Winning Without Davis

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Published: December 6, 2018

If you want to win with Davis, you need to win without Davis.

— Me

I don’t understand.

I simply don’t understand what is so hard to understand.

Day after day I see chatter about the team, and so much of it is so irrelevant. Blah blah shooting, blah blah rotation, blah blah standings, blah blah blah.

Even with the recent history of this franchise and the NBA, even with my pounding this for years, for some reason, the start and end of analysis is not “Davis.”

What matters is Davis.

Why do games matter? “Davis.”

Why does player such-and-such matter? “Davis.”

Why does Birmingham even appear in this article? “Davis.”

Bacon. “Davis.”

Davis has a choice coming up at the end of this season, and it’s a choice that’s been on the table, in some form, since he came to the franchise and proved he would be a force in the NBA. Here’s the rough summary of the most likely options:

  • Sign a Designated Veteran Extension and not be traded for a year
  • Wait a year and sign a Designated Veteran Extension or Designated Contract, depending on Player Option, and not be traded for year
  • Wait a year or two, depending on Player Option, and enter Free Agency aiming for a change of team
  • Convince New Orleans to trade him, extend or sign conventionally at the appointed time

I said this offseason that I thought the first of these is the premise the team is operating under, giving them a two-year operating window. Davis would still have leverage at the end of the trade exclusion period because of the return he could net with an earlier trade than a later trade on top of his superstar status in the NBA community. The leverage will eventually clearly be his, one way or another, which means he has some leverage even before that.

At any rate, among the myriad of factors that go into this decision, one thing that has to be glaring to him right now, because it is clear to me, is the team’s performance without him.

Playing With and Without Davis

Davis has played 22 games this season, playing at least 32 minutes in each save a 26 minute performance in a comfortable win over the Kings. The record in those games is 13-9. The record without him is 0-4. Those are just the outcomes. Outcomes matter, but outcome-based analysis has limited value. One valuable feature of outcome-based analysis is simplicity, which makes it “walk” easily, and I bet it walks preeeetty easily with Davis. It also prompts you to look deeper to see if the surface conclusions really do reflect something with relevant predictive power.

Let’s do a quick data dive that should give some pretty “gut” conclusions:

  • Margin of victory
    • With Davis: 13.7 in wins (9 double-digit wins), -7 in losses (3 double-digit losses), 5.27 overall
    • Without Davis: -12.25 (3 double-digit losses)
  • On-Off
    • Davis: +22.2 Change in NRTG, highest on the team
    • Holiday: +17.0, deserves his own line
    • Others more than 500 minutes (1248 minutes available): +7.6 (Moore), +1.2 (Mirotic), -5.5 (Randle)
    • Others 200 minutes – 500 minutes: -0.2 (Hill), -4.5 (Miller), -8.0 (Frazier), -10.5 (Clark), -12.7 (Johnson)
    • Others 100 minutes – 200 minutes: +5.6 (Payton), -4.1 (Diallo), -9.0 (Jackson)
  • Overlapping Minutes
    • 200m+ players, Less than 1/2 of their minutes with Davis: Clark (1)
    • 200m+ players, Between 1/2 and 2/3 of their minutes with Davis: Frazier, Hill, Miller, Mirotic, Randle (5)
    • 200m+ players, More than 2/3 of their minutes with Davis: Holiday, Moore, Johnson (3)

How does that cash out? Well, I suppose it depends on what your baseline assumptions are, but let’s try not to sugarcoat anything:

  • Davis is killer
  • Jrue is killer
  • As the minutes correlation with Davis decreases, so does the Change in NRTG
  • A +1.2 is the only + Change in NRTG among players with 200m+ and play less than 2/3 of their minutes with Davis

It’s very easy to look at this player data, the record, the scoring differentials, and just say: It’s all Davis.

You know who else said that? Davis. I don’t think he meant it exactly that harshly with respect to the other players, and I think he knows the team is built around him getting his shiny statistics so he can get his due accolades, but he knows the pressure is on him. The data just bears it out pretty starkly, and people can reasonably draw the conclusion that it is all Davis if this kind of data that is all that is “admitted.”

Is that literally true? No. But, is that kind of thing, in this form or a more salient eye-test or other statistical analysis, capable of reinforcing the notion that New Orleans is failing Davis? Yes. Would that be ignoring all the ways they do not fail him? Absolutely. Which matters more? Ask Davis on the day it matters, which is probably every day.

This is not the stupid “perception is reality” thing. This is the fundamental debate about process v results and how the one leads to the other.

