When the Trail Blazers signed Ed Davis, I wrote something for Willamette Week, Portland's local alt-weekly, where I called him a “default basketball player.” It was kind of rude, I suppose, but anyone who reads this column knows that I am an extremely irreverent dude who doesn’t care WHAT NBA journeyman I offend with my pricks and barbs.
And, also, I was right. You ask a child, a pure three-year-old who has maybe a kind of mild understanding of basketball, what a fucking NBA player does, and they will say “Dunk." And reader, that was most of what Ed Davis did throughout his career. He grabbed boards—maybe not enough—he dunked, and he missed jumpers, year after year, for sub-par team after sub-par team. He was a 6'10" long-armed body who had the requisite skill and athleticism to be an NBA player and so he went out there and did it because it certainly beats pretty much any other fucking career I can imagine.
But when Ed came to Portland, some shit happened that I just didn't understand: he was, nearly instantly, transmuted from a boring dude with rudimentary skills into a folk-hero big off the bench, and team leader. His board snatching—once very obligatory, apparently done from a place of pure malaise and marginal devotion—started really fucking thrashing. There was Ed, raising up from the depths of multiple dudes to snatch hard ones, games after game.
The Blazer crowd, always looking for a cult figure to latch onto, was inspired and driven with devotion. Legends began leaking out from the team. Ed was so amazing at working out, with his shirt off, muscles bulging every day, that the team started calling him “Shirt off Ed,” for Christ's sake.
Once he came back from a shoulder injury, he found a defensive niche in guarding faster lineups that befuddled the team’s larger, more conventionally skilled defensive anchor, Jusuf Nurkic. He yanked big boards left and right, yelled at people, and did all that while seeming to juice the whole squad with a, uh, indomitable will to win that he has never really shown before in the previous near-decade spent floating from team to team in the NBA.
Why did this happen? God only knows. Perhaps Ed was tired of being an afterthought. Maybe after he had kids, he recognized that he was going to have to be a different player if he wanted to give them the life he wanted to give them. Maybe, sitting on the bench one day, he looked at the court and just realized, out of nowhere, that he wasn’t just doing this because nature itself blessed him with the perfect body for it, but because, well, he actually kinda liked it and wanted to be extremely good and useful at it. The minds of men are labyrinths, the only way to peruse their depths is to walk through them, and I am not friendly enough with Ed to coax him into taking me on that journey.
Here is Ed in Game 1 of Portland's series against the New Orleans Pelicans, doing the shit he has done best all year. He snags one of the 13 boards he had in 20 minutes of action, using his good hands and a purity of will to cut through the chaos of being surrounded by three Pelicans. He grips the ball with two hands, makes a pivot, and rises up in a straight line and throws it down with two hands. Simple and protected, but impressive because he managed to do it over three other dudes who were trying to stop him, one of whom was Anthony Davis.
Here is different dunk, one that resembles a kind of perpetual future of the league: a great pick-and-roll player exploiting a high screen—destroying an old, outmoded guard in the process—and unleashing his extraordinary skill as he drives to the rim for an uncontested dunk. It is some extremely Ginobili shit, the kind of slippery smart play that is the central pillar of great basketball in 2018.
It's my belief that, someday, this play will appear as old and moldy as Jordan turning around in the paint, Magic exploiting some obvious hole in the defense in transition, or Bill Russell sending some sad sack white guy’s garbage-ass shot flying into the second row. It will still be beautiful, and still be interesting, but the mode of how it worked will seem weird and foreign in a league that has really figured out the rotations to stop that kind of shit on the regular.
But Ed easily outworking a dude on the boards, briefly morphing the game of basketball from a complicated dance into an act of pure will and simplistic geometry? Ask any three-year-old, that kind of dunk is forever.