Throughout his six NBA seasons, Anthony Davis has inspired wonder and pity in near-equal doses.
The five-time All-Star stuffs box scores like Shaquille O’Neal, strokes soft-touch jumpers like Kevin Durant, and spawns free-agency rumors like LeBron James. Yet Davis’s ramp-up to MVP-level superstar has been complicated by a mess of factors outside his control: an endless list of injuries, ever-changing and unremarkable supporting casts, and an aimless franchise guided by a front office known for its big swings and big misses. Even though he’s still just 24, Davis has already spent an eternity fending off all of the most aggravating questions faced by superstars. When will he get help? Will he ever stay healthy? Why isn’t he winning more? How long until he leaves town?
It’s delicious, then, that Davis’s game has reached new heights and prompted a month-long stream of praise at the precise moment he seemed doomed to another, even louder, round of empathy.
The loss of DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending Achilles tear in January threatened to shatter the Pelicans at every level. GM Dell Demps entered the season on the hot seat, with a playoff mandate. So did coach Alvin Gentry. New Orleans’s entire approach revolved around its Twin Tower duo, in part because Davis and Cousins were two of the league’s most talented big men and in part because the rest of the roster had been lacking for years. The Pelicans went 1-5 in their first six games without Cousins—losing four by double-digits—and it seemed likely that Davis would spend more time this spring in Trade Machine dreams than in the postseason.
But the post-Cousins Pelicans have recovered brilliantly, winning 10 straight and capitalizing on the Spurs’ and Timberwolves’ injury issues to make a shocking charge up the West’s clogged standings. Davis has been on another planet, vaulting into the MVP conversation by averaging 35.6 PPG, 13.6 RPG and 3.1 BPG. Instead of languishing under the added burden, Davis has thrived, scoring 40+ points five times in his last 10 games. And instead of sinking the Pelicans, Cousins’s injury has revealed an idealized version that had seemed lost to history.
When New Orleans hired Gentry in 2015, the plan seemed clear: The best way to win with the NBA’s Next Great Big Man was to unleash his athleticism and agility in the type of fast-paced spread offense their new coach had guided in Phoenix and Golden State. At the time, we believed it was a coach/franchise player marriage with “mouth-watering” potential, predicting 28 PPG and 12 RPG stat lines for Davis once he was no longer held back by a slow-down system.
Players to average 28 PPG / 12 RPG / 2 BPG (During Three-Point Era)
• 1994 Shaquille O’Neal: 4th in MVP
• 1995 Shaquille O’Neal: 2nd in MVP
• 1998 Shaquille O’Neal: 4th in MVP
• 2000 Shaquille O’Neal: 3rd in MVP
• 2017 Anthony Davis: 9th in MVP
• 2018 Anthony Davis: ???
While Davis has hit those Shaq-like benchmarks on the nose over the last two seasons, New Orleans’s stylistic transformation was left incomplete. Injuries to point guard Jrue Holiday crimped things considerably, as bullet trains need experienced conductors. The Pelicans' anonymous wing corps struggled to provide the necessary spacing. And Demps, feeling the heat, swung a blockbuster and convention-busting trade for Cousins last year, betting on raw talent rather than modern design. Davis and Cousins were making it work, but it often looked like hard work.
By contrast, Davis has, without his oversized running mate, consistently achieved a rare type of brilliance: casual brilliance. His 41-point outburst against the Clippers on Tuesday was just the latest example in a growing catalogue of hits that has him in the running for MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team.
Davis glided up and down the court. He played above defenders as if they were invisible. He stripped ball-handlers and spiked shots. He stepped out to drain three-pointers. He helped New Orleans build a big lead and then effortlessly took control late to counter an L.A. push. He scored eight points in the final two minutes, breezily swishing in an impossible-to-block quick-turnaround jumper for the go-ahead bucket with 31 seconds left. “Just another day,” said Pelicans center Emeka Okafor. “Light work for him.”
This was the dream when Gentry was hired, or at least as close as the Pelicans have come to realizing it. New Orleans picked up the pace from No. 27 in the league in 2015 to No. 11 in 2016, Gentry’s first season, and then No. 9 in 2017. That progress accelerated this season, with New Orleans reaching the NBA’s fifth-fastest pace prior to the Cousins injury. Then the revelation hit. Without Cousins, the Pelicans have played at the league’s No. 1 pace, relying heavily on three-guard lineups and turning Davis loose as a galloping mismatch.
