster.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka consulted the All-Star big man on every subsequent move the team made. And months into the season, Davis told me that he had no second thoughts about the decision, believing that it served its purpose in making the team better.

When Davis gave up the money, he ended up investing in his partnership with the Lakers — and it’s already paying dividends. — Dave McMenamin

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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