I’ll start with my 2016 player preview series with the focal point. As Anthony Davis goes, so will the Pelicans. It’s pretty simple. On media day Alvin Gentry seemed to take great exception to the suggestion that Davis had a down year under his control. However, I’m not alone in thinking Alvin is putting some lipstick on a pig — though it was still a beautiful award-winning pig. Oleh Kosel and I recently joined the Limited Upside podcast to discuss the Pelicans with SB Nation NBA editor, Mike Prada, where we opened up with a breakdown of AD’s year. You can listen to it here, but I’ll delve a little deeper in this column.
Gentry soft-peddled his dip in numbers with the fact that Davis would try to play games he shouldn’t have due to injury and have to leave early, or that he would leave games early when injured. This argument is the equivalent of an infomercial’s “dramatic reenactment” of a menial task that is suddenly absurdly difficult without the use of the product being hocked.
This has been AD’s life ever since he’s been in New Orleans. Also, under Gentry the Pelicans averaged 100.2 possessions per game. In 2014-15 the Pelicans averaged only 95.1 possessions per game, which obviously resulted in less opportunities to post stats. Aside from those obvious statements, his efficiency and shooting percentages dropped. Some will argue that it’s because he is taking threes — which is obviously the mathematical answer to those two issues — but one should ask why he’s taking so many?
Is Davis’ three-point shooting really stretching the defense? If so, who is that really creating space for? Is that space provided/the points from made shots more valuable than the opportunities created by keeping AD near the basket? Also, what impact has misses from beyond the arc or deep midrange from your top rebounder have on your transition defense? Look, it is great that he’s expanding his game and trying to be a more well-rounded player. Gaining a tool that can be used when needed is great, but getting yourself away from the skills that make you a top-5 player in the league to gain a league average level at best of skill seems counterproductive.
I really believe Anthony Davis was not comfortable in that Channing Frye stretch role that Alvin Gentry stuck him with repeatedly. You could see it in his body language all year. Some nights he was totally disconnected. Oleh and I discuss our games against Washington last season often, and I recently heard Ryan Schwan echo the same dismay over how much Jared Dudley dominated Anthony Davis defensively in those matchups. I have respect for Dudley’s game, but he’s not a great athlete at this point. He is a dirt dog. He’s a super effort guy with a high basketball IQ. However, someone with Davis’ physical gifts and basketball skill should not be made to look that average.
If you just look at his numbers in the first meeting in NO, they don’t scream bad game. However, Dudley really prevented Davis from getting fed the ball. AD struggled to work his way free to get entry passes. The loss in Washington was a terrible game. In 37 minutes he only managed to take 9 shots and converted on only 33% of them for 9 points. The Tyreke haters can’t blame this one on him, as he was already done for the year. Davis could not separate from Dudley — nor could he convert when he did have a shot.
I was no fan of Monty Williams, but I never saw that Anthony Davis under Monty. For all of my gripes about Monty, he understood that AD was a facing big, that was devastating in pick-and-roll and was like Kanye West looking into a mirror that reflected into another mirror that reflected into a house of mirrors with his love of the putback jam. We should also note that not only is AD going after Kobe assists historically efficient, beyond the boxscore it demoralizes opponents. Davis knocking down a 17’ jumper doesn’t really have the same psychological impact that a vicious dunk rising out from seemingly nowhere does.
Not only did Davis take a dip in offense, but his defensive performance also suffered. His blocks and steals took dips. His defensive rebounding went up, but that is likely a byproduct of increasing the numbers of possessions per game — as well as often being saddled between two non-rebounders in Ryan Anderson and Dante Cunningham. In fairness to Davis, he also had to cover up for terrible defenders like Anderson and Eric Gordon. (I find it amazing that Houston saw first hand how hard it was for Davis to cover for these two with his abilities and instincts and thought Clint Capela can handle it while adding them to a lineup that also features James Harden.) With Asik a shell of his old defensive stalwart self and Cunningham taking a huge step back on that side of the ball, it’s easy to understand why Davis would be frustrated, tired and sometimes disconnected.
I also think that the whole, “you need to get (insert defensive role-player) some easy touches from time to time to keep them involved in the game” can be applied. Davis got touches, but they were largely jumpers and post-ups, not the easy touches facing the the rim that he is most comfortable with. In short, just imagine Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Tim Frazier, Langston Galloway or Lance Stephenson in the Gary Payton role with Davis playing Shawn Kemp and then wipe the slob off of your chin.
If we use Davis more like Monty did on pick-and-roll, on lobs and off baseline cuts — even when he isn’t at the five — we should see his body language and enjoyment of the game improve, which will trickle down to his effort on defense. Who doesn’t want to see this Davis again?
That defensive effort wasn’t consistently there last season. I believe that fixing the way he’s used on offense combined with being surrounded by better defenders will resurrect the MVP-caliber player we saw back in 2014-15. Dell Demps and Danny Ferry did their parts in improving the defenders around him. They’ve replaced ball-dominant players with NBA average to potentially balanced players that bring one elite skill with them truly maximizing Anthony Davis’ offensive impact. (As AD mentioned in media day, “The Boston Model.” However, it is that model with a top five talent already included. Now we need to see if the staff holds up their end.)
Also — though it is a tired and so beaten of a dead horse that it may actually be that mule with the hundreds of bass fluttering inside inside of its devoured chest cavity lying in the bottom of that pond in Errol Morris’, “Vernon, Florida” — Davis either needs to play the five full-time or play as an interchangeable 5 with Terrence Jones next to him. Just because you brain farted and paid Asik and Ajinca that money, it doesn’t mean that you should play them when it doesn’t make basketball sense. There are only 4-5 centers in this league that could truly abuse Anthony Davis. Davis is huge now, but he remains extremely quick, agile and has a handle that he can use to go at the slower plodding brutes everyone seems so worried about him guarding. Aside, from the offensive advantage his speed and agility give him, they also create problems for the Marc Gasols and DeMarcus Couisns on the defensive end. His ability to jump twice quickly, to slide, to recover, to gain ground and his ability to use his hands and length to strip balls and tip entry passes are just as beneficial as the determinant created by what he gives up in weight and strength.
Let’s start making teams adjust to us by fully unleashing the Brow.
All and all, Davis should have a bounce back year. He’s truly a top-5 player, and with the coach and general manager’s jobs on the line I expect to see a huge change in the way Davis is used on both ends of the court. He has the role players to make his life easier, which should once again makes us that League Pass darling team that battles hard for the 7th or 8th seed in the West despite the early season absences.
What I hope to be saying about Anthony Davis next offseason:
He was rejuvenated. You hear that? Rejuvenated. He was juvenated before, lost it... and got juvenated again. Rejuvenated.