Is Anthony Davis on the Verge of Becoming a Full-Fledged Superstar?

This is Season Preview week on Bourbon Street Shots, and while the focus will be on the team as a whole, the answer to the question above will likely determine how big of a jump the Pelicans make in the Western Conference. Quite simply, NBA superstars only miss the playoffs in very rare situations. Kobe Bryant missed the playoffs in his prime because Chucky Atkins led the Lakers in minutes that year. Chris Mihm was the starting center. Jumaine Jones was the 6th man. Who? Exactly!

You can debate whether Carmelo Anthony was a superstar last year. If you say yes, I will still point out that JR Smith and Raymond Felton were 2nd and 3rd in minutes played on that team. Tyson Chandler led all their big men in minutes and he only got 1600 last season. Maybe you can argue that Kevin Love was a true superstar last season and he had some quality teammates around him, but even if I grant you all of that, a superstar with quality teammates missing the playoffs is the rare exception, not the norm.

Now, the true problem is how to define a superstar I suppose. If you ask ten basketball fans, you will probably have at least seven different definitions of a superstar. For some, it is individual stats, while others equate being a superstar with being the best player on a team that wins a lot. For others, they look to MVP votes or All-NBA selections, and a small group of NBA fans just rely on the subjective eye test. So, what is a superstar? I guess before we go any further, we have to define what it is before we can answer whether Anthony Davis can become one.

The Criterion For A Superstar

To say that one thing determines superstardom would be naive. Like any broad term, it probably requires a collection of traits and accolades to label a player a superstar. If it is about titles, then Lebron is a superstar while Durant and Blake Griffin are not. If it is only about spectacular stats, then Chris Paul used to be a superstar, but isn’t anymore and that just doesn’t seem right. Experts opinions hold some weight, but even the smartest basketball minds can’t agree on guys like Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony, so we need more than just their two cents.

So, the answer is simple. We have to develop a criterion that takes from all of these areas, weighing them all, but not making them necessary or sufficient conditions to be labeled a superstar. Okay, maybe it is not so simple, but let’s give it a try anyway. Below is my criterion for a superstar and the reasons why each individual criteria has been selected. A superstar is any player who gets 60 or more points according to these three criterias.

1. Unique Stats (40 points)

A superstar should have a stat line that almost nobody else in the league can produce. Not only in that season, but in the last handful of seasons. Look at Lebron. You know who else put up 27, 7, and 6 on 57% shooting in the last ten years? Um, nobody. Except for, well, Lebron the year before. Or how about Chris Paul? How many 19 point, 10 assist, 2.5 steals seasons have there been in the last 15 years? The answer is three, and they were all Chris Paul. 28 points per game and 50+% from the field? Only Lebron, Shaq, and Durant the past 15 years. You add in 2 or more made three’s per game to that stat line and Durant stands alone. The point is, that to be a superstar, you have to put up numbers unlike any others in your era.

Guys who fit the Superstar criteria in this category last season: Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Anthony Davis

2. Multiple Accolades (40 points)

Getting named First or Second Team All-NBA counts as an accolade. Getting 15 or more top-5 MVP vote counts as an accolade. Winning a Player of the Month award is an accolade, as it is much more rare than you probably think. Get two or more of these accolades and you have a legit claim as a superstar.

Guys who fit the criteria: Kevin Durant, Al Jefferson, Stephen Curry, Lebron James, Blake Griffin, James Harden, Joakim Noah, Paul George

3. Making Your Teammates Infinitely Better (20 Points)

This is the hardest one to point to and quantify, but I am going to attempt to do it. A superstar would be a guy who makes the game easier for all of his teammates and can impact a game in multiple ways. Because of this, he should make his team markedly better than a standard replacement player would if put in the same position. One way to gauge this is by looking at On-Off splits, both when he is on the court vs. off and when the unit he most often runs with is on without him. Of course, you need to have a large sample size and no two replacement players will be the same, but we still have to attempt to do this in order to separate very good players from superstars.

Let’s start off by looking at Lebron, the standard by which all other superstars are measured. His teams offensive rating shot up 9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. The Clippers were four points better offensively and five points better defensively per 100 possessions when Chris Paul was on the court. Meanwhile, the Clippers were seven points better offensively when Blake Griffin was on the court and two points better defensively. The tough part when looking at Griffin and Paul is figuring out who deserves more of that credit. You would think that the answer is Paul, but Griffin was fantastic (and so were the Clippers) when CP3 was sidelined with an injury and Griffin was the #1 guy.