Holiday (19.4 PPG, 5.8 APG) and Davis have worked a profitable two-man game from all angles, whether in transition or in pick-and-rolls. Often with Davis, the easiest play is the right play: throw the ball at or near the rim and let him do the rest. Since Cousins’s injury, Davis has led the league in field goals (6.5 per game) and attempts (9 per game) from within the restricted area, beating slower centers up the court for dunks and towering over smaller forwards for putbacks and dump-off finishes. Why should Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James have all the fun?
That ability to generate high-percentage, close-in looks for Davis has been crucial to the Pelicans’ late-game success. Davis is shooting 51.3% in clutch situations this season, with more than two-thirds of his clutch field goals coming in the basket area. “For me, I always want to take the big shot, make or miss,” Davis said, after finishing off the Clippers on Tuesday. “We’re going to live with it.”
Here again is evidence of Davis and the Pelicans living their best lives. In 2017, the Pelicans were No. 26 in winning percentage in games that were within five points in the final five minutes. In 2016, they were No. 24. This year, Davis is a league-leading +70 in clutch situations, and New Orleans has accumulated a league-high 25 wins in games that are within five points in the final five minutes.
“We’re just trying to execute down the stretch,” Davis said. “We’ve been struggling with that the last couple of years since I’ve been here, the last four to five minutes. This year, we’re more relaxed and more poised. It helps when guys have been in that situation before. [Rajon] Rondo does a good job of calming us down and getting us into one of our sets.”
Help has arrived from unexpected sources, including Rondo, who has moved past forgettable, and sometimes ugly, stints in Dallas, Sacramento and Chicago. New Orleans has no place for his worst habits—over-dribbling and demanding control of the offense—and Rondo has adapted by fully committing to the up-and-down style. He’s also kept defenses honest by hitting a respectable percentage of his three-pointers.
If a revitalized Rondo qualifies as a pleasant surprise, a reincarnated Okafor has been—to borrow an old David Kahn phrase—manna from heaven. The 35-year-old center signed with New Orleans in February after missing the previous four seasons while rehabbing a neck injury. The Pelicans are 8-0 with him in the starting lineup, and his ability to block shots and hit the glass has helped save Davis from enduring a full game’s worth of pounding every night. “[Okafor] has been a factor since the day he got here,” Gentry said. “His rim protection has been great. He’s capable of making the little jump shots. Having him in there has been great.”
In one of the least predictable twists in recent memory, Okafor, the second pick in the 2004 draft, could potentially advance in the playoffs for the first time in his career. For Demps, a GM with numerous ill-advised decisions and questionable contracts on his resume, the Okafor addition stands as a badly-needed and perfectly-timed win.
There are, to be sure, important caveats to the Pelicans’ feel-good turnaround. Their current streak has been aided by a favorable schedule, with five of their 10 wins coming against lottery teams. Nothing is guaranteed in the West’s playoff chase; Gentry, Holiday and Davis all copped to checking the standings daily, knowing that back-to-back losses could send them back to the playoff bubble. Demps’s decision to trade for Nikola Mirotic at the deadline has worked out fine, but it still required parting with a first-round pick, continuing a pattern of moves that have mortgaged the future.
As for Davis, he’s logged huge minutes all season and sustained hip and ankle injuries this week. Despite his torrid pace recently, he’ll need to close even stronger to catch James Harden for MVP, given that Houston is likely headed for a franchise-record in victories and a possible No. 1 seed.
And then there’s Cousins’s looming free agency, which was already going to be expensive and difficult for New Orleans to navigate given his Achilles injury. Davis’s solo act over the last month has inevitably raised an uncomfortable question: Is Cousins worth a major long-term investment if he’s destined to be an imperfect complement to Davis? Of course, there’s an even more uncomfortable follow-up: With Davis getting closer to the end of his own deal, do the Pelicans have any other choice but to pay Cousins whatever it takes?
Even so, Davis has played so superbly of late that the present, for once, has risen above the noise concerning the Pelicans' rocky past and uncertain future. “He’s just playing at a really, really high level. Nothing seems to affect him,” Gentry said. “He’s doing a good job, not just with the scoring. The defense, the blocked shots. He’s willing to sacrifice his body to make a play here and there. He’s going to do everything he can to help us win games. He’s playing at an MVP level. He really is.”