Anthony Davis Won’t Go Away Quietly

[Written on 2/28/18. All stats accurate as of that date]

As DeMarcus Cousins was helped off the floor on January 26th, wincing in pain from what would soon be diagnosed as a torn ACL, all seemed lost in New Orleans.

The Pelicans, in the midst of a brutal 10 team playoff race in the Western Conference, just lost their all-star center for the rest of season. Before going down, Cousins was playing the best basketball of his career, posting career-highs in rebounding (12.9 per game) and true shooting percentage (58.3%), per As unconventional as they seemed in the modern NBA, the 2-big front-court combination of Cousins and fellow all-star Anthony Davis was working, at least to some degree. Once Cousins’ injury was certain, many began to write off the Pelicans’ playoff aspirations.

The following slew of games reaffirmed these doubts, as the Pels went a disappointing 1–5 in their next six games. The Utah Jazz, trailing New Orleans for playoff position, were surging, winners of 11 straight at one point and ready to seize the opportunity. It seemed as though the Cousins injury had sucked the life out of the team. Before Cousins went down, Head Coach Alvin Gentry would stagger he and Davis’ minutes, making sure one of them was on the floor at all times to generate offense. Without Cousins, the Pelicans suffered whenever Davis was resting. The postseason light dimmed with each loss, and Davis’ looming 2019 free agency became more and more of a hot topic in the media-sphere.

And then something, still unclear exactly what, awakened within Davis.

Over the last seven games, Davis is posting an astonishing 39.3 points per game to go along with 15 rebounds, 3 steals and 2.7 blocks. His otherworldly play has propelled the Pelicans to a seven game win-streak following their 1–5 slide. Their most recent win, a 121–116 come-from-behind victory over the San Antonio Spurs, has inserted the Pels into the 5th seed in the Western Conference, and they are now only a half game back of said Spurs for home court advantage in the playoffs. In the blink of an eye, New Orleans is relevant again, and it’s thanks in large part to the resilience of their superstar big man.

The only word that can truly sum up the root of Davis’ success over this seven game stretch is one that is rightly overused in sports: aggressiveness. Davis has decided to push his freak-of-nature body to the absolute limit on both ends of the floor, and the numbers bare it out. Offensively, Davis, along with his coaching staff and ball-handling teammates, has made it a point to take on even more of a scoring load. Over this stretch, Davis is averaging 26.4 field goal attempts per game. Not only is this number staggering when compared to his season average of 19.2, it would also lead the league by over 5 attempts. The current league leader at 21.1 attempts per game: Russell Westbrook, a player known universally to carry an enormous offensive burden. In other words, Davis is shooting a lot, and his team needs him to.

Unlike Westbrook, however, Davis rarely dribbles the ball up the floor to initiate the offense. Credit must be given to Pels’ guards like Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo for delivering entry passes to Davis on the block and finding him out of pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop action. They have also found Davis running the floor, using his guard-like acceleration to get ahead of the defense in transition for easy baskets. But credit must be given to Davis for positioning himself to receive passes and demanding the ball, something he has been criticized for not doing enough in the past.

Once his guards find him, it is up to Davis to finish. He has with near-precision accuracy, posting a true shooting percentage of 62.3 over this stretch. Davis finishes around and above the rim, hits floaters and mid-range jumpshots with a smooth touch, and even stretches out to the 3-point line on occasion (39.1% on 3.3 attempts during this stretch). He is everything you’d want from a modern offensive big man (preferably at center rather than power-forward, much to Davis’ dismay), and his strengths have been amplified to an even greater degree during this win-streak.

While averages paint a larger picture, his individual game performances over this stretch are worth noting as well. The Brow was just three assists away from a 5x5 (at least 5 points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks), something only 10 players have achieved in NBA history, in an overtime win over the Miami Heat. Davis gave the Pels a nasty 45/17/5/5 box score split. Just three days later, on the second night of a back-to-back, Davis outdid himself yet again. He dropped a godly 53 points, albeit against the lowly Phoenix Suns, to go along with 18 rebounds and five blocks.

So what does this success mean on a grander scale? Is Davis suddenly a legitimate candidate for MVP? It would take a major collapse from James Harden and the Houston Rockets, who are on an even more impressive win-streak of 14 games and are currently the number 1 seed in West. Harden seems to have the award essentially locked up, but it’s not inconceivable that, if the Pelicans continue to win close to this rate and achieve a top four seed, Davis is at least given serious consideration.

He surely has less talent around him than Harden, especially after losing Cousins. While Jrue Holiday has been playing some of his best basketball as of late, he’s no Chris Paul. Rajon Rondo, though he has played well during this win streak, has a -3.6 net-rating for the Pelicans this season. The fact that he’s the Pels’ starting point guard, forcing Holiday to slide to shooting guard, encapsulates their uneven roster construction. Recent additions like Nikola Mirotić help spread the floor and give Davis more space to operate, but it’s clear to see that the talent around Davis is less than optimal. And still, the Pelicans stand an impressive 35–26 with the potential to finish in the 3rd seed by the end of the season. There is something to be said for that when filling out an awards ballot.

It is just as likely, however, that they end up as the 9th or 10th seed and miss the playoffs entirely. One thing that has helped the Pelicans during this run is the volatility of the Western Conference. Currently, just four games separate the 3rd seed Timberwolves from the 10th seed Jazz. A win streak, like the one of which the Pels are currently in the midst, can make or break a season. There are still plenty of games left for them to regress and fall off completely. But if Davis can sustain even 90% of his current play and carry his wounded squad to the postseason (and preferably avoid the Warriors and Rockets in the first round), the Pelicans might be able to piece together a run before it’s all said and done. And Davis might just pick up an MVP award along the way.


writer, journalist. SFSU Journalism 2020 Warriors stories for the Martinez Tribune:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store