Meanwhile, maybe we do have to label Carmelo Anthony a superstar according to this criteria. The Knicks as a whole were 9 points per possession better with Anthony on it as opposed to off. The Knicks actually were an above average team with Anthony on the court, as they were +1.1 with him on the court with the other group of misfits. When Carmelo was off, they were absolutely horrible – a -7.8 points per 100 possessions. So basically, they were a 43 win team with him and a 23 win team without him. Twenty wins sounds like a superstar to me.

But where do we draw the line, and how do we hold teammates accountable? Should one player be penalized because his teams’ bench is good, and therefore their team doesn’t drop off as much when they leave the court? Or should other guys be hoisted up for the opposite reason? NBA Real Plus/Minus addresses some of these issues, but it is still not perfect. With regards to lineups, I have set the bar at 4 points per 100 possessions of a difference between the lineup with the potential superstar player and the same exact lineup with his primary backup. So, for example, for Blake Griffin to qualify, the lineup with the same guys he starts with but with Jared Dudley in it has to be at least 4 points per 100 possessions worse. The Clippers most common Blake unit was CP3-Collison-Barnes-Griffin-Jordan. Here’s the rub, though. You take out Griffin and put in Dudley, and the Dudley unit was much better. You take out CP3 and put in Collison, and the Collison unit was 0.1 points per 100 possession better.

So, this is definitely not fool proof. Lebron’s Heat were far worse when Lebron went off and everybody else stayed on with a SF replacement and the same could be said for the Paul George-less Pacers. But losing Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook did not force the Spurs or Thunder to make huge dips if they were the only one from the main lineups to come out. So, I will not make that a necessary or sufficient criteria for this category. Instead, it will one way to get on this list. Another way will be to have averaged 30 or more minutes a game and have a Real Plus-Minus of 5 or higher.

Players who fit this criteria: Lebron James, Chris Paul, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Stephen Curry, Lamarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony

So, Who Are the NBA’s Current Superstars?

Lebron James (100 points)

Kevin Durant (100 points)

Chris Paul (60 points)

Kevin Love (60 points)

Stephen Curry (60 points)

According to my criterion, that is it and that’s all – at least for last season. These were the five best players in the league, and were all guys worthy of being deemed superstars. As you see, four of the five made the playoffs, and again – Love had a historic season for a guy who did not make the playoffs. You look at all the other guys who fit into even one of these categories, and only Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis missed the playoffs. Carmelo was in a horrible situation, with a terrible roster and a head coaching and front office circus, and Anthony Davis was on one of the most injury-riddled teams of the past few years.

The fact is that superstars rarely miss the playoffs, and if Anthony Davis can get to that level, then the Pelicans will likely see their first playoff action since fellow superstar Chris Paul left town.

How Does Anthony Davis Become A Superstar?

So, as you can see, Davis already has one of the criterion locked down. Last year, he put up 20 points, 10 rebounds, 2.7 blocks on 51% shooting. The only other guys to do that in the past 15 years were Tim Duncan, Shaq, and Dwight Howard. Duncan and Howard only did it once, Shaq did it twice. He is also capable of doing something truly historic for his team; something I chronicled in a piece last offseason.  The fact is that he won’t have any kind of issue putting up historic stats, because he is a truly unique two-way player, capable of doing things that few players before him were capable of doing.

The second criterion – Accolades – is kind of circular reasoning in a sense. Guys usually get accolades because their team is winning, and that would make AD a superstar in my book. But I am saying that if he becomes a superstar, then they will win, so let’s skip this one for now. Let’s turn to the criterion that is all about make his team and his teammates better.

Last season, the Pelicans weren’t that much better with Davis on the court as opposed to off. Their offensive rating shot up nearly 2 points per 100 possessions, but their defensive rating was relatively unchanged – which is surprising when you consider Davis led the league in blocks. The team turned the ball over a little less when Davis was on the court, and the FG% was slightly higher, but other than that, the Pelicans with Davis and without Davis were about the same as far as total performance. This is not what you should expect from a superstar.

Now, it should not go without saying that Davis was often on the court against other teams starters and that certain units that featured Davis (before all the injuries occurred) were terrific. But, we have a large enough sample size over two seasons to conclude that Davis’s presence has not made the Pelicans a better team thus far.  You look at Real Plus-Minus and he finished 26th….among Power Forwards! He was sandwiched in between guys like Pero Antic and Branden Wright. Again, no single data set should be used to draw any definitive conclusion, but we have two years worth of numbers telling us that, while Davis is singularly great, his team does not improve that much when he is on the court.

