The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
Anthony Davis should have been the song of the summer.
We should have been belting out hymns of praise, marveling at how a man that big can move that well and cover that much ground. We should have been watching him collapse the floor and intimidate every last would-be driver in Rio de Janeiro, proving to all who would test us that our national defense remains strong.
We should have spent the Olympic fortnight waxing rhapsodic about Davis’ offensive talents, the fear he strikes into a defense when he slices down the lane after setting a screen, the “oh, dammit” stomach-sink he inspires when he pops free at the elbow. We should have gotten to watch him feast on a steady diet of lobs from Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and the rest of America’s table-setters, raining down death from above on hapless international big men who are burly enough to bang, but who can’t afford the rent on the penthouse.
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Instead, thanks to knee and shoulder injuries, Davis watched the 2016 Summer Olympics on TV like the rest of us, a mere spectator as DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan manned the middle during Team USA’s third straight gold-medal run. Instead, thanks to a brutal 30-52 campaign that saw every member of the New Orleans Pelicans besides Dante Cunningham and Alonzo Gee miss significant time due to injury, it’s been 16 months since we saw Davis play a game that mattered.
Instead, thanks to the crummy year in Louisiana, and the missed Olympic opportunity, and the meteoric rise of fellow Kentucky-spawned mold-breaking modern big man Karl-Anthony Towns, it feels like we’ve forgotten what Anthony Davis is.
Anthony Davis is 1988 Bomb Squad production run through an Ibanez Tube Screamer played on 100-story speakers loud enough to tear down the walls of Jericho.
Anthony Davis is the data security solution your small business needs to feel 100 percent certain that your most sensitive materials are well-protected.
Anthony Davis is the monster at the end of the dream an opposing coach has inside a locked locker room, the problem he can’t solve, the bully he can’t drop.
Anthony Davis is hope made solid and real that the Pelicans can mean something — that basketball in New Orleans can be special, and that success, or at least a touch of transcendence, is possible in a market that has largely been a pro hoops afterthought.
Anthony Davis is one year removed from arguably the most productive age-21 season ever, and one of the most productive seasons in NBA history period, and from elevating himself to the ranks of MVP favorites. He’s 23 years old and he’s healthy, just cleared to enter training camp with no restrictions.
Well, none besides those imposed on him.
We’re all familiar with the problem: Pelicans general manager Dell Demps has yet to surround Davis with a roster capable of complementing his gifts, maximizing his potential and mounting a serious challenge to the Western Conference’s elite. After giving Davis a five-year maximum-salaried contract extension at the earliest possible opportunity last summer, Demps and the Pelicans are now on the clock; they must improve to give their superstar a reason to stick around beyond the end of this current deal in 2020.
To do that, Demps must climb out of a hole he helped create. As RealGM’s Chris Reina detailed, New Orleans draft picks that could’ve netted the likes of Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jae Crowder, Khris Middleton, Rodney Hood and a slew of other young contributors were shipped out in deals that returned Marcus Thornton, Jrue Holiday and Omer Asik; most of the swaps came after Demps took over in 2010. Yes, this is the kind of 20/20 hindsight that can be used to slam any team. It is also a legitimate yikes festival that can leave fans reaching for antacid (or something stronger).
New Orleans’ highest-profile additions over the last several seasons all sported warts or worse on one end of the floor (we’re looking at your hands, Omer) or the other (you’re not low, Ryan Anderson’s defense). Along with those limitations came devastating injury luck (and some questionable coaching) that largely prevented the five best Pelicans from sharing the floor; Davis, Anderson, Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon played just 230 total minutes together over the last three seasons. And despite Davis’ abilities as a rim-protector, Pelican guards and wings’ persistent struggles to stall dribble penetration have produced one of the league’s leakiest defenses year after year, with New Orleans failing to finish better than 22nd in points allowed per possession since drafting Davis in 2012.
Just about everything New Orleans did this summer came in service of improving on defense, increasing the overall versatility of the roster, and giving head coach Alvin Gentry more lineup options to deploy in Year 2 than he had in his calamitous first season. No, it won’t be easy to replace the long-range proficiency of Anderson and Gordon, both of whom received big money to bomb away for Gentry’s old Seven Seconds or Less buddy, Mike D’Antoni, on the Houston Rockets. But excising a pair of woeful defenders who combined to miss 173 games over the past three seasons and replacing them with steadier, more versatile sorts — ex-Indiana Pacers forward Solomon Hill, former Chicago Bulls guard E’Twaun Moore, ex-New York Knicks guard Langston Galloway — could wind up a net positive.
It’d help if 2016 lottery pick Buddy Hield can build on an iffy Summer League performance to provide shooting, and eventually more, at the two. Ditto if Quincy Pondexter, the 6-foot-7 swingman who contributed as a 3-and-D wing during the Pelicans’ 2014-15 playoff push before missing all of last season with knee injuries, can return to form now that he’s healthy.
Factor in bargain-basement signings like Davis’ former Kentucky teammate Terrence Jones and eternal wild card Lance Stephenson, and Gentry could have the tools to experiment with a variety of lineup combinations featuring big, long-limbed, like-size players capable of switching screens on defense to keep ball-handlers from gaining easy access to the paint. If Moore can replicate last year’s 45.2 percent mark from 3-point land, Hill takes another step forward after his 12-for-27 (44.4 percent) work from the short corners last season, and Jones and Galloway get back to the league-average accuracy they managed in 2014-15, they could also threaten defenses enough to stretch the floor with small-ball. Those configurations could become legitimately dangerous alongside Davis at center, where he played more than half his minutes last year, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and is a far superior option to the highly-paid Asik and Alexis Ajinca — a potential holy terror for opponents whose pivots can’t match his quickness, athleticism and floor game.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” and there are more. Chief among them: if/how long the Pelicans’ backcourt rotation can stay afloat without Holiday, who is taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team to take care of his wife as she recovers from surgery to remove a benign tumor on the right side of her brain after the birth of their first child, and without Evans, who reportedly won’t be ready for the start of the season after knee surgery and might be on his way out of town. Backup point guard Tim Frazier, who impressed in a 16-game stint last season, will likely get first crack at ball-handling duties, with Moore, Stephenson and Galloway on hand to help. How successful they are could prove vital, because as tremendous as Davis is, he’s at his best when he doesn’t have to create everything himself — nearly three-quarters of his buckets last season came via direct assist — and he was significantly more efficient and productive with Holiday on the floor than off it.
It won’t all go right — nothing ever does in the NBA, unless you’re Steph for the first 82 games or LeBron for the last three — but the Pelicans look better equipped to compete on defense and offer a wider array of looks in Gentry’s sped-up system than they were last season. Provided New Orleans can avoid a second straight run as the most injury-stricken team in the NBA, that should put them in position to contend for a return to the playoffs.
They’re not yet ready to vie for much more than that; in the years to come, that will need to change. For now, though, that’s OK. For now, we just need to see Anthony Davis back on the court in games of consequence, to be awed, to remember. It’s been too long.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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