Anthony Davis is set to dominate the NBA but in not quite the way you think. All the talk of him expanding his range out to the three-point line has narrowed too many judgments. Of course, it's no surprise why.
AD will be entering his age-22 season -- he is still a baby when comparing NBA birth dates -- yet he has already dominated the competition regularly. Each following season has shown significant offensive improvement in metrics like PER, win share and true shooting percentage. Now, he is set to be featured in an offense that will better utilize his natural gifts, thereby creating an even greater disparity from among his peers.
Although all true, it should be accepted Davis is already near his offensive ceiling. In 2014-15, he became just the eighth player in history to finish with a PER of over 30.0. The highest PER of all time is Wilt Champerlain's 31.82.
Unless the league changes a rule or two, nutrition or stamina radically improves to the point a player can consistently play and play well for close to the entire 48 minutes, or AD blows away the record for touches for a big man, his offensive growth will slow, and eventually at some point, stagnate. Outside of increasing his range, the only area left that could develop a little further is in his passing game, both of which would barely move the needle.
No, Davis has more than likely reached close to his offensive peak. It's just happened a lot more quickly than for most other players, and until his numbers level off, many won't believe it until it happens before their very eyes. However, when considering his UK days and his almighty skills and talents, it is mildly surprising his overall defensive numbers still lag well behind. Normally, a player's career year offensively has coincided with his best defensive effort. Davis appears to be nowhere close.
Have a look at a comparison of four of the greatest defensive power forwards to play in the last 20 years during their age-21 seasons. Both Tyson Chandler and Tim Duncan are included because they legitimately played power forward at the time.
|Player||PER||Defensive Win Shares||Defensive Rating|
|2014-15 Anthony Davis||30.8||4.2||103.3|
|1997-98 Kevin Garnett||20.4||4.2||103.2|
|1997-98 Tim Duncan||22.6||7.2||96.0|
|2006-07 Josh Smith||18.3||4.0||105.8|
|2003-04 Tyson Chandler||14.2||1.2||97.1|
Next, have a look at the same players during the season they posted their best defensive win share numbers. Numbers in parentheses indicates the age of the player.
|Player||PER||Defensive Win Shares||Defensive Rating|
|??? Anthony Davis||???||???||???|
|2003-04 Kevin Garnett (27)||29.4||8.0||95.5|
|2003-04 Tim Duncan (27)||27.1||7.2||89.7|
|2009-10 Josh Smith (24)||21.0||5.1||102.9|
|2004-05 Tyson Chandler (22)||16.4||5.5||96.6|
As I'm sure you've noticed, it took several members of the group quite a few more years before they enjoyed their peak defensive seasons. However, I'm quite confident it's going to happen sooner rather than later for Anthony Davis and here's why.
Although Monty Williams was often referred to as a defensive coach, the numbers failed to back up that claim since the Davis generation began. I've written extensively about his failures in this regard, but for today all you need to know is that the Pelicans were consistently plagued by confusion. From the breakdowns witnessed by the hard-hedging action on pick and rolls to the improper schemes ran by Pelican wings when guarding opposing perimeter players, Monty's defense was often loosely reacting instead of specifically dictating where opponents should be going. And, any semblance of cohesion would usually evaporate when reserves entered the game.
Under Erman, both the Golden State Warriors and more recently the Boston Celtics have exceeded expectations because their defenses have tried really hard to force the issue. Their defenses have harassed opponents by bumping, grabbing and generally staying in the faces of their competition.
If you don't believe me that being a grade-A nuisance can supplant talent, one needs not look further than last year's group in Boston. Outside of 8 games of Brandan Wright, their roster didn't feature a single big man who was an above average athlete or rim defender, yet the Celtics finished 12th in team defensive rating. Despite Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Brandon Bass not even being close to holding opponents under 50% shooting at the rim, their team was better at reducing the opponents' opportunities within five feet while allowing conversions of these attempts at a very similar rate to the Pelicans. Boston forced more midrange shots although New Orleans possessed more size and shot-blocking prowess in the form of Davis, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca and Jeff Withey.
Thinking back to last season, how many times can you recall Anthony Davis looking confused, or worse, getting stuck in no man's land while his primary target burned him for an easy score? In a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last December, I detailed these exact woes. Blake Griffin and the Clippers were more physical with Davis while he and the rest of the Pelicans were not as aware nor as aggressive as they needed to be.
During the final week of the regular season, Davis still showed he wasn't able to impose his will against the Houston Rockets as time and again he gave preference to shadowing his assignment rather than make a play on another at the rim, in this case, usually James Harden. In that loss, the Pelicans gave up 52 points in the paint and were outscored 21-0 on fast break opportunities.
You can re-live some of those awful memories HERE, HERE and HERE. During this stretch of miscues, the Pelicans saw their late 3rd quarter 6-point lead evaporate to zero in the matter of minutes. No one talks about it, but this loss could have ended up costing New Orleans a playoff berth. Fortunately, they were able to beat the San Antonio Spurs on the final day of the regular season.
At the time, I wasn't quite sure who should have shouldered the majority of the blame for the ineptitude. Was it on AD for trying to guard two players at once because he was so successful at it before he came to the NBA? Or was the onus on Monty Williams for utilizing a less aggressive defense thereby placing Davis more on his heels than his toes?
Regardless, that doesn't matter now because a new coaching staff will be implementing new schemes and strategies. It's going to be centered around physicality, effort, positioning and awareness. The likely role model Erman, Gentry and the rest of the coaching staff will use for Anthony Davis? Hopefully, Kevin Garnett.
Several years ago, Drew Garrison broke down KG's defense. Have a READ if you've got the time, but what you should take away is that Garnett was able to equally, if not better, use his physical gifts and intelligence on the defensive side of the ball. If you've watched enough Pelicans games over the years (and have not automatically drooled over AD's steal and block highlights), you'd know this hasn't been the case with AD.
"I think that KG was a more sophisticated defender," Robson said. "You can fool Davis; it was very difficult to fool KG."
So, Davis half-heartedly waving at James Harden when flying by him last April like a matador does with a bull in a ring somewhere in Spain will be a thing of the past. No longer will AD remain passive in no man's land.
As witnessed in pictures yesterday, Anthony Davis seems to have the physicality side of things well under control. Much like how Garnett could push Karl Malone out of position, Davis should no longer be bullied by Blake Griffin or anyone else down low.
Further, we should expect AD will be even more prepared because he's been working with Erman this summer, reportedly averaging 20 minutes a day on defense alone. All those issues with screens that used to hang Davis up or not know when to make another assignment his primary target will be curtailed as Erman will make Davis aware of his surroundings. Just like how he taught Stephen Curry to roll defensively on picks, I'm confident Erman will find a solution because seeing is believing.
"The way he flies around with that size and length, his will to win, his will to be great, I mean he wants to be special," Erman said. "He's putting in the time to be special. Everyone wants to be special, but the time (Davis is putting in) is separating him. He's going to have a really good year and he'll be good defensively just because of his length and quickness to get somewhere is ridiculous."
Several days ago, David aptly compared Davis to both Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Naturally, he focused on the group's finished production that sits on Basketball Reference or some other site rather than try to unnecessarily compare career results. As in the championship rings department, Davis' team defense capabilities are yet to take off.
Since the turn of the millennia, there have been 88 instances of NBA players having posted a higher defensive win share total than Davis' mark of 4.2 in 2014-15. While that's most definitely not been the case offensively, it appears the winds of change are about to blow defensively. Anthony Davis is likely going to make one final leap in his career this upcoming season. Are you ready for it?