So, how does that change? Can it? Kevin Durant thinks so. Heading into Durant’s third season, there were a handful of stories asking the question: Is Oklahoma City better without Durant? Sounds like a crazy question, doesn’t it? But according to the numbers, Durant wasn’t a neutral, he was a negative – and a big negative at that. In Durant’s 2nd year, the OKC offense was one point per 100 possessions better with Durant OFF the floor, and its defense was nearly eight points per 100 possessions better with Durant off. The numbers basically said OKC was a .500 team with Durant off the court, and a .250 team with him on.

But then, magically, all of that changed in Durant’s third season. The team’s offensive rating when he was on the court shot through the roof, and even the defense was better with Durant on as opposed to off. On the offensive end, Durant got to the line more and took more 3-pt shots. He reduced the number of long two’s he took by 20%. His free throw rate soared over 30% and so did his three-point attempt rate. He simply became a more efficient player; taking just one more shot a game, but he added 5 points per game to his total.

On the defensive end, Durant had career highs in defensive rebounds and blocks. Common sense would say that he became a better defender, both individually and as a system defender, because his IQ on that side of the ball had increased and he was more familiar with what the coaching staff wanted to do. Honestly, it’s not rocket science – an increase in efficiency on offense and knowledge base on defense helped Durant reach a new level as an individual player, and that helped the team as a collective unit. He really didn’t make others around him better (assist rate actually stayed the same), he just made the game easier for his teammates because he was making it so much harder for the defense.

So, how can Anthony Davis mirror Kevin Durant’s third year leap? It starts with trying to increase his efficiency on offense. The addition of the corner three-point shot won’t hurt. While nobody expects Davis to fire up 200 attempts this season, shooting 50 or 60 and hitting them at a 30% rate or higher would help his efficiency, if those shots were coming at the expense of long two’s. An increased free throw rate would help, too. In Davis’s best month as a pro (March of 2014), he got to the free throw line 9 times per game. It is no coincidence that he averaged 24.4 points per game on just 16.5 shots. You look at November of 2013, a month in which he played the same number of games and a similar number of minutes and he only took 6 FT’s a game. Result? 19.6 points per game on 14.2 shots. Far less efficient.

On the defensive end, he isn’t going to block many more shots per game. He led the league last year, and while he can climb to 3 or 3.5 if he really locks in, that is not significant enough over 100 possessions to really change the Pelicans defensive rating. Increasing his rebound rate can help the Pelicans a bit on that end, and it is very likely that his added weight and the ability to play much more PF this year, will help him do that. But it will be the little things that can not be measured and logged in box scores that will help this team grow defensively.

Davis was slow in processing rotations at times last year and took some poor angles in pick and roll defense. He tried to do too much, often because he had nobody else to rely on once Jrue Holiday went down. This year, he has another paint protector in Asik, and what looks like a more conservative system that will force teams to take more long, contested twos. One thing he needs to stop doing is defending with his hands out on the perimeter and/or crowding guys when he gets switched onto a wing. He doesn’t trust his own length, and because of that he often crowds much smaller guys and has to use his arms to slow their penetration. Something as simple as taking a half of a step back when he is on a smaller guy will keep him out of foul trouble and will keep guys from getting past him and into the paint.

Again, the offensive end is easy. Davis simply needs to add a couple of tools to his arsenal and increase his efficiency. Already in the preseason we have seen him put the ball on the floor, using multiple dribbles. This wasn’t common last year, and it was something the Pelicans staff said that they wanted Davis to work on over the summer. He did. Davis also has added a corner three-point shot that we are likely to see from time to time this year. Now, the danger is that Davis falls in love with his jump shot and that kills his efficiency, but when we asked Monty about that prior to last week’s preseason game against Houston, Monty stated, “AD knows he has to attack the paint.” And he did that night, scoring 26 points on just 11 shots. The next game he had 28 points on 15 attempts. In those two games, he averaged 9 free throws in 28 mpg. That kind of mentality combined with a more intelligent defensive mindset and AD is not only a superstar, he is an MVP candidate.

