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Anthony Davis’s fall from preseason MVP candidate to end-of-season footnote stands as a good reminder that making assumptions, even about the bluest of blue-chip talents, can be dangerous business.
Instead of building on a 2015 playoff appearance and making noise in the postseason, Davis’s Pelicans tumbled backward in the standings and will whimper into the lottery. Instead of thriving in new coach Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo system, Davis’s statistics plateaued. Instead of continuing a seemingly preordained ascent toward the “Best Player in Basketball” title, Davis’s progress was slowed by ongoing health problems that ultimately led the Pelicans to shut down Davis on Sunday so he can undergo surgery on his left knee and a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Davis told reporters on Monday that he had played through a torn labrum in his shoulder for "three years" and that he will miss the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he would have pursued a second gold medal.
The shutdown decision, first announced by Gentry, marks the third time in Davis’s four-year career that his season ended prematurely. What’s more, 2015–16 marks the fourth time Davis, 23, has missed at least 14 games due to injury, and his 21 games missed this season represent a career high. Yet again, a common assumption—that Davis would “grow out of” his nagging early career injury issues—has failed to materialize.
The bright side for Davis health-wise is that he’s so far managed to avoid a major, season-killing injury. For comparison’s sake, Clippers forward Blake Griffin missed more time with a knee injury during his lost rookie season than Davis has missed during his entire career.
That said, Davis’s minor issues are starting to accumulate, as evidenced by his need for two surgeries this month and Gentry’s note that Davis “played through a situation with his shoulder the entire season.” While panic over Davis isn’t yet warranted, given his supreme production this season and the laundry list of extenuating circumstances that influenced New Orleans’s regression, a little concern is in order.
Here’s a quick look at just how much Davis’s injury issues have already added up. This chart compares Davis to a number of recent MVPs (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose), some of his fellow high-profile forwards and centers (LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Dwight Howard) and two of his fellow 2012 lottery picks (Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond). Davis has missed more combined games in his first four seasons than all of them, including Rose, Love and Curry, all of whom have dealt with the “injury-prone” label over the years.
Curry’s ability to move past his early career ankle issues should be comforting to Davis’s supporters, but it’s a little daunting to consider Davis has already missed more time in four years than James has during his entire 13-year career (60 games). If Davis is going to take the mantle from James as the NBA’s top talent, his 21% rate of missed games will need to drastically improve.
Besides the long-term questions about Davis’s durability, Sunday’s announcement carries other significant repercussions.
Most immediately, it sets up New Orleans for a clean tank over the next three-plus weeks. The Pelicans are just 2–7 without Davis this season and five of their remaining 12 games are against projected playoff teams. As it stands, the Pelicans are sixth in the draft lottery order, and Davis’s absence should ensure they hold off the Kings and Knicks for those extra ping pong balls.
There are major cap-related implications to consider as well. Davis, a three-time All-Star and 2015 All-NBA First Team selection, was widely considered a lock to trigger the “Rose Rule” extension. Remember, he signed a five-year, maximum rookie contract extension worth up to $145 million last summer. However, hitting that top-end threshold required Davis to trigger certain requirements for star players: he needed to be named 2016 MVP, be voted in as a 2016 All-Star starter (for the second time in his career) or be named to one of the three 2016 All-NBA teams (for the second time in his career).
With Curry breezing toward his second consecutive MVP and Davis placing ninth among West frontcourt players in the All-Star fan voting process, his only remaining hope to qualify as a “Rose Rule” player is to make an All-NBA team.
Those hopes now appear to be in serious jeopardy in light of his injuries and New Orleans’s struggles. Last year, Davis was voted onto the first team as a forward. This year, James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Paul George, Aldridge and Paul Millsap all have strong cases for consideration. Might voters treat Davis as a center instead of a forward? If so, he’ll need to beat out the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Al Horford and others who will have appeared in more games and enjoyed greater team success.
Davis’s numbers—24.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2 BPG, 1.9 APG, 25.2 Player Efficiency Rating, 7.4 Win Shares, +2.7 Real Plus-Minus—are superb and remain worthy of All-NBA consideration. He joins Cousins as the only 20/10 players in the NBA this season, he ranks seventh in scoring, seventh in rebounding and third in blocks, he ranks seventh overall and first among bigs in PER, he’s just outside the top 20 in Win Shares and he’s in the top 40 in Real Plus-Minus.
The question becomes whether voters will acknowledge Davis’s play if he’s totally off the radar for the final month before ballots are due. Last year, the 15 All-NBA selections averaged 74 games played, with only one player appeared in fewer games than Davis’s 68. That player was Cousins, who logged monster numbers but played in just 59 games for a lottery team. While Cousins’s ’15 selection represents hope for Davis’s chances in ’16, this year’s frontcourt field is much deeper with Durant and George returning from long-term injuries and Leonard, Green and Drummond all enjoying breakout years.
If Davis is left off the All-NBA team, his five-year extension will be worth “only” $121 million, which would give the Pelicans roughly $5 million of extra cap room in each of the next five summers. Even in the NBA’s current booming economics, that savings could easily (and repeatedly) facilitate important free-agent signings and/or trades. Let’s be honest: there’s no shortage of holes for the Pelicans front office to address this summer, and unrestricted free agent forward Ryan Anderson is sure to generate major interest and big-dollar offers. Building a competitive roster around Davis will unquestionably be easier if his slice of the pie is smaller.
Still, New Orleans’s potential draft positioning and anticipated cap savings only qualify as silver linings, not true victories. In an ideal world, the Pelicans would be entering Davis’s second contract free of concerns about their franchise player. That’s impossible and imprudent in light of Sunday’s developments. Now, in addition to the burden of being a franchise player, Davis bears a burden of proof for the first time in his career.