Anthony Davis has not been himself in three early games. At times he has flashed that otherworldly athleticism to do things only he can, but much of the time he has seemed rather ordinary. Tonight Davis made just three baskets. All were open dunks assisted by a guard; one was playground-worthy cherry picking. New Orleans Pelicans guards also set him up on four open catch-and-shoot opportunities, two of which were behind the arc. All were missed and his last such attempt, from the left wing with a chance to cut the lead to just three points with 5:40 remaining, fell woefully short.
Reasonable explanations on why are difficult to find. At that point Davis had played just 31 minutes. Alvin Gentry got AD nearly six minutes of game time rest; Davis was subbed out at 2:31 remaining in the third quarter and did not sub him back in until the 9:03 mark of the fourth quarter. Still, expecting Davis to make every open shot seems unrealistic. The more troubling issue is his body language, which can best be described as sour. It certainly jumped out to NBA writer extraordinaire Zach Lowe.
There have been too many possessions already this season in which Anthony Davis flat hasn't played hard enough.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) November 4, 2015
The Pelicans have been ravaged by injuries. A slow start was to be expected. However, like many people who cover the team I expected Anthony Davis to shoulder a bigger load in carrying the team to some semblance of respectability. Instead the exact opposite has occurred. Slow starts are a reoccurring issue and Davis, shooting just 31.6% in first quarters this season, appears to be at the center of it all. The rest of the roster is shooting a slightly more robust, but still horrendous, 41.7%.
New Orleans would struggle to win games with AD performing this poorly with their full compliment of players. Injuries make that task nearly impossible. And still, with six minutes to go the Pelicans had every opportunity to make a game of it.
No, really there were some positives tonight. The Pelicans created 50 uncontested shots tonight on offense. These were not the kind of shots any reasonable defense would prefer to concede. Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, and Luke Babbitt attempted 36 of those shots and converted just 13. 36% on uncontested jumpers is not going to get the job done in the NBA. Those four players are the most dangerous shooters on the roster, healthy or not. The process is still unsightly at times but the goal of any system is to create open shots for good shooters.
Jrue Holiday's minutes appeared to be much more closely monitored tonight as he logged just 23:24. If, as Alvin Gentry stated after Saturday's game Holiday's limit is 25 it is good to see the team sticking more closely to it despite the result of the game. While Jrue did not have his most efficient game tonight the Pelicans were much better with him on the court (105.9 ORtg, 90.4 DRtg) than off (74.6 ORtg, 108.4 DRtg) against the Magic. Holiday's +8 led the team.
Tonight New Orleans attempted more shots in the restricted area (30 to 29), more corner 3-pointers (15 to 2), and more free throws (25 to 12). That is a long term ticket to success but also adds in a much greater possibility for variance, especially with the uptick in 3-point attempts.
Defense has gone missing
Orlando failed to score a point per possession tonight, posting an anemic 99.7 offensive rating. Much of that inefficiency is thanks to their 18 turnovers, many of which appeared at first glance to be of the unforced variety. Holding opponents below a point per possession is the gold standard of NBA defense. Doing so on a regular basis could put the Pelicans in the top five in the league.
However, despite what those numbers say tonight I did not see good defense from New Orleans. There were bouts and fits of quality defense that regularly ended with a breakdown in concentration. No possession more adequately describes this than Elfrid Payton's red carpet dunk with 4:19 to go in the fourth quarter.
Eric Gordon navigated a double pindown screen and then got over a half hearted pick by Tobias Harris. Luke Babbitt and Anthony Davis ICE'd a side screen and roll. Babbitt then forced Evan Fournier baseline away from the middle of the court. His four teammates, especially Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon, watched helplessly as Payton slashed to the basket to put down an uncontested dunk to push the Magic lead back to eight points. That's 15 seconds of solid defense throw away by a mental breakdown.
As Fournier moves toward the baseline Anderson steps into the paint momentarily. Holiday, seeing Anderson's move into the paint and Tobias Harris sliding to the weak corner, begins to slide down probably hoping to force a turnover or at least be prepared to close out if Fournier kicks it out. Anderson instead of committing defensively attempts to recover at this moment leaving the rim completely undefended as Payton cuts right down the lane. Anthony Davis, having completed his ICE assignment, just watches it all unfold.
Complete miscommunication combined with absent weakside help was again the culprit for this Dewayne Dedmon dunk. Anderson is chasing Jason Smith into the corner while everyone else watches. Alexis Ajinca does not even get a sneaker into the paint.
The offense is going to come around, of that I have no doubt. A slow start on offense despite solid shot selection was the story at this point last season as well, and we know that story turned out rather well. Defensively I am less convinced. Darren Erman is a well-respected defensive mind and the architect of the Golden State Warriors terrifying defensive behemoth. He does not appear to be a miracle worker. There is a chance that putting Omer Asik, the most vocal Pelican defender, in the rotation once healthy can clean up clear communication mishaps. None of that is going to make Eric Gordon taller, Ryan Anderson faster, or Anthony Davis more willing to help off the weak side.
Gordon and Anderson's weaknesses are well-known. Both are also in contract years and could be in different uniforms next season. Davis, just as on offense, is another story. Those who actually watch every Pelicans game see more than the highlight blocks or superb rotations that find their way onto ESPN or Twitter. Davis routinely fails to help off his man, seemingly unwilling to provide a challenge to opponents unless a near guaranteed block opportunity presents itself. Oftentimes he sticks to non-shooters rather than provide even token resistance against far more dangerous threats. This is not a new development. It has been ongoing for years, something Oleh and I have pointed out to anyone willing to listen.
The only way the Pelicans are going to battle through the crucible of this schedule and the injury load is if Anthony Davis begins to play like the MVP candidate nearly every basketball mind expected him to be this season. So far Davis has failed to reach those admittedly lofty expectations. An 0-4 start is the predictable result.