After Saturday's exhibition game between the Pelicans and the Pacers, Paul George was ready to give up on the experiment at power forward. He may very well be right in that he should not be put through an 82-game season banging against bigger, stronger athletes and forgo his natural advantage at the small forward slot.
Matching his comments from earlier this off-season, it's clear George has had reservations about a position shift for some time now, and playing against other NBA competition for the first time, he was overwhelmed. However, there is one important distinction he needed to remember before throwing in the towel: Anthony Davis.
Davis just might be the hardest player in the league to guard, for players out of position or not. Last year's Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green, watched on helplessly as Davis averaged 31.5 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.3 steals and 3 blocks in four playoff games. Some foolishly believed Green was having an effect early in the series, but as time went on, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Thus, although Davis was on the floor for less than 16 minutes in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, his 18 points and 8 rebounds performance had a profound effect on George. The reason being is because nearly half the time the Pelicans had possession, Davis was involved; AD's usage percentage was 43.5%. For those unfamiliar with the advanced stat, it means that 43.5% of the time Anthony Davis was on the court, the Pelicans possession ended with him shooting the ball, turning it over or getting to the free throw line.
Last season, Davis had a 27.8 Usage percentage, the highest of his career, and it was good for 13th in the league. The league leader was Russell Westbrook with a robust 38.4%. During the playoffs, Davis increased his usage to 30.8%, but in hindsight, that may have not been enough. For instance, LeBron James went on to have a record setting 2015 NBA Finals despite not taking home the trophy. It wasn't for a lack of effort by the the greatest player in the game; the Cavaliers had James finish around 40% of plays when he was on the floor.
Not long after the Pelicans were sent packing by the Golden State Warriors, Monty Williams was fired and Alvin Gentry was hired. One of the main reasons the then-assistant coach of the Warriors reportedly won the job was because he convinced Dell Demps that Davis was being underutilized on offense.
Primarily responsible for the Warriors offense — top-rated for most of the season — Gentry believes the Pelicans have underutilized Davis’ offensive skills. Not only did he express this during his initial interview with Loomis and Demps, but Gentry also came into that session equipped with charts and graphs to illustrate his point.
Back on June 1, I broke down how Alvin Gentry was going to immediately help the offense, and one of those three parts included Davis getting more touches within a game. Davis had a season where he finished with a PER over 30, just the sixth player to achieve that feat since the turn of the century. Yet, only he and Chris Paul are the only players to have Usage rates under 30%. Paul's 27.5 Usage% is understandable, though, as his position usually has the responsibility of getting teammates involved. CP3 touched the ball per game more than any other player in the NBA outside of John Wall and Michael Carter Williams, but he choose to pass it nearly 75% of the time.
Davis, conversely, touched the ball 60% less often than Chris Paul. The difference isn't entirely implausible as Chris Paul is a pass-first point guard as to where Davis relies on others to bring the ball up the floor and set the offense. However, more could have been done to increase Davis' front court touches as evidenced by how often other power forwards were included within their team strategies.
Front Court Touches Points per Half Court Touch Anthony Davis 37.7 .65 Draymond Green 38.9 .30 Pau Gasol 40.5 .46 LaMarcus Aldridge 41.2 .57 Paul Millsap 42.6 .39 Derrick Favors 43.7 .37 Blake Griffin 58.9 .37
Pretty sickening stuff. Davis registered the same points per half court touch as he did in 2014; in other words, he dominated again. This time around the mark was good for 4th in the league, trailing only 3 centers (Valanciunas, Drummond and Lopez). Unfortunately, his front court touches improved merely from 159th to 105th (among players who averaged 25+ minutes per game). Yes, it was an improvement, but no way was it enough.
Part of the reason was the fact that the Pelicans offense passes the ball less than any other team in the NBA, but the greater part of the blame must be assigned to Monty's offense, a guard-centric strategy. Tyreke Evans led the team with 64.6 touches in the front court, Holiday averaged 60.4 and Eric Gordon even managed a clip of 36.9.
