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2015-16 Player Reviews: Anthony Davis finishes an incredible season early with injury disappointment

Only when fans expect a spectacular season can a great one feel like such a disappointment.

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Davis had a great season. Period. In the last ten seasons Davis is the only player to average at least 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks a game. He's accomplished that in back-to-back seasons for the New Orleans PelicansOpen it up to the past 30 seasons and just five players have accomplished that more than once; Shaquille O'Neal (7 times), Hakeem Olajuwon (6), David Robinson (5), and Patrick Ewing (4). Kevin Garnett (2004) and Tim Duncan (2002) have each accomplished that feat once; each won the NBA MVP the year they did so. Olajuwon (1994), Robinson (1995), and O'Neal (2000) also won their lone career MVPs averaging at least 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks.

Anthony Davis and Shaquille O'Neal are the only players in NBA history to do so in their age 21 and 22 years. O'Neal did so when it was common place among elite big men; his first season doing so he was joined by Ewing, Olajuwon, and Robinson. Ewing was the only of the group to fail to do so again in 1995. What Anthony Davis is accomplishing, considering the era, is amazing.

But, for Davis and fans around the league, somehow transcendent is not enough. A man who has played just five NBA games since turning 23 years old is failing to reach expectations.

Doesn't that strike you as absurd?

Still great compared to the greatest power forwards of all-time

PER 23.8 25.1 22.4
PTS/100 30.7 34.0 28.9
FGA/100 23.6 26.0 26.7
FG% 49.9% 49.3% 46.0%
FTA/100 11.2 9.9 6.1
FT% 61.8% 75.8% 70.4%
Rebounds/100 16.8 14.4 14.5
Assists/100 4.1 2.7 6.0
Blocks/100 3.2 2.9 2.5
Steals/100 1.2 1.8 2.3
Turnovers/100 4.1 2.8 4.0
TS% 53.6% 55.9% 49.3%
eFG% 50.2% 50.8% 46.2%
ORB% 9.7% 6.4% 9.7%
DRB% 25.1% 26.2% 22.0%
TRB% 17.8% 16.0% 15.4%
TOV% 12.5% 8.4% 12.0%
USG% 28.7% 29.6% 27.8%
ORtg 106 110 102
DRtg 94 104 97
WS 13.2 7.4 5.4
WS/48 0.200 0.165 0.146

Stats via Basketball Reference

Comparing Davis in his fourth season to Duncan and Garnett is illustrative to the ridiculously high expectations all of us held for AD. Despite taking a significant step back (more on that momentarily) offensively Davis was still the most efficient big man in this group. One factor makes this impressive.

Illegal defense, beyond defensive three seconds, was eliminated in the 2001-02 season. Tim Duncan's fourth year was the 2000-01 year, Garnett's in 1998-99. That change means Davis is battling more defenders on the strong side with more complex weakside zone techniques than either Duncan or Garnett. More defenders are available to obstruct the basket in today's NBA than in the "old" days.

Do Pelicans migrate?

Now lets focus on Davis alone, and his slow and steady migration away from the basket. This, more than anything, is why AD's efficiency dropped off this season.

0-3 FEET 3-8 FEET 8-16 FEET 16-3PT 3PT
FG% %FG FG% %FG FG% %FG FG% %FG eFG% %FG
Anthony Davis - 19 68.3% 51.3% 43.5% 10.2% 40.7% 16.0% 26.0% 21.6% 0.0% 0.9%
Anthony Davis - 20 67.6% 44.5% 39.8% 11.7% 42.3% 22.1% 36.8% 20.8% 33.3% 0.9%
Anthony Davis - 21 71.2% 38.8% 39.6% 9.3% 45.7% 22.1% 41.9% 28.9% 12.5% 1.0%
Anthony Davis - 22 67.7% 31.6% 46.1% 11.3% 38.9% 23.1% 43.4% 24.6% 48.6% 9.5%

Statistics from NBA Stats

Davis continues to take fewer shots in the restricted area while he is taking more and more jump shots. Last season almost 30% of his attempts came beyond 16 feet and 38.8% were in the restricted area. This year shots beyond 16 feet increased to over 35% of his attempts while restricted area shots decreased to 31.6%. The remaining lost shots in the restricted area came between three and eight feet. While AD improved significantly in that range it is no match for his conversion rate at the rim.

