Dominant stretch vaults Anthony Davis into MVP conversation

New Orleans lost half of its All-Star big-man duo, then lost five of the first six games without DeMarcus Cousins. The season itself began to look like a lost cause in early February, with the Pelicans sliding down the Western Conference standings rapidly, seemingly on their way to a third straight non-playoff season.

Just when things appeared to be at their bleakest in the Crescent City, however, Anthony Davis put the team on his back, compiling the best stretch of his pro career – both individually and in the win column. As a result, instead of limping to the regular-season finish line, the Pelicans (40-30) are in the thick of the West postseason hunt. They have a chance to earn homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, something the franchise last accomplished 10 years ago.

For those reasons and several others, Davis zoomed to the forefront of the MVP conversation, going from afterthought to top-five candidate. The consensus frontrunner for the prestigious award may be Houston’s James Harden, but Davis is garnering leaguewide praise during what’s been an incredible month-plus stretch. The sixth-year NBA veteran has always boasted a one-of-a-kind skill set, but over the past 20 games, he’s taken that multidimensional tool box to a different level, averaging 31.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and 2.3 steals.

“The guy’s just an amazing player, with all of the playmaking and shooting they have around him now,” longtime Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “Losing Cousins is a big loss, but what happens is (Davis) becomes even more of the focal point. Instead of two of these guys putting up big numbers, you’ve got Davis throwing up unheard-of numbers, averaging 40 points (for a chunk of NOLA’s 10-game winning streak). The rebounding, the steals, getting a number of assists. The scoring is off the hook, crazy.”

“The tear that Anthony Davis is on is kind of not fair,” said Sacramento’s Dave Joerger, who then joked, “it’s kind of cheating.”

Opposing bigs feel much the same way when Davis is successfully tapping into every aspect of his offensive game: Using his length and athleticism to sky over everyone for alley oops; draining pull-up jumpers, even out to the three-point arc; relying on his improved ballhandling and post-up footwork to overwhelm defenders who have little chance to contain quickness you rarely see in a 6-foot-11 man.

“It’s always a progression, especially over the summer,” Pelicans assistant coach Kevin Hanson said of one reason Davis has improved yet again in 2017-18. “We work on a lot of different aspects of his game. He’s shown a lot this year. He really dedicated himself to working on his ballhandling this summer. He really focused on his handle and translated that into his post-ups, adding different dynamics to his game.”

Davis has also added an increased aggressiveness to his mindset, something that came partly from a phone conversation he had with Cousins, just prior to the 10-game streak. Cousins told Davis to play more like himself; Davis realized he was unsuccessfully attempting to make up for Cousins’ absence by distributing more and getting teammates involved. Part of the problem with that approach is that Cousins is a more naturally gifted passer, who’s averaged more assists than Davis throughout their careers. Reassured by Cousins that it was time to adopt an attack-first mentality, Davis immediately started putting up video-game numbers on offense.

“He’s been fantastic,” Pelicans third-year head coach Alvin Gentry said. “He’s been unbelievable. What he’s done and what he’s meant to our team can’t be expressed in words... he decided that he’s going to take on a lot more responsibility (after Cousins was injured).”

Point guard Rajon Rondo also deserves a share of the credit for Davis’ dominance, contributing in a series of ways, both on and off the court. Rondo’s elite playmaking ability gets Davis a steady stream of point-blank scores on many nights, but the veteran and 2008 NBA champion has also helped instill confidence in the entire team, including its two best remaining players.

Davis: “He’s helping me and Jrue (Holiday) through the whole process, telling us, ‘Look, AD, you’ve got to go get 50 (points), and Jrue you’ve got to get 30’ every night… it’s just the mindset that we have to go out there, be aggressive and help the team win.”

“Myself and Coach (Gentry), we just try to push the guy as much as possible to be the best version of him,” Rondo said of Davis. “He’s excelling right now. I mean, it’s no surprise. I hate to say it like that, but the guy every night is doing it. I don’t want to say I almost expect it, because I don’t want to take it for granted what he does. I love watching him play. He’s very special, and he knows it.”

With less than a month remaining in the 82-game season, Harden may be destined to capture the MVP trophy that’s barely eluded him twice this decade, but Davis is in the midst of a stretch that hasn’t been produced by an NBA big man in recent memory. Davis’ uniqueness as a player is perhaps best illustrated when media members ask current head coaches if Davis is reminiscent of any former pro. Rarely does anyone find a good comparison.

“(There is) probably not (anyone),” Carlisle said. “Not quite like him. There have been great players. Cousins is a great player. There have been a lot of big guys over the last five or six years who have been just awesome. But (Davis) just has a different sort of package of skills. The length, the shot-blocking is ridiculous. He’s just such a factor on both sides of the ball.”