Anthony Davis, the first overall pick of the 2012 NBA draft, has made plenty of noise early in the season. In the opener, he scored 26 points (on 22 shots), grabbed 17 rebounds, swatted 9 shots (yes, nine) and stole 3 possessions, whilst not giving any additional possessions to the opponent (0 turnovers). He followed that up with an equally impressive 31 point (on 21 shots), 15 rebound, 3 block, 2 steal performance in a close game against Dallas.
Through 6 games, Davis is averaging 24.8 points, 13 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.5 steals, 4 blocks and barely a turnover a game. He leads the league with a PER of 35.7 and a VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) of 8.6, 2nd best in the league. The dude is a stud and an MVP trophy this year is not out of the discussion. At this point, it's all dependent on how long New Orleans can stay in the hunt for a Top 4 seed in the West. Not probable but definitely not close to an impossibility.
Anthony Davis' Versatility
Building a roster around such a dynamic player has its pros. For starters, the supply-and-demand of certain key skills (shooting = not-so-short on supply, interior defense = in short supply) isn't as big of a factor here. Building a roster around someone like Stephen Curry, James Harden or Carmelo Anthony requires you to have more defenders around (at least more than the usual, whatever that is). Building a team around Dwight Howard requires you to have more shooters around. Anthony Davis, growing up as a guard then transitioning slowly to whatever position he is right now, doesn't face any of those issues.
We've seen that early in the season. He plays well with Asik, creating a dynamic defensive duo that limits opponents to just 93.1 points per 100. He plays with Anderson and an unparalleled inside-out combo is formed that stretches the defense beyond imagination, scoring 127 points per 100 (surprisingly, close to the numbers in the past two seasons).
It's not a question of whether Anthony Davis can dominate. He is fantastic alongside either one of them, it's just a matter of where he's needed most. Such is the gift of transcendental talent. Per NBAWowy, his rebounding numbers boost up when Anderson is on the court, grabbing about 19.5 percent of available rebounds while his points per possession drop to 1.16. Conversely, the opposite occurs when he's on the court with Asik -- his rebounding numbers drop but the points per possession increase to 1.21. Moreover, his mid-range attempts spike alongside Asik, yet his shooting is more proficient than when he's on the floor with Anderson.
It works as a very dangerous, potent and game long 3-big man assault for the Pelicans. According to 82games.com, the Pelicans own the highest PER differential production from the power forward position -- a massive +11.6. Only Dallas come closest.
At the center position (where AD spends about 35% of his time, with Asik eating 61 percent of those center minutes, the rest going to Ajinca), the Pelicans own the 8th best PER differential. Combined, only Dallas comes closest (+15.2 compare to the +16 the Pels get from both positions combined). Rarely will you see all three guys struggle to contribute meaningfully in a game.
Living on Borrowed Time
Despite, Anderson and Asik eating up 26 percent of the salary cap, this setup works only because AD is still in his rookie contract (worth around 5.6 million this season). Combined, all three of them account for 35 percent of the Pelicans' salary cap. Once AD inevitably eats up 30 percent of the salary cap when he signs his max contract (and invokes the "Derrick Rose" rule), we can't have more than half of our cap earmarked for just two positions. Economically, that isn't feasible. Now, New Orleans management may be inclined to do so if it can't find any other way, but there's no way Anderson, Davis and Asik can play together on the court for a long stretch, in the regular season or in the playoffs. Thus, it would mean at least 15 percent of the team salary would sit on the bench every time. Not ideal.
Complicating all of this is Tyreke Evans. The 2010 Rookie of the Year is versatile in a lot of things but deficient in one crucial area (for a swingman) -- the guy isn't built to be a shooter. In each of the past 5 seasons, shots anywhere outside of 3 feet clang more than a two-thirds of the time. And that's okay. He's a master at penetrating, despite his lack of off-the-dribble shooting. He's a great facilitator and he knows how to suck defenses in and create havoc. He's due to make 10.7 and 10.2 million in the next two seasons in a declining cap. Well played, Dell.
But, Tyreke is a liability when he doesn't have the ball in his hands and when he doesn't have enough spacing with him. Anthony Davis developing a jumper has helped a lot in that regard, yet Davis is most effective when he's closer to the basket. Early returns on Evans pairing with the AD-Asik duo has yielded awful results for him so far, shooting just 34.8 percent at the rim. I am inclined to believe this isn't a 6-game blip.
On the other hand, any slasher who runs with the Ryno-AD excels, especially if the said slasher is an excellent kickout passer as well.
All of this is to say that with Asik due for an extension (and the Pelicans having his Bird rights), Anderson on the last 2 years of his contract AND Davis due for an extension in three years, you're probably looking at what will become an audition for who gets to play alongside the young superstar. Evans will probably be here to stay -- Demps likes versatile and young swingmen.
Devoting a big chunk of your salary cap on your best 5 is smart -- Jrue/Reke combining for 20 million (and they'll only be 25~26 by the end of their respective contracts) and AD eating another 20 million (maybe more). That leaves just about 30 million to fill two more starting spots and a bench. As I said, the Pelicans organization might be inclined to just keep both of them (eating another 9~12 million each, PROBABLY) and fill that final spot with a filler. However, come crunch time, one of Ryno/Asik won't be on the court. That's economic waste.
The inescapable truth is that if the Pels want to create a lasting contender: they have to either let one of Ryno/Asik go in the future OR hit a jackpot on a swingman in the draft that can act as a cheap 3&D option. The latter is harder and harder to do with each passing year (because more teams are paying attention for that rare dual skill) which leaves the Pels with the former as the only option.
We would all hate to see that happen considering how much fun it has been watching the Pels dominate the big man match-ups this season.