The last week has been a bewildering roller coaster for New Orleans Pelicans fans, mostly concerning the franchise’s superstar Anthony Davis.
Just last Wednesday, the Pelicans squared off against the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the teams that New Orleans is battling against for playoff position in the Western Conference. Games against the Wolves are usually heated, as Davis seems to have continued his personal vendetta of making sure that Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, fellow former Kentucky Wildcat, plays as horribly as possible in matchups against The Brow (Towns scored just 2 points on 1-7 shooting when the Wolves traveled to New Orleans on Nov. 1).
The game lived up to the hype, staying closely contested throughout most of the first half… until, of course, the emotion of the game (along with a few questionable calls) led to an outburst and first-half ejection for the usually calm Anthony Davis. After Davis’s first-career ejection, New Orleans looked deflated, as the Wolves went on a 16-6 run to close out the half.
If you missed his two technical fouls and ejection, here’s a good view of the action:
Anthony Davis was super heated at the refs and had to be restrained by DeMarcus Cousins before he got ejected tonight 😳 pic.twitter.com/Vw6ZzffvsP
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) November 30, 2017
Even in the second half, the Pelicans didn’t look the same without Davis, eventually falling 120-102 to the visiting Wolves.
Just a few days later in Friday’s road contest against the Utah Jazz, a similar storyline played out, albeit with fewer emotions and ejections.
In another tightly contested game, Anthony Davis was helped off the court in Salt Lake City after falling to the floor in pain on a non-contact play, obviously not a good sign. At the time, the Pelicans were up 84-80, but the team finished the game in an eerily similar fashion to Wednesday, falling flat down the stretch and picking up a 114-108 loss.
There is an unfortunate trend here, and it doesn’t end with those two games.
Early in the season when the Pelicans traveled to Portland on Oct. 24, Anthony Davis played just five minutes before making an early exit with an apparent knee injury, an injury which also caused him to be ruled out of the next game against the Kings. New Orleans, already without starters Rajon Rondo and Solomon Hill, went on to lose to the Trail Blazers 103-93.
In the unspeakable blowout loss to the Nuggets a few weeks ago (no, not the one in 2009), Davis departed the game in Denver after suffering a concussion in the third quarter, courtesy of an accidental headbutt from Nikola Jokic:
Anthony Davis leaves game with concussion after colliding with Nikola Jokic pic.twitter.com/YCy8cHlDQU
— Delay of Game Hoops (@delayhoops) November 18, 2017
That’s four deflating losses in four games where Anthony Davis was forced to make an early exit, and this is not counting the three games that Davis has been forced to completely miss due to injury. Can we say that there’s a pattern yet?
I can see two trends just from that record: either Davis is injury prone, the Pelicans can’t win without him, or both.
We’re only 24 games into the 2017-2018 season for New Orleans, so that’s not the largest sample size, even if Davis has at least partially missed six games so far due to injury, or a quarter of the season’s games so far. But taking his entire NBA career into account, he’s missed 78 games thus far, with more possibly to come after being ruled as day-to-day on Monday with a left adductor strain. Before last season (75 games played), Davis had only reached the mark of 68 games played once, which occurred in the 2014-2015 season where the Pelicans reached the playoffs.
So Anthony Davis probably can be considered “more injury prone” than most players, leading to some national writers as well as some fans wondering if it’s time to move on from the franchise’s cornerstone because of potential fragility. But Stephen Curry was often thought of as injury prone in his early career, as well as another elite player in Joel Embiid, who seems to have moved past that label so far this season. Even Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, all of whom were thought of as somewhat fragile in their careers in New Orleans, seem to have been able to mostly stay on the court more often since moving on to other teams.
Davis, however, is none of those players, and each player’s career plays out differently. Especially with his somewhat dangerous play style, Davis is going to probably get hurt on a few more risky plays this season, forcing him to leave games early, sit out and rest a few games, and it will likely be a trend that continues throughout the rest of his career. That can sound understandably concerning to fans in New Orleans, but it shouldn’t affect the Pelicans’ chances for success as much as some may think, it’s certainly not a reason to look for a trade, the team is not doomed to fail if he has to miss a few games, and there are a few reasons why.
Anthony Davis is a bona fide superstar
He’s been the franchise cornerstone for a reason. A consensus top-10 player and yearly MVP candidate, Davis should be on the list of the few untradeable players in the league (unless, of course, LeBron himself suddenly wants to join the flock in New Orleans). Watching the games this season, it’s clear just how much his presence elevates the Pelicans on both sides of the floor and changes how teams play against them. One reason the Pelicans may have faltered in the games he’s had to leave is that the game plans for both teams were so Davis-centric that things were made much more difficult for the Pelicans without him, while their opponents were relieved to not deal with Davis’s constant presence which usually seems to be everywhere on the court.
