The NBA bubble is probably the most fascinating thing in the world of sport today.
Anthony Davis’s basketball life is a Russian novel. The chapters are comprised his desperate drives left, into traffic and a crowd of opponent limbs, the frantic floater that follows less a prayer and more a cry for help.
Roster construction and management are the crime in New Orleans – having to watch Omer Asik on offence every night is the punishment.
The prime of the NBA’s greatest young talent is wasting away in Louisiana. Davis doesn’t have a supporting cast – he has an array of bricks to carry on his shoulders. For the season’s first 12 games, his best teammate was Tim Frazier, who the Blazers waived nine months ago so they could acquire Brian Roberts.
Davis doesn’t just have the ignominy of his teammates to deal with – his brilliance is received largely in silence by the anonymous New Orleans fans. Games at the Smoothie King Center, surely the least dignified arena name in the league (‘See you at Oracle’. ‘See you at the Garden’. ‘See you at Smoothie?’), have the atmosphere of rec league games played in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
A.D. should be worth the price of admission alone, but still, you can’t be too aggressive in blaming the Pelicans fans for having their team rank bottom ten in attendance in each of Davis’s first four seasons. Managerial incompetence is the real culprit, and it’s an incompetence that’s as widespread as it is shining.
It’s a downward spiral that has been accelerating ever since the Pelicans made an all-in move to trade for Jrue Holiday and his worrisome legs, giving up Nerlens Noel in the 2013 draft, and what turned out to be pick ten the following year. In a nutshell, it wasn’t a catastrophe – although it skewed closer to that than ‘success’ – but it revealed the ill-informed win-now mindset that would sink New Orleans in the years that followed.
The real tragedy of Anthony Davis’s career to date is that management never allowed his team to get bad enough to become meaningfully good. By his second season he was already surrounded by too much competence – veterans good enough to help you, but with defined ceilings that would only end up hurting you. This is the Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson life that James Harden is living now (an existence in purgatory disguised by the pyrotechnics of D’Antoni Life), with the additions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans.
The bottom of that competence fell out last year with a comical amount of injuries, with stories about the Pelicans’ training staff suggesting they weren’t just due to bad luck. It was a wasted year of a superstar’s prime, the most precious commodity in the NBA. At 0-8 to start this season, another year looked to be evaporating.
Two weeks ago, the Pelicans were drowning, but now, at least, they can see the light above the surface. The darkness of E’Twaun Moore and Lance Stephenson combining for 64 minutes in a game (note: in that game ESPN listed Moore’s name as ‘null’ in the box score. Good call, ESPN, but a little on the nose) has been replaced by the hope of Holiday’s stunningly seamless return.
Before Holiday, the Pelicans played in the mud. Their offence, which hovered around the league’s worst, was reduced to a series of meaningless actions before inevitably getting the ball to Davis at the elbow or on the perimeter in isolation, and hoping he could conjure something against a set up converging defence. That was the best case scenario. The worst case was Lance Stephenson playing ‘I got this’ ball and waving off teammates to drive into a desert of opponents without any supplies.
Stephenson, mercifully, is gone. And with Holiday back, the Pelicans are back on water, a much smoother habitat. Holiday doesn’t just represent competence – he’s a borderline star when healthy. He offers creation and dynamism, with a mastery of the game’s subtleties that eludes the rest of the guards on the team. An early pocket pass to disrupt pick and roll defence here, a devilishly timed hesitation drive to get to the rim for a clean look there – Holiday just gets it.
He’s got elite size for his position, capable of sliding to the two in a pinch, allowing the Pelicans to play Frazier, a tenacious and altruistic, if unrefined point guard, in the backcourt simultaneously. And, as the Hornets found out on the weekend, a Holiday/Davis pick and roll is a powerful end of game weapon, a poison with few antidotes.
Even after their current 4-2 run, the Pelicans are still in deep trouble. The problem with starting 0-8 is that after a 4-2 run you’re only 4-10, and in New Orleans’ case, still three games back of the playoffs. With 72 games to play, that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s significant for a team so lacking in talent, and means that they’re likely going to have to outplay at least five of the Portland, Utah, Denver, Minnesota, Sacramento and Lakers group the rest of the way.
The on-court product is still something of a mess too. The Pels only salvaged the Charlotte victory because Langston Galloway channelled his inner Irish poet for a stretch, reigning six triples, as somehow the Davis-Kemba Walker marquee became a showdown between Galloway and Marco Belinelli. The offence still has many kinks to iron out, and team is going to have to deal with the startling deficiency of quality forwards on the roster, a weakness that might be too great to overcome.
The defence too, while sitting at a respectable 16th in efficiency rating, is full of holes. In the second half against the Hornets, New Orleans made the Ramon Sessions/Spencer Hawes pick and roll look like peak Steve Nash/Amar’e Stoudemire, surrendering on three consecutive possessions a rolling dunk and two wide open threes.
Holiday and Davis, though, were good enough to bail the team out. Davis has reached the stage where his greatness is almost taken for granted. Against Charlotte he seemed to be having a ho-hum game, occasionally hitting a mid-range J or making a put-back. And then you looked up and he had a 38-16 on 56 per cent shooting, with three blocks, eight trips to the line, a pair of threes and only two turnovers.
A.D. is the best combination of grace and power in the league. His stroke is immaculate, like a more liquid version of Serge Ibaka’s shot, where ‘swish’ always seems to be the only logical endpoint. But what makes Davis supernatural is that he’s a bully. He has that peak Dwight Howard quality of always being the most towering presence on the court, the soaring mass that will immediately stand out to anyone in the crowd who has never seen a game of basketball before.
Imagine a young Howard if he were two inches taller, faster down the court, could shoot threes and hit 80 per cent of his free throws, and that’s Anthony Davis.
Although the block numbers are there, Davis hasn’t approached the level of consistent defensive disruption that transcendent Howard reached. Occasionally a Frank Kaminsky will take him off the dribble and hit a lay-up. But Davis’s load is so heavy that such shortcomings have to be at least somewhat forgiven. Russell Westbrook and James Harden are the two MVP favourites at present, and neither of them play acceptable defence, particularly Harden. Spare a thought for Davis, one of the few players in the league asked to be both the fulcrum of his team’s offence and defence.
If there’s any criticism of Davis it’s that he doesn’t make his teammates better. After all, LeBron James dragged a team that started Anthony Parker and J.J. Hickson a combined 154 games to 61 wins. There is, perhaps, some justification for that criticism, but at the same time, it’s not clear that Davis’s teammates really have that much of a capacity to get better. Sure, Davis can drive, collapse the defence and kick it out to an open Dante Cunningham in the corner, but really, there’s no such thing as an open Dante Cunningham.
For too long, Davis has had no help. Now, with Holiday back in the fold, Tyreke Evans on the mend, and the continued acclimation of the slew of competent, albeit totally uninspiring role players that New Orleans brought in during the offseason, help is here, and more help is on the way. But whether it means anything significant will likely come down to just how far Davis can stretch his star, and whether others will be able to shine brighter under it.