Anthony Davis may have taken things a step too far last week when he declared that he’s “the best player in the game,” a statement of confidence that may live a touch outside of reality. It’s premature to give Davis the top spot as long as LeBron James is still dragging mediocre squads to conference championships and Kevin Durant is racking up Finals MVP awards. The King still holds the throne entering 2018–19 and KD (or the Slim Reaper or The Servant or whichever nickname he prefers) sits in the No. 2 spot.
But the 25-year-old Davis isn’t far from assuming the mantle. The Brow is certainly the top center in the league—and yes, Davis qualifies as a center despite his protestations—and outside of possibly Kawhi Leonard, there isn’t a more destructive two-way force in the league. Watching Davis wreck the Blazers to win his first-ever playoff series was a delight last year, his first moment on the national stage without Golden State raining threes all over his parade. It was the highlight of Davis’s career, but unfortunately, it could prove to be the peak of his tenure with the Pelicans.
The first five seasons of Davis’s time in New Orleans followed a similar pattern. Aside from a brief stint as the No. 8 seed against the Warriors in 2014–15, the Pelicans were a one-man band who spent their summers at home, failing to surround Davis with the requisite talent to reach the West playoffs, let alone compete for a conference crown.
New Orleans’s circumstances changed last season. The Pelicans got 81 games from the oft-injured Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins shined in his first full-year alongside Davis. Boogie tallied 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, with the Pelicans ripping off nine wins in 12 contests before Cousins’s season ended with a torn Achilles on Jan. 26. The machine didn’t slow post injury when New Orleans acquired Nikola Mirotic, and paired with a mini-revival from Rajon Rondo, things weren’t so bleak in the bayou.
The acquisitions led to New Orleans’s best season since the Chris Paul era in 2007–08. The Pelicans notched the No. 6 seed in the West and swept Portland in Round 1, highlighted by Rondo and Holiday’s lockdown of the Blazers’ dynamic backcourt. Davis exploded for 47 points in Game 4, providing an exclamation point to a dominant series. The future had finally arrived.
Now comes the hard part. There’s no guarantee New Orleans will appear in the playoffs next season in a stacked Western Conference, with 13 teams in contention for eight spots. In addition to the seven other playoff squads from 2018, LeBron will lift the Lakers, and Denver looks to be on the upswing. Aside from Sacramento and Phoenix, there don’t appear to be any cellar dwellers in the West.
With Cousins now in Golden State—a statement that should send a shiver down spines in Houston and Oklahoma City—and Rondo with the Lakers, it’s questionable whether the New Orleans’s roster is equipped to chase 50 wins. The 2018–19 season could very well replicate the Pelicans of season’s past, surrounding Davis with subpar talent in another wasted year.
The greatest question marks in New Orleans rest in the backcourt and on the wing. Rondo will be replaced by Elfrid Payton, who brings all of the floor-crunching headaches as a non-shooter with little of the passing wizardry or basketball IQ. Holiday thrived as a traditional two-guard next to Rondo last season, notching a career high in field goal percentage and points per game. His three-point rate on catch-and-shoot opportunities was noticeably impressive, making 39.7% of attempts. Holiday will have to sacrifice some minutes at the two in 2018–19, reverting back to a traditional point guard when Payton rests and struggles. Don’t count on Jarrett Jack to provide enough of a boost as a third guard.
E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill will fill in at the wing, with Mirotic dabbling at the three when Julius Randle plays alongside Davis. Moore notched career highs in a litany of categories last season, scoring a career-high 12.5 points per game while shooting a career-best from the field. The Purdue product thrived on open looks created by Davis or Cousins double teams, making 47.3% of wide-open threes, per NBA.com.
Mirotic thrived alongside Davis last season—New Orleans actually posted a better plus-minus with the Mirotic-Davis pairing than the Boogie-Davis partnership in 2017–18—providing a dead-eyed presence from the four. Mirotic’s defensive failings hindered his time in Chicago; they’re not impactful in New Orleans with Anthony Davis on the back line.
How Randle meshes with Davis is one of the more intriguing storylines in the West. The twin towers experiment worked in New Orleans last year largely due to Cousins’s inversion of the floor, increasingly floating to the perimeter to allow Davis room on the block. Their pick-and-roll dance was a thing of beauty, two balletic seven-footers running circles over lumbering bigs. Davis feasted on a buffet of free lobs and Boogie scooted his way to countless wide-open triples. No frontcourt in the league could keep up.
Randle doesn’t bring the same versatility. He’s a bruiser and increasingly ball-dominant, bumping his usage rate to a career-high 25.3% last season. There’s a lot to like in Randle's game, one of the league’s craftiest low-post scorers and a bully on the block. But how well his skills mesh with Davis remains a mystery. For all of AD’s improvement outside the paint, he’s an interior scorer at heart, and may see a clogged lane with Randle at the four.
Holiday rose to a fringe All-Star last season, and with a talented frontcourt, there is a solid core around Davis. But unlike the abbreviated season with Cousins, there’s a noticeable ceiling to the Pelicans’ attack, limited to the fringe of the Western playoff race. And unless New Orleans can strike gold in another deal for a disgruntled star, this is the roster around Davis for years to come. Will that be enough to keep AD around when he’s eligible for a new deal in the summer of 2020?
New Orleans could be forced to confront its post-Davis future prior to then. A slate of stars have forced their teams’ hand before the expiration of their deals, including Kyrie Irving in Cleveland and most recently Jimmy Butler in Minnesota. Davis could very well look at his future next summer and see New Orleans in the rearview mirror, requesting a trade from the Pelicans before his contract expires. If the team’s brass sees the writing on the wall, perhaps they’ll deal Davis and accrue some assets rather than see him walk out the door for nothing.
Some would see it as a shame for Davis to depart from the franchise that drafted him, chasing a better situation that can bring him closer to the Larry O’Brien trophy. But it would be far sadder for Davis to waste his prime with a team unequipped to contend in the West, toiling away as his superstar peers raise championship banners. Cousins brought Davis a glimpse of life with a true partner and crime. If New Orleans’s supporting cast isn’t up to the task, Davis could be searching for another co-star sooner than later.