Why Anthony Davis Needs More Touches

Published: January 9, 2015

I’m not going to lie, it’s weird being upset about an offense ranked 8th in the Association. With the Pelicans’ defense coming in at 7th worst a lot of people would rather we focus our efforts discussing that. But with the team underachieving (most likely; it depends on your expectations) everything should be on the table. And, well, if the Pelicans give the ball to Davis more it could help both sides.

It’s Not Shots

Now, when I say they don’t get Davis the ball enough I do not mean he needs more shots. Davis ranks number 1 in made shots, 9th in attempts (3rd if you only look at 2-point attempts), and 3rd in scoring. It’s an incredible accomplishment for a 3rd year player. And one that is made even more impressive because Davis doesn’t even rank in the top 20 in Usage%. It’s why he ranks 1st in PER. All in all it’s pretty beastly

All the data thus far doesn’t make it seem terrible. But if all the above is so good, why does Davis rank 132nd in front court touches per game with only 33.6? Why not give him the chance to get the ball more and potentially add onto all the above.

The Guards

There is no doubt the guards pass the ball to Davis; otherwise he would not have 72.2% of his shots assisted on. Davis acts as a safety net/cleanup guy—for Holiday and, in particular, Evans. Combined those two make up 79% of all the assists to Davis.

So, yes, they do pass him the ball. It’s just at the end of possession. And that’s where this problem lies.

Davis is a tremendous finisher, especially from mid range. But being this type of safety net actually encourages ineffective offensive play. Guards and teammates know they can drive to the rim and assume they can either make the layup or get the ball to Davis as a mid range outlet. And while the Pelicans have players who drive, and drive well, it is not the most effective shot for some.

Let’s look at Tyreke Evans. He is 2nd in the league in drives, but shoots just 38.8% on those type of shots. Of the 36 players that have at least 200 drives this season that ranks second worst. Evans has good stats on drives this year, but that is largely because he does it so often. Evans actually averages .53 points per drive. Compare that to James Harden’s .75 or Holiday’s .64. Shots close to the rim are what you want players taking. Evans just isn’t the most efficient at it, and while the Pelicans’ offense is ranked 8th this isn’t the reason why.

The Coaching

So with how well Davis has been playing, and the relative ineffectiveness of Tyreke Evans, why has this been the case for 35 games? This is tied together twofold. The first is that Pelicans’ head coach Monty Williams doesn’t call many plays/sets. The team has a general gameplan for what they want to do offensively, but during the game it is largely up to the players to simply play.

It’s one of the reasons why there isn’t a consistent offensive identity to this Pelicans team. When four guys are standing around on the court without moving it’s because they are unsure of what to do or what will happen next. They know each other’s tendencies (to a degree since a lot of these guys have been injured), but it’s not like there are pin downs being called for Anderson or double screens for Holiday. Someone may decide to run over and set a screen, but it’s largely not a designed play. Without running an action specific offense such at the Triangle, players are free to do what they think is best. The reason why there is so much isolation play. It’s a good thing that the coach trusts his players so much but it also leads to another problem.

Guys like Holiday and Evans are highly paid professional athletes. They like the spotlight, they like being the alpha dog on the team, they want to fill their stat sheet while other great players are on the court. This isn’t to say anything about who they are as a person, but on the court you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think this is a factor. Sometimes they try to score because they want to be the guy who does, even to the detriment of the team. Every team in the league has this problem to some extent. But this year it seems to be hurting the Pelicans, and Davis at a good clip.

Evans ranks 10th in missed field goals, 15th in attempts. Holiday I 19th in misses. Monty needs to add some more structure to the Pelicans gameplan and take a bit more active role during the game to calm things down and get the ball to the team’s best player: Davis.

A starting lineup of Holiday/Gordon/Babbitt or Cunningham/Davis/Asik would work centered around Davis. It would allow more simple high pick and rolls with Holiday/Davis which we haven’t seen a ton of this year. Imagine Davis, after setting the screen for Holiday, take a step towards the basket. He gets the ball and the defense has to pick their poison. Take away the lane and allow an open jumper, or defend the jumper, let Davis put the ball on the ground once, and be at the rim for a close look. Yes, please.

A lineup like that would also allow Tyreke Evans to thrive, especially paired with Anderson and Babbitt, on the second unit. It would also mask some of the Pelicans depth issues. But egos and such may not allow this to happen. And this is where my biggest criticism of Monty is. He needs to put his foot down and lead. If a player doesn’t want to accept a different role there need to be consequences.

Remember the Zach Lowe article this summer about how the Pelicans planned to setup their offense around Davis?

“The Pelicans envision Davis as the fulcrum of their offense in the mode of a prime Dirk. They want Davis to get the ball in the center of the foul line, face the defense, and operate from there with shooters around him.”

That sounds awesome! But where has it been? Even if Davis doesn’t shoot or drive out of that offense it would still help his teammates. Recently teams have made more of an effort to mark Davis out the offense (personally, I don’t see this as much as people make it out to be), if Davis gets the ball on the free throw line earlier in possessions defenses need to account for him by doubling or sagging a defender off for potential help if Davis moves to the rim, allowing him to pass and create good looks for the rest of the team. Davis may not be a tremendous passer yet, but this would undoubtedly help the offense. Davis won’t improve unless the team tries.

The Other Side

At the start of the season did you think the Warriors and Rockets would rank in the top 5 of defense efficiency? Neither did I. Are all their players truly good defensively? Probably not. But their offense significantly helps the defense. The Warriors shoot tremendously well from deep and take a lot of attempts. Because they are such good shooters, they force their opponent to inbound the ball after a make and it allows their defense to get back and get set. The Rockets are similar and they also get to the line a ton. And when those team miss, their players are on the perimeter so they can quickly get back on defense and get set to defend.

The Pelicans are on the other side of the spectrum. When they drive to the hoop and miss they give the opponents an easier chance to score since they have fewer guys back. Imagine the offense that runs through Davis and shooters. If one of them miss more guys are back on defense. It certainly wouldn’t fix everything but it would help the 24th ranked defense.

Final Thoughts

When you have a transcendent star in Anthony Davis the coach needs to make sure you’re maximizing his ability and utilizing him correctly. Despite his tremendous numbers, Davis and the offense have room for improvement. Recently Monty has said he wants to get the ball to Davis more. If he can follow through on that and add some more structure to this Pelicans team, they have a chance to romp through January and make up some ground in the playoff race. Let’s see what the gameplan is tonight.

(Stats from Basketball-reference.com and NBA.com/Stats)


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