Davis is also probably a superhuman
As mentioned earlier, Anthony Davis often plays risky basketball. Diving over rows of chairs to save loose balls, running the length of the floor to attempt to block shots, and… whatever acrobatic feat he’s accomplishing on this play:
He’s going to get hurt. But outside of a few rare cases, most of them happening before last season, The Brow always seems to bounce back. After getting knocked to the floor by Nikola Jokic’s diamond-esque head? He returned the next game to dismantle the star-studded Thunder after putting up 36 points and 16 rebounds. After the knee injury early in the season in Portland? He missed a game, but returned after that to drop 30 and 14 on LeBron and the Cavaliers.
Even for the pelvic injury suffered against the Jazz on Friday, while it was originally thought to be serious, potentially affecting his availability for weeks upon months, Davis’s status was already up to Doubtful on Tuesday, which is certainly better than being completely out. After following him for all these years, I’m convinced that Davis, beyond just his superhuman athleticism, has some sort of Wolverine-style superpower where he heals faster than the average NBA player. And that even if he’s playing while injured, that’s still better than most players trying to compete while healthy.
DeMarcus Cousins is an unstoppable, mountainous force
One factor I overlooked back in February with the acquisition of Cousins in the All-Star Weekend trade is his contribution to the depth of the team. A big reason behind concerns about the Pelicans in the past was that after Davis goes down with an injury, games just become depressing, as there’s no real hope for a win when the talent discrepancy between New Orleans and their opponents was that big.
Now with Cousins, that’s not as big of an issue, as he’s by far the second-best player other than Davis to play for New Orleans since Chris Paul’s departure. Even though the current team was designed to have the two star big men play together most of the time, in the absence of Davis, one star big is better than none.
Oh yeah, and he’s a 6’11” center who has the skills of both a guard and a bruising center. LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are some of the players often thought of as terrifying forces to try to stop on a fastbreak, but Boogie might be even more difficult to slow down. For example, this beautiful fastbreak against Portland…
David Wesley said it pretty succinctly there: that’s a big fella running fast.
Someone of Cousins’s size and strength is going to be difficult to stop whenever he has an open lane like that, and usually he takes advantage of those types of opportunities. The only real options for defenders are A) foul him to stop a potential easy score, B) hope to draw a charge, or C) get out of the way, collect your losses, and move on to the next play, as the Blazers did there.
The problem with trying to stop Cousins on a hard drive with either a shot contest or an attempt to draw a charge is that Cousins uses his agility and strength together to make him nearly unstoppable on drives to the basket. Meyers Leonard discovered that the hard way trying to defend this play:
Omer Asik’s surprising resurgence as backup center
If you had told any Pelicans fan in the preseason that Omer Asik would be contributing actual NBA minutes this early in the season, they would probably look at you funny. Going even further to say that Asik’s minutes would be ridiculously efficient and positive to the team, and they’d call you a liar. Asik made his season debut in garbage time against Phoenix a few weeks back, and has only played in two games since then, but his minutes have been surprisingly effective.
He’s seemingly done everything he’s been asked to do on the court, and the team overall is an absurd 23.7 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents in his extremely small sample size of 36 minutes played so far over three games.
The stats can be fun to look at, even while not meaning much, but Asik’s return does actually tremendously help the frontcourt depth for the Pelicans. Cheick Diallo still doesn’t seem fully ready for NBA minutes and Alexis Ajinça is not ready to return to the court, so while Asik remained out, Dante Cunningham, who mostly plays like a wing, was really the only other serviceable “big man” for the Pelicans. While a search for a third big to join Cousins and Davis would be smart for the Pelicans, especially if one of the stars is unavailable with an injury, the return of Asik means that there isn’t as much immediate pressure to find such a player.
The Pelicans have lost every game where Davis had had to leave due to injury or ejection, but they’re 2-1 in games he’s missed entirely, when the team was able to gameplan better around DeMarcus Cousins, with the only loss coming against the defending champion Warriors. Even without Davis, the Pelicans should be able to stay afloat in the West behind Cousins and the rest of the roster, which seems to be figuring things out more and more every game.
And as far as wanting to trade Davis at any point in the foreseeable future, those arguments should be put to rest, at least until next year. This year, the team seems ready to compete.
Agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below! Or, yell at me on Twitter @JasonQuigs.