Not crashing the offensive glass

Another area that Davis is trending away from is offensive rebounding. Using Synergy Sports information, statistics from Basketball Reference, and SportVU data (which does not include his rookie season) we can see Davis is gathering fewer offensive rebounds as he drifts further and further from the basket.

Frequency PPP Rank OReb% OReb Chances/36 Oreb Chance%
Anthony Davis - 19 14.1% 1.19 75% 10.5%
Anthony Davis - 20 12.8% 1.27 87% 10.0% 5.5 63.7%
Anthony Davis - 21 9.6% 1.31 87% 8.0% 6.7 68.7%
Anthony Davis - 22 6.4% 1.34 94% 6.4% 4.0 57.0%

Frequency is the proportion of offense which came from putbacks that season, which has declined precipitously along with AD's offensive rebound rate. Some of that decline is thanks to Davis using more possessions overall, especially creating for himself. However, as you can see by his declining offensive rebound rate the bigger culprit here is Davis not chasing as frequently. Offensive rebound chances per 36 minutes are how frequently Davis is within 3.5 feet of a potential offensive board, and chance percentage is how frequently Davis collects those chances.

Decline in most efficient areas

Anthony Davis was supposed to be unleashed by Alvin Gentry. Instead he was hamstrung. Promises of pace? Davis used fewer possessions in transition at the least efficient rate in his career. He also declined below his rookie year pace in the pick and roll. This is partly a product of the rotating door at point guard but also thanks to Alvin Gentry refusing to start Jrue Holiday for months.

AD Synergy

In all manner of "easy" points Davis is using less. Fewer possessions in transition, fewer possessions off cuts (those super easy dump offs where Davis excels in the "dunker" position roaming the baseline), and fewer putback opportunities. Instead, Pelican fans saw a massive increase in post-up possessions. Anthony Davis used 262 post up possessions according to Synergy Sports, 16th in the league. Of the 17 players to use at least 250 such possessions only Andre Drummond (0.731) was less efficient than Davis. Overall Davis ranked in the 34th percentile on post ups.

Post ups are inefficient offense in general, overarching terms. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, and Atlanta Hawks score at superior rate on post ups than a typical Philadelphia 76ers offensive possession. That's really, really bad! The Pelicans are low as a team in post up usage but nearly half of their possessions were used by Davis alone.

Exit interview

Anthony Davis simultaneously distanced himself from the hoop (more jump shots, less offensive rebounds, less cuts) and increased his post up usage. That's an awful combination. Anthony Davis was not unleashed this season; he was shackled away from the basket and into some of the least efficient possessions available. As the season went on and the Pelicans drifted away from those post ups Davis improved, culminating in a historic 59 point, 20 rebound explosion against the Detroit Pistons.

Beyond offense, Davis still has a long way to go on the other side of the ball. His help defense remains haphazard at best. Looking for highlight reel plays? Davis still provides on defense. The simple rotation over to cut off a driving lane, however, rarely makes Sportscenter. Big man defense is far more complex than meets the eye, a ballet of angles and anticipation that takes years to learn. Stupendous athleticism and length allows AD to make plays few can imagine. What is missing are the routine plays to turn a bad defense into a respectable one over an 82 game grind.

Finally, we come to injuries. Anthony Davis had an ultrasonic debridement of his left knee which was expected to put him out at least three months. Davis is already off crutches and is already rehabbing his torn labrum. The Pelicans medical department remains a question mark and Justin Verrier of ESPN took a hard look at their processes earlier in the week.

Davis has yet to play 2,500 minutes in a season, which would be an average of 30.5 minutes per game over 82 games. (AD's season high in games played is 68.) The goal for Davis should be at least 75 games next season and averaging at least 34 minutes per game, pushing him over the 2,500 minute plateau. The problem here is not toughness; remember that Davis played three seasons with a torn labrum. Davis played at least 38 minutes 28 times this season. That load is far too heavy. 32-36 minutes should be the goal; not a minutes restriction per se but a target range. Davis logged more than 36 minutes in 39 of the 61 games he played in this season. Too many.

Let's see what a healthy Anthony Davis can deliver after a slow summer without the Summer Olympics. If the 2015-16 season constitutes a step back I am waiting with bated breath for the next leap forward.