Last NBA season began under the headline, “Anthony Davis, nascent destroyer of worlds,” and this NBA season begins under the headline, “It’s time for Anthony Davis to resume blowing our minds.”
What happened in New Orleans between those BDL 25 features was a gumbo of injuries that forced the Pelicans to field 21 players and 42 starting lineups as they missed a league-high 351 man games.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it and I’ve been in coaching for almost 38 years,” Alvin Gentry said in his exit interview. “I really would have brought a voodoo doctor into this place if I could have.”
On a roster depleted of many of the same players who helped them capture a No. 8 seed in 2014-15, Davis, who contributed 21 man games missed to that total, including the final 14 with knee and shoulder ailments, had a subpar season by his lofty standards. The 23-year-old failed to repeat as an All-Star Game starter or All-NBA forward to trigger the Derrick Rose rule that would have bumped the five-year max contract extension he signed last summer from $127.2 million to $152.6 million.
That said, Davis averaged 24.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.9 assists in his 61 games last season, numbers only matched in the previous decade by himself the year before. His collection of 59 points, 20 rebounds and four assists opposite All-NBA Third Team center Andre Drummond on Feb. 21, a month before shutting down his season, is the only such stat line in Basketball Reference’s index.
In other words, Davis remains an absolutely dominant force. And he doesn’t turn 24 until March 11.
That the Pelicans owned an ever-so-slightly better defensive rating without Davis (107.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) than with him (107.3) in 2015-16 — both good for 28th in the NBA — is cause for some concern, but the larger issue was the supporting cast they employed for their star.
You can’t enter a season with half your salary cap tied up in Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Omer Asik stocks and ever expect to strike championship gold, which should be their goal before the Davis deal ends in 2021. In name only, the aforementioned trio, along with Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson, were a respectable bunch, but the eighth seed in 2015 was as good as it was ever gonna get for that group.
Which is why, even after last year’s revolving door of a roster, the Pelicans added eight new faces to training camp this season in hopes of helping Davis destroy more worlds and blow more minds.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Anthony Davis signs 5 year $145 million deal?
That's $3,300/hr, every hour of the day, never stopping, for those 5 years.
— Sam Laird (@samcmlaird) July 1, 2015
Anthony Davis in 43 minutes: 59 points & 20 rebounds
All of his Pelicans teammates combined in 197 minutes: 52 points & 31 rebounds
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) February 21, 2016
Hard to see Anthony Davis getting on an All-NBA team now. Could cost him around $25 million dollars. https://t.co/0Drp7dOiCG
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) March 20, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Despite Dell Demps trading his next three first-round picks after taking Davis No. 1 overall in 2012, including two future top-10 selections, for Holiday and Asik over the past three years, the Pelicans returned their general manager following another season in which they earned the sixth pick.
At summer’s start, it seemed Demps was intent on employing a different tactic, using that No. 6 pick on consensus college player of the year Buddy Hield. His 3-point percentage of 45.2 as a senior at the University of Oklahoma should help spread the floor at a fraction of the cost of Gordon and Anderson, who Demps let walk this July to the Houston Rockets for a combined $132.9 million in free agency.
New Orleans also traded up for No. 33 to grab promising young big Cheick Diallo, who could soon help ease Davis’ burden on both ends if he blossoms into the elite rim runner and protector many project.
These are good things.
Then came free agency, when Demps spent a combined $82 million over the next four seasons on Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore, who averaged a combined 11.7 points in 2015-16. The Pelicans will pray Hill’s (very) end-of-season improvement and Moore’s (outlying) 45.2 percent clip from 3 last year can carry over in New Orleans. The fear is that they’ve hitched their wagons to mediocre horses again.
But Holiday and Evans come off the books at season’s end, the salary cap will continue to balloon, and the rest of their signings this summer — an affordable two-year, $10 million deal for Langston Galloway as well as minimum contracts for Terrence Jones, Robert Sacre and Langston Galloway — are worthwhile short-term commitments to players who should contribute until reinforcements arrive.
These aren’t necessarily bad things.
We should also mention Holiday’s leave of absence to care for his pregnant wife, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor last month, and the death of promising forward Bryce Dejean-Jones, who was shot this past May after kicking down the door to an apartment he thought belonged to his girlfriend.
These are the worst of things.
Potential breakout stud:
On the bright side, the Pelicans feature plenty of candidates for this distinction. Obviously, Hield’s scoring prowess should be the most noticeable improvement for a New Orleans team that ranked dead middle in offensive rating last season (103.2 points per 100 possessions). He netted an NCAA-best 925 points for the Sooners in 2015-16 — nearly 100 more than anybody else at the Division I level.
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But it’s the defensive end where the Pelicans could really use a breakout stud. To put a finer point on it, New Orleans desperately needs a ball-stopper on the perimeter to prevent Davis from having to defend a ridiculous 19.4 attempts inside the restricted area per game. He helped hold the fort against the roll man in pick-and-roll plays to the respectable tune of 1.01 points allowed per possession.
But the Pelicans ranked dead last in defending cutters (1.32 points per possession) and spot-up shooters (1.06). They also found themselves in the league’s lower half defensively off screens (0.96), against hand-offs (0.91) and in isolation (0.91). Individually, Hill is a marked improvement in almost every regard, ranking in the 75th percentile or better in all five of those defensive categories. If he can plug some of those holes for New Orleans, it’ll go along way in explaining his $11.2 million salary.
Moore and Galloway are more offensive-minded players brought in to spread the floor for Davis in the absence of Gordon and Anderson, but they too should represent an upgrade defensively for a backcourt that trotted out an assembly line of D-Leaguers last season. They can’t be any worse.
It seems ridiculous to pair the high-usage, low-efficiency games of Stephenson and Evans on the same roster, but the former remains only 26 years old and two seasons removed from averaging a 14-7-5 for the Eastern Conference finalist Indiana Pacers. It’s been quite a journey through Charlotte, Los Angeles (Clippers) and Memphis since then, but Stephenson is fighting for his career at this point.
Likewise, the minimum-salaried frontcourt tandem of Sacre and Jones has proven productive in their inconsistent workloads over their four-year careers, averaging a combined 24.8 points and 15.4 rebounds per 36 minutes for the Lakers and Rockets in 2015-16. That depth behind the inconsistent pair of Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca gives Gentry all sorts of options to pair with Davis up front.
The sum of the Pelicans’ offseason circumstances, which do not include the post-surgery discovery of a blood clot in Evans’ leg that calls his future into question, seems at best to suggest they could claw their way back into the discussion for one of the West’s lesser playoffs seeds — so long as Davis also reenters the MVP conversation. But let’s not forget the Brow averaged 31.5 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and two assists in 2015 opposite the future champion Golden State Warriors in the only playoff series of his career, so our imagination might run wild given a more favorable first-round matchup.
If everything falls apart:
Back to the drawing board, again. Staying a step behind that 2014-15 leap forward means the Pelicans will have wasted another year of a budding superstar’s career. The Pelicans do have their No. 1 pick again come June, as much as $32 million in cap space in 2017-18 and four years to figure things out before Davis can become an unrestricted free agent, but what has Demps done to prove he’s capable of capitalizing on another chance to build around his singular world-destroying, mind-blowing talent?
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
42-40, eighth in the Western Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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