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In the cosmic “survival of the New Orleans Pelicans” sense, no one should ever stop worrying about Anthony Davis.
If you value the limited basketball relevance that AD’s presence has created for New Orleans, you should wake up most nights glistening in a sheen of terror sweat, half-dreaming, shouting “Not the Lakers! Why, AD? WHY?!”
After starting 4-0, the Pelicans have lost six in a row. But these last six losses, on their own, don’t constitute an existential threat to the Pels as we know them…as long as you set aside the idea that every struggle, losing streak and instance of adversity affects whether Davis leaves or stays in New Orleans. If you can leave that stuff aside, there’s little cause for concern.
Why? Because it’s just an elbow. That’s why.
Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry laid it out for Andrew Lopez of the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Tuesday:
“I’m sure he’s saying that he is (healthy). I still think he’s having some problems. To me, the big thing is he wants to be out there. He’s not going to do anything to further hurt it or do anything like that. … Obviously, I think that he’s very capable of playing a ton better than he is, but I also don’t think he’s healthy, either. He probably won’t tell you guys that, but I don’t think he is.”
Davis is hurt. He sprained his right elbow against the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 26, the night of New Orleans’ last win. The causal line between Davis’ injury (and three-game absence) and New Orleans’ losses is straight, unbroken and visible from space.
If you want to explain away the Pelicans’ troubles—spiraling offensive efficiency, a spike in points allowed and a slowing pace—it’s easy. Just look at what Davis did in four wins before getting hurt, and measure it against his post-injury performance.
AD started out by averaging 27.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 3.8 blocks and 2.5 steals while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from deep. Clear MVP stuff for four games.
Then he tweaked that elbow, and over the subsequent six games (only three of which he played), the averages dipped: 18.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.3 blocks and 0.7 steals on 36.7 percent shooting from the field with a 14.3 percent hit rate from beyond the arc.
This, from analytics guru Dean Oliver, doesn’t even include all of the Pelicans’ non-Davis sample. But, boy, it says a lot:
Dean Oliver @DeanO_Lytics
It’s only six games, but this shows how the Pelicans’ plus-minus strongly correlates with how well Anthony Davis is playing (his Net Points). There is always correlation, but not usually at 98%. https://t.co/tFYwsRXq34
Sure, maybe you summon some extra distress on account of Davis’ history of nagging injuries and sporadic missed games. But even then, it’s not so hard to assume Davis’ elbow will get better, at which point, New Orleans will be back about the business of playing fast, chasing a playoff spot and generally doing what it did during a 4-0 start.
Now, if you’re a born fretter—or if you’re attuned to how big markets and winning franchises tend to vacuum up stars—you can’t just chalk this skid up to Davis’ elbow and move on. You have to view it in the context of his looming 2020 free agency, and you especially have to take this view while acknowledging the rubicon comes sooner than that. Davis will be eligible for a supermax extension in 2019, and his decision to accept or reject that offer will determine everything. There’s a non-zero chance Davis will turn down the money, which would force the Pels to trade a superstar they expect to lose.
Davis recently changed agents, hiring LeBron James’ close friend Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Speculate as you see fit.
Through that lens, discouragement is appropriate. Because we know the Pelicans aren’t much without Davis.
This year, even accounting for its struggles over the past six games (three of which Davis has played), New Orleans has thrived with AD on the floor and fallen apart without him. The Pels’ net rating is plus +7.8 with their best player in the game. Without him, they get smoked to the tune of a minus-11.6 net rating.
To be fair, that discrepancy isn’t so different from what you see on other teams. Stars are stars because they contribute to positive net ratings and, in turn, winning basketball. That said, the Pelicans aren’t like every other team. They’re thin behind a strong top six, and removing virtually any quality starter—Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, even E’Twuan Moore—sends their net rating south in a hurry.
|Key Starters’ On-Off Splits|
That lack of depth puts extreme pressure on Davis. His reaction to that tough reality is telling.
Everyone’s grabbing onto the portion of his interview with Yahoo’s Chris Haynes where Davis explains he has to “play almost perfect every night to give us a chance to win,” but parsing one of his longer explanations is even more revelatory. And, seeing as we’re focused on being concerned here, it’s also more worrying.
“Life isn’t fair. We can’t control what happens in the league. I just go out there and play. It’s nothing I can do. It is what it is at this point. I just got to go out there and trust my teammates, which I do. Those guys are great players, good defenders, good role players. They do as much as possible to help me.”
Davis, sitting down for an interview with a widely read reporter, must know his comments will be scrutinized. It’s why he’s smart to say he trusts his teammates. Maybe he really does. But it’s illuminating that he chose to phrase his concerns like this. He’s saying the guys he has around him, the role players, are doing what they can. The implication can’t be ignored: They can’t do enough.
He’s highlighting his team’s lack of a second star, of someone with whom he could share the burden of having to play perfectly. Of someone who could make it possible for New Orleans to win when he doesn’t.
Holiday is a star. If AD’s referring to him, he shouldn’t be. But the point about lack of top-end help stands.
This kind of situation can wear on a franchise cornerstone. It can be a contributing factor to strange bouts of malaise and mistakes that aren’t so easily attributed to a sore elbow. You know, sequences like this one from Monday’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder:
Is that just because of the elbow? Or is something else depleting Davis’ turbo meter?
Letting DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo go was the right decision for the franchise. Fiscally and from a team-building perspective, it made sense. But if we’ve learned anything from the last several years (decades?) of NBA transactions, it’s that stars want to cluster together with other stars—or at least with guys perceived as such. Maybe now that the hot start has worn off and adversity has hit, Davis is wishing he had Boogie or Rondo around, even if one wouldn’t be playing because of injury and the other might not be a significant upgrade over currently injured starter Elfrid Payton.
Might that regret be partly to blame for Davis and the Pelicans’ rough stretch? And if it is, will it even matter when the Pelicans slide a supermax offer across the table at the earliest possible juncture?
Nobody has ever turned down an extension as big as the one Davis is in line to receive. That’s got to lend New Orleans some solace. But it’s still difficult to separate Davis’ words about having to be perfect from the fact that he’ll soon have the power to get himself to a situation where imperfection won’t be fatal. Where other top-tier talents can be perfect on the nights he isn’t.
This current stretch, then, cannot exist independently of the larger issue: Davis’ possible departure. No rough patch or off night or carefully worded statement ever can again. Not until Davis signs his extension (or doesn’t). And yes, it’s going to be exhausting if we have to do this every time AD gets dinged up and can’t be what the Pelicans need him to be. From now on, the link between AD’s happiness/productivity and his chances of staying can’t be ignored.
So, should we be concerned about Davis?
That all depends. Do you want to see him playing for the Pelicans in 2019-20 and beyond?
If the answer is “no,” if you’ve got no real stake in where AD works, then why worry? It’s just an elbow thing. He’ll get over it, and the Pels will get better as the season progresses.
If the answer is “yes,” please locate all of the alarms nearest your current location—air raid sirens, tornado warning systems, digital clocks if you’re in a pinch—and freak all the way out. Maybe stock up on new bed sheets; those fever dreams are going to be tearing you away from sleep a lot more often over the coming months.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference. Accurate through games played Tuesday, Nov. 6.