2018 NBA All-Stars - Anthony Davis is carrying a team that needs him more than ever

New Orleans Pelicans v Washington Wizards

The New Orleans Pelicans this season landed two of the three Western Conference frontcourt  starting spots in the 2018 NBA All-Star Game. One was a player they always knew would be their All-Star, and who almost certainly will unless the day should ever come that he leaves the team, Anthony Davis. The other was the player they brought in last year precisely to be one.

At the 2017 NBA Trade Deadline, the Pelicans made a very un-Pelicansy move. Understanding the need for greater urgency to win now in order to convince Davis to stay around long term, they traded their 2017 first round pick, their 2017 second round pick, their 2016 first round pick Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi. They then immediately waived Casspi. This was all about Cousins.

Sacramento have already used those picks. The second rounder came in at #34 and was used on point guard Frank Mason out of Kansas; the first rounder, #10, was shipped to the Portland Trail Blazers (who used it on Gonzaga centre Zach Collins) in exchange for the #15 pick (North Carolina’s Justin Jackson) and the #20 pick (Duke’s Harry Giles). Had they kept the pick, they could have drafted rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell. But alas.

Unfortunately, Cousins tore his Achilles between his selection and the game itself, and thus will not compete. This leaves Davis alone as the Pelicans' sole representative. It also leaves Davis largely alone in the Pelicans' frontcourt. A logical trade for Nikola Mirotic has helped, but only a small amount. In reality, Davis will have to do even more for the Pelicans in Cousins's absence than he already did.

And he already does a lot.

Anthony Davis is the perfect illustration of the new-age NBA big man. He can post up, as would have been standard practice for a 6’11 player in years past, but he would rather not. And nor should he. Not when he can drive the ball as effortlessly and freely as he can.

Davis scores the ball at a phenomenal 27.4 points per game on a 62.0% true shooting percentage. He does so via a balanced shot chart with plenty of green that proves how hard he truly is to guard. His game is best highlighted by his excellent 74.4% shooting at the rim, only half of which are on dunks. The rest are born out of cuts, transition, and, mostly his ability to drive the ball with a remarkably ease and poise for one so tall. And besides, even if they did all come on dunks, would that not be the ideal hallmark of the perfect finisher?

To open all this up, Davis has become an excellent shooter from the mid-range areas, and is progressing his three-point stroke year by year as well. That shot is up to 36.7% efficiency this year, a career-best mark on a career-high attempts, all of which serves to open up the rest of the game. He also uses his length and mobility to attack the glass (10.7 rebounds per game) and is a significant defensive presence with those tools too (2.1 blocks and 1.3 steals per game).

On both ends of the court, if you pretend Davis is not a problem, he will immediately prove otherwise.

New Orleans Pelicans v Washington Wizards

Davis is, in a sense, the perfect finisher. Whereas a high scoring tall forward like Kevin Durant will do a lot of the work for his own offence himself, handling the ball up top, going coast to coast and doing a point forward's share of the handling, Davis cannot do so. Or rather, he can, but he should not. He gets assisted 70.1% of the time, a high mark for a superstar - that said, since the whole point of offence is to maximise efficiency, how can that ever be better imagined than in the form of an assisted look to a high-percentage dunks?

Davis does enough things on the court anyway, and, unlike Durant, Davis does not need alive dribble to get to his favoured spots on the floor. Instead, Cousins would do his for him.

Overlooking for a moment his league-leading 5.0 turnovers per game, Cousins's phenomenal talents (how many other centres can run both halves of the pick-and-roll like this?) allowed Davis to get to those favoured spots, whereupon he could do his thing. Without this luxury, Davis has to do more such things himself, while also shouldering the more physical burden at the centre spot that he far wider-bodied Cousins could and would handle. 

Nevertheless, Davis is doing that. In the nine games since Boogie's injury, he has averaged 31.3 points, 13.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game. Inevitably, his true shooting percentage has declined slightly in that time, by virtue of needing to attempt more shots that were not those self-same assisted looks for high-percentage dunks. But it is still healthy, and although the Pelicans have gone only 4-5 in those nine games, that is perhaps as well as could be expected. What player could get more out of what little other talent the Pelicans have than this?

Inasmuch as we deem these things to matter when they have no real impact on anything, there is a chance that Anthony Davis goes through his entire career without ever being the best player in the league.

With LeBron James still at the height of his powers, or near enough, the status has been his until someone could empirically prove otherwise that it is theirs. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are trying to prove this in the near future, while James Harden and Russell Westbrook are both trying to prove it in the now, and neither Stephen Curry nor Kevin Durant are out of the running either. It is absurd that a player as good as Davis may never inherit this arbitrary but powerful title, and yet it also seems to be the case.

Nonetheless, Davis will always say he wants to eschew any personal glories for team-based ones. The team he is on is, particularly when without Cousins, not nearly good enough to enjoy any actual glories. Yet they will make the playoffs because of Davis, and they will be a tough out because of Davis, a man who needs his own defensive scheme. And that, at this moment, is all he can do.

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