It started off innocently enough. A few close Pelicans wins, a few 40 point games, leading to some casual whispers: “Wow, Anthony Davis is putting this team on his back. Kind of obvious that it would happen without Cousins, though.”
Then two more wins, both in overtime, and the talk gets a little louder, to theater-during-movie-previews level: “Man, AD is going nuts. These numbers are insane! Can he keep it up?”
And then last night’s 53 point, 18 rebound, 5 block performance against the Suns happens, and the talk becomes a roar: “This is ridiculous. Is Anthony Davis an MVP candidate?”
Welcome to the MVP narrative, Anthony! In the NBA, the most coveted individual award is more about story than about stats, more about the eye of the beholder than the product on the court. The media treats the NBA MVP like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart treats pornography: “we know it when we see it.”
Over the past few decades, it has been largely understood, for better or worse, that the winner of the NBA MVP should be two particular things: 1.) Really, really, ridiculously good at basketball; and 2.) on a team that generally finishes within the top 3 in conference standings. The second point has usually carried more weight than the first, since there are really, really, ridiculously good basketball players on nearly every team (sorry Atlanta). But in addition to those two main points, an underlying third point has wormed its way into the discussion: 3.) they have to be able to sell a story.
The year after LeBron James moved away from home for what was essentially a college tour in South Beach, he put up numbers that were nearly as good as the years he had won MVP awards in the past. But the story was different: this was no longer the hometown phenom that everyone loved. The attitude had changed towards LeBron, and it left a hole that another young hometown hero could fill.
Derrick Rose’s stats may not have been as good as LeBron’s, but his team was better, and the story benefitted him more, so he took home the hardware. This was a year that started to show point 3 above was as important if not more than point 1.
Last year showed that point 3 may be more important than point 2 as well. As Russel Westbrook took the tatters of his once-mighty Thunder squad to a low playoff spot by averaging a triple-double, the story of his accomplishments became impossible to ignore. Even though the Thunder only finished sixth in the West, the story was strong enough to vault Westbrook over James Harden, who had unexpectedly flourished in Mike D’Antoni’s system in Houston. Harden had the better seed, and their statlines weren’t all that different (Harden averaged more assists and was 1.9 rebounds away from his own triple double), but there was no denying that Westbrook had the better story. I think it’s important to note here that the triple double played a role in his MVP campaign, but the story of the triple double (“Wow, Westbrook is averaging a triple double!”) was more important than the stat itself.
So I realize I spent the past few paragraphs talking about non-Pelicans on a Pelicans-themed website, and for that I apologize, but the stage is set now: narrative, depending on its strength, can matter more than conference standings and raw numbers. And now we can bring those roars from last night’s incredible performance from AD.
Harden has been incredible this year, and has been considered the odds-on favorite for MVP. It makes sense: the numbers are insane and the Rockets are unbelievably on top of the Warriors in the standings. But his story is a little lacking, and that’s probably why most media members don’t feel it’s a runaway race. I mean, the Rockets are doing well, and he and Chris Paul are incredible together, but that’s not a story that you can sell to a casual basketball fan.
But the Anthony Davis story post-January 26th story? Now that’s a page-turner. Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are in the process of turning the Pelicans into a playoff contender, and Cousins gets injured with the team 5 games above .500. After initial struggles, Davis leads the team on a six game winning streak, scoring 40 points three times and 50 once, not just keeping the Pelicans afloat but helping them soar to 5th in the conference currently. And while he hasn’t done it alone (a point I cannot stress enough), the national perspective has always been that without Boogie, Davis has no help. So while being a flawed narrative, it helps Davis’s performances look even more impressive.
Can Davis keep this up? Can the Pelicans keep winning? Possibly. The schedule hasn’t exactly been difficult during this streak, and there are some good teams ahead. But if the team can keep winning and stay in this range in the playoff hunt, and if Davis continues to put the team on his back, it becomes more than just casual whispers, more than a cute story. Anthony Davis can be the MVP if the stars align. And, of course, if he keeps the story interesting.