Is Anthony Davis on course to become Kevin Garnett 2.0?

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Anthony Davis is averaging 29.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game this season. (Getty Images)
Anthony Davis is averaging 29.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game this season. (Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA – Champagne dripped from the bill of his championship cap, down to his soaked designer shirt, when Alvin Gentry smiled into a camera, put aside the Golden State Warriors’ euphoric celebration and started transitioning into an optimistic future. Wiping bubbly from his eyes, Gentry playfully made it known – much to the chagrin of Warriors coach Steve Kerr and general manager Bob Myers, who were standing nearby – that he was already looking ahead to his new team and his new star.

“Aye, A.D.!” Gentry called out to New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis, wherever he was watching. “A.D.! Next year, we’re going to be right back here! Right. Back. Here!”

Gentry laughed through the entire declaration, but he wasn’t joking. And while that statement might sound like sheer lunacy right now, Gentry believed every word of it in the summer of 2015. The Pelicans, the team that had just hired Gentry as head coach, played the Warriors closer than their four-game, first-round sweep that season would suggest. New Orleans also had the franchise building block in Davis that nearly every organization lusted over and an odd, yet intriguing, mix of complementary pieces.

“I just felt that, with that group of guys, and then changing a little bit the style of play …” Gentry recently told The Vertical, “but at the end of the day, I have not coached that team one second.”

That team is long gone. Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter have had their careers marred by injuries and other hardships since that playoff series. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon fled for Houston the moment they hit free agency last summer. And, the shell of what remains has been cracked by the Pelicans’ inability to ever be whole, placing a greater weight on Davis’ shoulders that can’t be masked by those T-shirts he wears underneath his uniform.

“It’s hard for me to even realize what kind of team we have because we haven’t been together,” Gentry told The Vertical. “Usually somebody is hurt or missing or sitting out or on limited time. So many guys haven’t even been in training camp. It’s crazy, I know. I hope we can get healthy enough where we can see what we have.”

But even at full strength, the Pelicans don’t have the talent to rise much higher than they were two years ago, when they made a playoff appearance that now looks like a fluke, considering the opening for the eighth spot was created by Kevin Durant breaking his foot with Oklahoma City. New Orleans is a long way from accumulating what’s needed to compete at the level Gentry predicted during the Warriors’ championship celebration. Last summer, New Orleans general manager Dell Demps drafted Buddy Hield but used free agency to acquire scrappy overachievers who have fought for spots in the league. While that gives them a grinding identity, what the Pelicans are can’t be saved by even Davis’ transcendent gifts.

After a 0-8 start, Davis' Pelicans are 10-21 this season. (Getty Images)
After a 0-8 start, Davis' Pelicans are 10-21 this season. (Getty Images)

The Pelicans are in danger of turning Davis into Kevin Garnett 2.0 – another generational big man whose franchise could never quite find the right supporting cast and left a magnificent player mired in mediocrity until he got traded much too late. Davis, 23, doesn’t have Garnett’s crazy but is already showing incredible patience and loyalty, telling The Vertical last month that he has “never” thought about bailing on the Pelicans. Once Garnett got to Boston and experienced winning on a championship level with the Celtics, however, he started to question the wisdom of that mentality by stating, “Loyalty is something that hurts you at times because you can’t get youth back.”

Davis is signed through 2020, but the NBA will soon make it harder for players like him to leave dire situations or even get much help. Durant’s move to Golden State prompted the owners to make the financial incentives for staying so lopsided in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that trying to join a super team would be that much more difficult. On the other side, it would also make it more difficult for the Pelicans to get free-agency support, leaving the lottery as the best and perhaps only way to improve.

So, where does Davis find hope? When posed the question, Davis paused and focused on the immediate challenge. “These guys work hard. These guys come in here, every day, every game and play extremely hard. We play for one another,” Davis told The Vertical. “Sometimes, we don’t make shots and you can live with that, but as long as we go out there and play hard, try to win and compete at a high level, that’s all anybody in this locker room can ask for.”

The only time Davis has expressed any type of frustration this season was when the Pelicans lost at home to the 76ers on Dec. 8 and said, “We’re just not playing right.” But Davis has earned the respect of his teammates for never pointing fingers. “I think, for the most part, if something goes wrong, I feel he blames himself. That’s what a leader does. He tries to fix that and sees what he can do to better our team,” Holiday told The Vertical. “He shows up to play every day. Doesn’t complain. Trusts his teammates. He’s really, really fun to play with.”

Davis’ failure to build upon his first postseason appearance resulted in a disastrous 2015-16 campaign that proved costly in many ways. The Pelicans missed the playoffs, and Davis didn’t make an All-NBA team or get voted an All-Star starter, which cost him a super-max contract extension worth an additional $24 million. After gliding through the do-no-wrong, praise-filled phase of his career, Davis had to endure some criticism and the burden of responsibilities as a franchise player.

“It’s been a learning experience,” Davis told The Vertical. “And I learn from every experience. Any time something goes bad, I try to talk to people and just figure it out, see what I can do to help this team. There is nothing else to it. Try to go out here and be the leader and help this team as much as possible.”

Davis has been so spectacular this season – he ranks second in the league to Russell Westbrook in scoring and efficiency rating and has nine games with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds, matching the same total as the rest of the league – that Gentry admitted the team has a tendency to lean too heavily on him.

“Obviously, you’re going to go to your best player. I don’t see OKC going away from Westbrook. So we’re not going to go away from him,” Gentry told The Vertical. “What he’s done, he wants to be the best player, so he continues to work and try to add things to his game. I think you look at his stats and the way he’s played, he’s more than withstood the burden of what is asked of him, and what we’ve got to do now is fill those other spots where other guys do the same thing.”

The NBA has done so much to help make New Orleans successful – from temporarily seizing ownership from George Shinn, to the Chris Paul trade, to giving Saints owner Tom Benson a sweetheart deal to purchase the team and throwing in an All-Star Game for good measure. New Orleans will again get to host the event after the league left behind Charlotte over North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill,” which means the city will have more All-Star Games than playoff appearances over the past four years. But the league hasn’t been able to spare the Pelicans from misfortune.

Holiday, a former All-Star point guard whom Demps acquired in a 2013 draft-night deal with Philadelphia, had to wait three years to play his former team for the first time at Wells Fargo Center because of a recurring lower leg injury. He also missed all of training camp and the first 12 games of this season on personal leave to tend to his wife, Lauren, who needed brain surgery shortly after having the couple’s first child.

Free-agent signing Lance Stephenson was waived last month after having a groin injury that required surgery. Evans missed 11 months with a right knee injury and has played three games this season on a minutes restriction. Bryce Dejean-Jones was fatally shot May 28 after a promising rookie campaign. And Pondexter hasn’t played since having surgery on his left knee shortly after that playoff series against Golden State.

Despite the adversity, and losing the first eight games this season, Davis remains optimistic that his team will move in the right direction by the time he’s serving as unofficial All-Star Game host. The Pelicans are only three games out of the final spot in the Western Conference and have gone 8-8 with Holiday in the lineup. “It’s tough,” Davis said. “We got a couple of weeks to figure out how we want our season to go.”

“We’re not completely out of it,” Gentry told The Vertical. “The top echelon of the West has been really good. Everybody else has had their struggles. If we can put together a little winning streak, we can get back into the race.”

Becoming a team that’s “right back here” will be a much greater challenge for the Pelicans of Gentry and Davis.

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