What Davis’s Superstardom Means for the Pelicans

The most common projections for Davis next season are on par with Kevin Garnett’s and Tim Duncan’s 1999-2000 season’s or David Robinson’s 1989-90 season. Each of those guys led their teams to 50+ wins and a playoff birth in those seasons, with arguably inferior rosters to what Davis and the Pelicans have right now. The 1999-2000 Spurs had an aging David Robinson as the second banana, and Avery Johnson as their third leading scorer, averaging just 11.2 points per game. Sean Elliot only played 19 games that season and the rest of the rotation included 36 year olds Mario Elie and Terry Porter (who were 4th and 5th in scoring), and journeyman Jaren Jackson.

The 1999-2000 Timberwolves had a fairly efficient point guard in Terrell Brandon to help out KG, but their third best player was Malik Sealy. Starting next to KG up front was Stephen A Smith’s favorite player – Rasho Nesterovic. And yet, they won 50 games and made the playoffs. The 1989-90 Spurs were comprised of a roster full of guys that had gone just 21-61 the year before. But then they added Robinson, and won 56 games the next year. Terry Cummings was a nice complement to Robinson, but after that they had to rely on Willie Anderson and an aging Mo Cheeks. Rod Strickland didn’t come over in a trade until February, and Sean Elliot was just a rookie. But they rode the back of David Robinson to 56 wins.

The point is that if you have a superstar, and more specifically, a big man superstar who can dominate on both ends, then the playoffs are almost a given if he stays healthy. Teams that have a player of that quality need only have an average supporting roster around that player to win 50 or more games in this league, and the Pelicans supporting roster is far above average. Injuries derailed a few guys last year (Ryno, Gordon, Holiday), as did limited minutes due to new roles (Asik and Tyreke), but look back to the 2012-13 preseason. All five of those guys were in the Top 80 of ESPN’s NBA Rank. That means, AD theoretically has five guys who would be the second or third best player on an NBA roster if the league were to do a re-draft and the talent was disbursed evenly.

So, if you combine a superstar player on both ends of the court with five above average starting caliber NBA players, history says that your team will be playing into May. But Davis has to take that next step. He needs to get more efficient on offense and more intelligent on the defensive end. He also has to stay healthy. Those three superstars I mentioned all played over 3000 minutes in the years that they led their teams to the playoffs. Finally, Davis has to make the game easier for his teammates by assuming the role of lead dog not only throughout the game, but at the end of games. If he can do all those things, it will not be a surprise to see the Pelicans in the playoffs. In fact, not only will it not be a surprise, it will be expected.

5 responses to “Is Anthony Davis on the Verge of Becoming a Full-Fledged Superstar?”

  1. Duh… Is what I wanted to say when I read the heading… Haha but great article!
    I just got lucky enough in my draft to get the #1 pick and I of coarse took AD.. He’s gonna be a monster this year. 8-10 free throw attempts at around 83%.. 25 PTS 10 REB 3 blks
    Sooooooo excited for this season!

  2. 1st nicely done.
    2nd unfortunately it seems Davis only claim to superstardom are numbers. These stats were produced in one year when he was the only quality rebounder and rim protector with few good perimeter defender the whole year. Not to mention he was the 1st option on offense and was able to play to his strengths as a finisher around the basket via assisted baskets and putbacks which fueled is scoring efficiency. He got a lot of “superstar calls” and was bailed out offensively a lot although that shouldn’t change this season. I don’t see that being the case unless we suffer a rash of injures this season.

  3. I would really like to see AD develop some back to the goal post moves…Ewing came into the league without that and developed a killer fadeaway shot from the short corner…Shaq never really did but his strength allowed him to bull his way in for dunk marathons…Olajuwon also came in like Ewing without much of an offensive game and developed an incredible game around the rim…Monty was a big man and should know this but I’ve yet to see A.D. display anything more than hard drives that often find him out of control, but luckily drawing fouls…not trying to rag on our bellcow; just saying I think this is a yet undeveloped skill that if he strengthens will indeed make him the go-to guy for us when the chips are on the line…I don’t see him in that specific role yet, but he is still 21!

  4. I feel like this article is making me (overly?) optimistic.  None of the three guys you project AD’s 2014-15 season to be like (Kevin Garnett’s and Tim Duncan’s 1999-2000 season’s or David Robinson’s 1989-90 season) had to deal with the murderous current NBA Western Conference.  Looking at those player’s teams in isolation is nice, but I don’t recall their Western Conferences being anything like today’s Western Conference.  In fact, I think their Western Conferences were closer to today’s (L)Eastern Conference than today’s Western Conference.  
    What scares me is we could be an amazing team by historical standards this year and still be a year (and a good SF) away from the playoffs because of the greatness of the current Western Conference.

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