This past Friday, I took a look at Omer Asik in light of the Greg Monroe and Kenneth Faried rumors and concluded that the New Orleans Pelicans can no longer afford to give the plodding big man sizable minutes if his play mirrors the results from the past two years. With the roster as currently constructed, Anthony Davis is the most logical candidate to fill the vast majority minutes at center.
The Pelicans have finished in the bottom third of the NBA in defensive rating in each of the first four years of Davis’ career. A review of the rankings is a friendly reminder of the futility: 28th, 22nd, 25th and 28th. This fact is made even more unfathomable when considering the 2012 NABC Defensive Player of the Year was the backbone of the last championship team from the esteemed University of Kentucky.
That Coach Calipari-led squad gave up a paltry 60.6 points per game and forced opponents to shoot a 37.4 FG%, the stingiest conversion rate among Division I NCAA schools that season. If Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Terrence Jones were beat by their assignments, the Kentucky Wildcats had the perfect backup plan lying in wait, Anthony Davis. Did you remember the Wildcats center altered 18.2% of opponent shot attempts in the 2012 NCAA tournament and recorded 29 blocks in the six postseason games? His fingerprints were all over their defense and he was rightly named the Most Outstanding Player.
Upon entering the league, the 220-pound body shifted to power forward, a move designed to reduce the additional poundings the 19-year-old would have endured at center. Fast forward to four years later and Davis remains at the same position but now tips the scales at a minimum of 254 pounds. The additional gains in strength and weight have helped him in several facets of the game except for the most enviable one: avoiding injury. Davis has missed double digit games every season he’s been in the league, including 21 in 2015-16 — the highest total of his career.
Depending on your age, an easy comparison should spring to mind: Marcus Camby. In his first four professional seasons, the UMass product missed an average of 16.25 games a season. Davis? 17. Camby would go on to have a long 17-year career but topped the 70 games played plateau just four times.
Can Davis avoid following Camby step for step in the longevity-without-durability plan?
No sane person has the answer to that question, but it’s time to take the training wheels off because the Pelicans have repeatedly failed to gain the intended competitive advantage. Protecting Davis by trying to hide him at the four has not had the desired outcome of keeping him healthy for an entire season. Instead, it’s pushed his freakish athleticism further and further away from the rim, both lowering his efficiency and overall impact on games.
Just in case you had forgotten, this was all by design, at least defensively, as Davis and Alvin Gentry revealed to Sean Deveney last October.
Davis recalled with a laugh. “The way we play defense, it’s a different scheme. Now, I am on the perimeter a lot. … But I am not worried about blocking shots. The defense that we run, the scheme, it is all OK. It’s going to happen on its own.”
There was no question that new Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry was going to make this a more uptempo team. But talk to Gentry for a bit about his team, and it’s clear where his real concern lies: getting this group to alter its approach to defense.
And Gentry would prefer Davis not lead the league in blocks again.
“I just didn’t think that putting the onus on him to protect the rim drive after drive after drive was right,” Gentry told Sporting News. “That is really unfair to ask. We have to try to protect him by keeping everybody out of the paint, making everybody become a jump-shooting team. If we do that and then he leads the league in blocked shots, that’s a different story because we want to cut down on the number of attempts he has at that.”
Hmm. Imagine if the 13th greatest shot blocker in the NBA was asked to chase around wings and not make rim protection a priority?
Anthony Davis posted a superior track record of shutting down the paint as a freshman in college. He’s proven to possess an excellent ability of altering shots in the NBA. And yet the coaching staff decided it best to increase his time on the perimeter, entrusting the rim protection to a center whose skills in that area have slipped since departing Houston.
We should all understand what the organization tried to do. Davis prefers spending time at power forward and the roster was assembled to meet this demand. I mean is there any other conceivable reason why Dell Demps re-signed Asik and Alexis Ajinca and added Kendrick Perkins... Why Gentry stated Asik was going to imitate Andrew Bogut in his system?
As was stated last Friday, this Asik plan has racked up a ton of failed minutes, so it’s time for the Pelicans to try and regain the advantages of such a game-changing talent and for Davis to acquiesce. For as long as he’s available in uniform and not a suit, the franchise must look to create mismatches similar to what Amare Stoudemire did for the Phoenix Suns, Chris Bosh for the Miami Heat and Pau Gasol for the Los Angeles Lakers — incidentally three players possessing less girth than Davis.
In addition to the changing modern landscape, a new wrinkle developed last season: the placement of smaller, quicker defenders on Davis. A number of articles have been written that have highlighted the magnetic effect of Anthony Davis on entire defenses, however, the league is catching up. Simply put, Davis was a scarier, more disruptive force on offense prior to last season, and until he learns to consistently punish opponents for this strategy in the post or the Pelicans coaching staff makes the necessary adjustments by increasing his opportunities around the rim, he will remain leashed similar to a dangerous junkyard dog.
Remember that 59-point game back on January 21, 2016?
Andre Drummond probably does as he helplessly watched Davis go off during the final stretch of the Pelicans-Pistons matchup. Stan Van Gundy was steadfast in his strategy of not double-teaming Davis, and the superstar took full advantage of all mismatches.
Unfortunately, nearly all opponents do not walk into arenas carrying silver platters but rather aim to practice deterrence. Davis possesses uncanny speed for his size and a deft perimeter touch, but it was all too often neutralized last season with quicker, more versatile defenders and opposing centers eager to leave Asik to go help.
Barring the addition of a Tim Duncan post-game for Davis, the easiest way for the Pelicans to circumvent this strategy is to employ AD at center a lot more often. Two years ago, when Asik, Alexis Ajinca and Jeff Withey sat, the offense hummed along to a tune of 116 points per 100 possessions. Under Alvin Gentry, the offense produced an average of 111 points per 100 possessions when the triumvirate of Asik, Ajinca and Kendrick Perkins were off the floor.
During these explosions by the high-octane offenses, the defenses were not noticeably worse whereby killing the gains made on offense. How’s this for the ultimate litmus test? In the 4-game postseason sweep two seasons ago, the Pelicans bested the Warriors by a margin of 109.7 points to 108.1 when Davis operated as the team’s center. Now what if Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and other poor defenders could have been replaced by hardened blue collar workers?
Oh wait, I see you Solomon Hill, Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore!
If Asik quickly proves to be same old song and dance that we’ve become accustomed to, the Pelicans must put an end to that experiment once and for all. Outside of Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins and Drummond, how many oversized specimens remain?
Please don’t second guess opening up the offense and putting the team’s best rim protector at center. Anthony Davis needs to be given the freedom to kick as much ass as possible if New Orleans has any hopes of rumbling through the Western Conference.