Wednesday October 12th, 2016

It’s hard being a superstar. Well, not that hard, but in an on-court sense, the expectations and superlatives we heap almost instantly on the greatest talents tend to be altogether too high. We identify greatness in teenagers and amplify predictions of success before they can legally drink the figurative champagne. It’s too easy for the public to fawn over winners and put pressure on those that haven’t won. Patience runs thin quickly, and navigating the gauntlet of opinion is almost a game in itself.

There’s an awkward phase in every ascendance where antsy levels of frustration creep in. Remember all the sludge that flew at the end of LeBron James’s first tour with Cleveland? The rhetoric surrounding Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook rang similar for many years in Oklahoma City. Hey, did you know Chris Paul has never been to the conference finals? Frank Ocean wants you to remember that Carmelo Anthony has no rings. There’s always a point where excitement gets replaced by cynicism. 

If there’s one overarching truth to wean from those prominent case studies in the Can-This-Guy-Win-A-Title conversation, it’s that stars almost always mature faster than it takes for the right teammates to assemble and coalesce around them. And with the new season less than two weeks away, this annual through-line runs directly to Anthony Davis.

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Karl-Anthony Towns may have hijacked the emerging big man conversation a bit after injuries cut Davis’s season short, but it shouldn’t take much for people to remember what’s he’s already done in New Orleans. Anthony Davis the superstar has already happened. The numbers are there, the eye test takes no time, and a year ago he was floating on the outskirts of the preseason MVP conversation. The big issue lies with the increasingly gloomy state of the Pelicans, who last season seemed to be perpetually hurtling toward disaster.

Sometimes it feels like GM Dell Demps has been almost-fired for the duration of the Obama presidency, and that’s because so many of the Pelicans’ attempts to pair Davis with like-minded basketball players have fallen flat. The team won 27, 34 and 45 games (with an eight seed on top) in Davis’s first three years and hit a developmental snag with last season’s 30–52 mark under Alvin Gentry. New Orleans couldn’t guard a thing and struggled to compensate with an adequate offensive attack, posting the league’s third-worst defensive rating and fifth-worst net rating. As Davis continues to grow (figuratively and literally—he says he’s 6’11” now), the pressure to get it right around him is going to spike.

The elephant in the room is Davis’s health. He’s never cracked the 70 game-mark despite being just 23 years old, and will reportedly miss two weeks after spraining his ankle last night in the pre-season. It wouldn’t be a big deal, but after the seemingly constant  injury hiccups, it’s concerning. There’s a point with any player where bad luck becomes a history. Everything felt reasonably freakish until last season’s knee and shoulder injuries. Davis said he’d been playing with a torn labrum since his rookie year, which is by all accounts repaired. We can wishfully assume the ankle is minor, he gets back to averaging 24 and 10 and makes it through the season, but the team’s bigger issues are irrelevant if he can’t stay on the floor.

Davis at his best might be the most defensively impactful big man in the league today, and his offensive arsenal has expanded nicely, but this is the type of sure-to-be-frustrating situation that reeks of belittled superstars past. With an embattled roster around him, even his best-case season from a personal standpoint might not change too much in the win column. Until New Orleans strikes more draft gold (Markelle Fultz, your table is ready), there are going to be plenty of critical eyes on this franchise. It’s an established recipe for fan base angst and ballooning doubt.

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Jrue Holiday is the only guy on the roster who’s been able to unlock Davis as a dominant offensive weapon. His indefinite leave of absence as his wife prepares for brain surgery coupled with Tyreke Evans’s ongoing blood clot situation means a lot of E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway at the point. Both are fine in spurts, but neither was signed to be a starter. Has anyone ever banked on an Omer Asik breakout or a watershed moment in the life of Alexis Ajinca? Rookie Buddy Hield is quite possibly the Pellies’ most gifted perimeter scorer, but asking him to be the second option right now is still a stretch. There may not be enough talent around to execute the fast-paced style Gentry wants, and Demps and the front office aren’t buying themselves a ton of time. 

One positive spin on the Pelicans’ off-season was the maintenance of some continuity, with Ryan Anderson the only estimable loss. The thing about continuity is that you still need good players to win the basketball games. Bottom line, there are just too many questions and too many known quantities to feel comfortable with New Orleans this season. There are a handful of nice players and a handful of fringe ones. Don’t forget that Lance Stephenson totally might make this roster

None of this is to speak a crisis into existence: nobody is mistaking the Pelicans for contenders, anyway. Davis’s special brand of two-way terror demands full appreciation and can keep this team interesting, if not playoff-relevant, by itself. He won’t be an unrestricted free agent until 2021, giving the Pelicans a definite window to get this right. The 75-ish games of prime Brow should be enough to earn back some optimism, but as he enters his second contract, there’s no denying the figurative hourglass has flipped. This season presents a revealing barometer. Watch closely.

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