He is smiling, laughing and joking. His optimism seems intact, much like his trademark ‘brow. This means either Anthony Davis knows something we don’t about the New Orleans Pelicans in 2016-17, or that he’s still in preseason and the stress and tough nights are weeks away.
All around him, the signs are, shall we say, familiar. Strangely, painfully and ominously familiar. Three-fifths of the Pelicans’ starting lineup is out for at least a month, maybe more, and the roster wasn’t exactly throbbing with excellence to begin with. A creaky ankle might keep Davis out of the lineup on opening night. Therefore, there are indications the Pelicans could be in for a rough start, which would be depressing for a team that lost 10 of 11 out of the gate last season and won only 30 games, 15 less than the year before.
Oh, and there’s this: Davis isn’t the league’s darling young pinup anymore.
In NBA.com’s annual preseason survey of NBA general managers last year, Davis was the overwhelming (86 percent) answer to the question: If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player, who would it be? This year, he didn’t crack the top three. This year, he wasn’t even the best ex-Kentucky center on the list (introducing your beauty pageant winner, Karl Anthony-Towns).
But, just the other day, Davis said: “I’m excited.”
He is. And his mood is rooted in his belief that the worst is over and the Pelicans are ready to trend upward again. For that to happen, though, the Pelicans must have health on their side for a change and Davis needs to re-establish himself among the top half-dozen players in basketball.
He can’t control the former, but he strongly believes in the latter. He once finished fifth in the MVP voting and when healthy is one of the few players who can score 40 points and grab 20 rebounds and block five shots in a game. And if Davis is once again a starter in the All-Star Game and makes First Team All-NBA -- he whiffed on both last season -- then there will be some hope for the Pelicans this season.
Before anyone wonders whatever happened to Davis, let’s be very clear: Davis remains one of the finest big men in the game, and is only 23, and would be on every GM’s speed dial next summer if he was on the market. Last season was considered a downer for him, yet if nothing else, his numbers were impressive; Davis was the only player to finish in the top 10 in points, rebounds and blocks.
He made himself into a threat beyond the 3-point line and can now score from virtually anywhere on the floor. As for defense, Davis can guard multiple positions and his athleticism puts him a cut above the stereotypical shot-blocker, since he can quickly offer help from the weakside.
We’ve got a good coaching staff and we’re moving in the right direction. -- Pelicans' Anthony Davis
Davis is spooked by two issues: An inability to stay healthy for an entire season and a body that doesn’t scream “physically imposing.” He has missed 68 games in his four NBA seasons, and didn’t finish two of them. Last season brought shoulder and knee issues. He worked this summer to build strength (15 pounds of added muscle) to help him avoid injuries while careful not to restrict his quickness, which gives him a major advantage over most centers and power forwards.
The fragility isn’t limited to Davis. The Pelicans lost 351 games to injuries last season and that spillover is infecting this one. They’ll be without Tyreke Evans until December while he recovers form knee surgery. Quincy Pondexter is also mending from knee surgery; meanwhile, Jrue Holiday is on personal leave due to his wife’s health and is out indefinitely. This no doubt feels like Groundhog Day to Alvin Gentry, who hasn’t had the benefit of a full deck since signing on his coach a year ago.
“Anthony understands that it doesn’t matter who you are or what situation you’re in, you have to have the players to win in this league,” said Gentry. “You get three starters out, you’re going to struggle. At least we know we’re going to get those guys back this year. It’s not 'if,’ it’s 'when.’”
The reinforcements aren’t inspiring, though. The Pelicans don’t have another star on the roster or a top-shelf shotgun rider to Davis. E’Twuan Moore and Solomon Moore arrived this summer yet neither are bringing evidence that they’re anything more than rotational players. Evans is streaky at best and nobody knows how he’ll return from injury. Without Holiday, the point guard situation is shaky and will be temporarily in the hands of Langston Galloway. Defense could be an issue again (the Pelicans ranked 28th last season) and the team hasn’t grasped Gentry’s offensive system yet. GM Dell Demps hasn’t upgraded this roster since the Pelicans made the playoffs in 2014.
There will be an urgency to the development of rookie Buddy Hield, and he has impressed in spurts during the preseason. However, impact rookies are rare and in a best-case scenario, Hield is at least a year away.
Overall, the roster remains a jumble of odd fitting pieces and few if any valuable pieces other than Davis that could help the Pelicans in a trade. That, plus injury issues, raises serious doubts about their ability to return to the playoffs, especially in a tough conference.
But, Davis seems encouraged.
“That’s his nature,” said Gentry. “He stays positive.”
That’s something he needs to keep because he’ll need it. With the exception of maybe DeMarcus Cousins, no player in the NBA on the level of Davis is surrounded by less talent. Unless you have strong faith in Demps and newly arrived front-office deputy Danny Ferry, Davis could find himself in the same hopeless situation as Kevin Love was in Minnesota, and we all know what happened there.
Unlike Love, Davis isn’t in danger of going anywhere; he’s signed for another three years beyond this season. He’s also a very manageable star who keeps his ego in check and is coachable. But at some point, unless there’s an uptick in the organization, fair-minded folks will wonder if the Pelicans are helping Davis or hurting him, and if he’d still choose New Orleans if he became a free agent tomorrow.
He’s saying all the right things now, but it’s preseason.
“We feel like we’ve made some good acquisitions,” he said. “We’ve got a good coaching staff and we’re moving in the right direction. I liked how everyone came for voluntary workouts over the summer. I was with this team during rebuilding and we can get back to the playoffs. And I’m just trying to focus on what I need to do to help this team get better.”
As he spoke, Gentry walked by and said: “Thanks for that vote of confidence.”
Davis laughed: “I said coaching staff, not head coach!”
Davis is happy because, first and foremost, he is healthy. And a healthy Davis can cause trouble for the other bench. When his body cooperates, Davis is an elite player, and he’ll need to return to that level in order for the Pelicans to stay out of the running for bottom-five in the league.
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