Thus, amid the 277.6 front court touches the Pelicans averaged per game, Davis received the ball 13.4% of the time after the ball crossed half court. In comparison, Griffin received the ball 19.5% of the time on the Clippers. When one factors in the amount of improvement in Davis' decision making, the disparity in touches between these two players was absurd.
Yep, one of the best weapons in the league saw six other starting power forwards receive more touches. Apparently, some among management hit my level of impatience stemming from over the last few seasons. Hence, the team feels apt to boast continuity but with a different coaching staff for the coming season.
Many will rightfully argue it's been only one preseason game in early October, against a team that will be lucky to fill the gaping hole left in their defense with the departure of Roy Hibbert. Yet, Davis' 43.5 Usage% should have you giddy. It wasn't points higher from last year, it lay in an entirely different layer of the atmosphere. Don't believe me? Have a look at some of his highlights -- the strategic changes are real and they could make a large impact.
In particular, pay attention to the very first possession of the game. Last season, a lot of opening possessions for the Pelicans began with an Anthony Davis touch; however, they were all predictable. He would receive the ball on the perimeter, square up the defense, and the rest solely sat on his shoulders. Normally, he resorted to taking a jumper with a hand in his face.
On Saturday, things were markedly different. Davis got an initial touch at the top of the key, made a one-dribble move to his right, handed the ball off to Jrue Holiday and immediately got the ball right back.
***** ALERT: Gentry's famed ball movement and player movement at work*****
Paul George was late getting back to AD and this allowed Davis to get off a rather uncontested attempt from midrange, an area Davis really improved from during last season. There is a really big difference in getting an opening shot within the flow of an offense instead of from a near catatonic state.
Just how many more possessions Davis receives this season is up in the air, but there is a strong likelihood his Usage percentage will finish over 30%. Between Gentry's promise and the newly installed uptempo offense, it's impossible to not imagine AD hit a mark where superstars regularly reside. Moreover, when he does, he'll witness another statistical spike.
Only 5 players in the history of the NBA have produced 13 or more Win Shares in their age-21 seasons. None were as productive as Davis, and if he hadn't of missed 14 games, he would have finished with the highest number of Win Shares among the group.
However, what I want to take from the list above is not their numbers, but rather the names. I'm sure many would agree the four listed alongside Davis are or were superstars in the league. Each of them started with Usage percentages in the 20's, but soon enough, consistently sat in the 30% range. When they surpassed this magical barrier, nearly all of their numbers jumped.
Note: With Michael Jordan missing nearly all of his sophomore campaign but displaying an identical usage increase, the author substituted for his third season numbers.
|Usage increase||Points Per 36 increase||PER increase||Win Share increase|
If Gentry's offense unlocks Anthony Davis to a tune similar to anything witnessed in the Pelicans first preseason game against the Indiana Pacers, Davis could theoretically approach a season that borders Jordan's magical 1986-87 season.
Truth be told, the idea isn't that far-fetched as the Pelicans will almost assuredly go from one of the slowest paced teams to one of the quickest. Less than a week ago, the team took 103 shots, which last season they managed to break 100 attempts just twice.
And with the league trend continuing towards small ball -- like the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers joining the herd of jackrabbits -- Davis' raw talents and new 253 pound frame will be able to impose a greater will on the basketball floor.
Plan on guarding Davis with quickness? He'll take you down inside the paint and punish you repeatedly as Paul George witnessed several days ago. Assign a more traditional forward and the competition will likely see the new-found range, or a dribble-drive game that leaves even the more nimble PFs treading in AD's wake to the rim.
Gentry has promised Davis will lead the team in points per game -- that's coach speak for he's the best player on the team-- and the team will go to that well as many times as it can. Anthony Davis is staring an MVP-type of season, one that should result in a number of personal bests. Just as Michael Jordan asserted himself with the Chicago Bulls and went on to lead the league in points, PER, Usage and Win Shares for close to a decade, it's more probable than not Davis is about to set a few personal bests of his own.
Don't worry, Paul, most of your nights at the 4 are not going to produce as much consternation.