Winning With and Without Davis

Would the record be different if Davis was more available? Sure. Would it be THAT different? At most, reasonably speaking, 17-9, which is upper tier in the West, but not world-destroying, and that is if they won all the Davis-less games.

Would those differentials and other statistics be that different? No, I don’t think so. Even if everyone had a little more shine, so would Davis. You can’t penalize a team for featuring Davis and having worse players sacrifice some for him, of course. That’s not what I’m saying. In fact, I’m saying that is a plus, actually. The issue is really what they do when are NOT sacrificing for him.

I firmly believe in the defense of this team. Through recent seasons and through games this season, we see improvement. I’m expecting the defense to solidify. Randle, in particular, being the newest of the major-minute guys, is clearly still behind the curve, so him coming along will likely pace some of the improvement. This would, in fact, help the team both win games and improve the quantitative and qualitative evaluation of the players.

Still, with the West as flat as it is, and with the Pelicans being held accountable by Davis’s contract situation, I do not think the approach of just giving Davis a system to let him shine is optimal for achieving the ultimate goal.

Rather, this team has to win without Davis, and then he has to shine within that framework.

The fact that Davis is here now needs to be an advantage for New Orleans in the third-contract game, and I believe it is both from a contract perspective, which is pretty undeniable, and the tailoring of the team to fit his needs should also be a help. This . . . is not as strong of an advantage. If you have this already and you are not delivering what he wants in terms of recognition and non-CBA-controlled money, then the promises of the best of the 29 other teams may appear more attractive in the way some prefer draft picks to players drafted.

A better approach is to have that to some degree but also to show Davis, to the extent possible, that even if he were a free agent, New Orleans is a team that should be high on his list. The best way to do that is to show that you have a good team without him that still has some mechanisms to add players once they “follow” him to New Orleans. You do not need infinite flexibility to obtain a player when the player wants to come to your team. You don’t need piles of picks. You need a team with players that produce wins and reduce pressure while allowing Davis to get his accolades.

The Pelicans have actually approached things this way, which is one reason they put some value on lower usage players that causes more casual observers to scratch their heads (this is not to say that they have or have not made the best choices). However, they have not yet produced a team that can really win sufficiently without Davis, even at an expected 0.500 rate.

This is why, absolutely, unambiguously, and with major gusto, the team has to make a move for a major player. A star. Period.

I get the temptation to work around the edges, to save your resources for tomorrow. That’s great if the world does not end, if you do not experience “gambler’s ruin” along the way. The franchise isn’t Davis, but while he is here, you have to act that way. Teams spend years and years waiting to try to get a player like him (think about how long people have been talking about Davis leaving . . . if it was easier to get another Davis, they would talk about that player . . . but they don’t). Toronto has possibly cashed in on the surprising exit of Leonard from San Antonio, and I’m not sure he’s Davis, but how often does this happen? You want to bank on this coincidence of conincidences?

No, you don’t let him leave, then prepare the nest, then wait for “another one” to pop in without drafting the guy (which almost certainly requires you not to have the nest prepared).

If you are going to build that team if you lose him, just build that team NOW so the prize player doesn’t leave. Once they stay, you do your best to keep said player here. You strip mine your land to buy another year, year after year, if that’s what it takes. Once that process is done, you let them move on, hopefully recovering assets from that player and the satellite ones in the process.

I’m not advocating trading everything for one more season just to toil for years. What I’m advocating for is using the market to make those big-enough deals to give you a fighting chance to keep the Davis while giving ownership a chance to operate well in the coming years should you fail, at least once you recover assets from sending players out and by boosting your own remaining picks (which is one reason trading future picks has been rare even if they all get traded, by the way).

Besides, this does not just affect Davis. In an off-season where many teams will have cap space, the Pelicans have to consider free agent and trade offers for their other players, like Mirotic and Randle. The Pelicans need control. Trading for a guy to give some stability to the roster from a contractual perspective would help, in addition to making New Orleans a place to re-sign, even for a possible “hometown discount” season from Randle due to the limited mechanisms to give him a large contract.

It’s a good thing the Pelicans took care of lesser players through the years, huh?

At any rate, I said it before the season, and here I am with even more data saying the same thing: It’s all about a major trade. “Mr. Trade.”

I think Moore and a pick is a good start, then add Johnson or Hill and stuff to make salaries match, take on some weight if necessary. While I may be alone on this belief, I think keeping Randle has to be a priority. To be clear, I’d prefer to keep Mirotic, but he’s got more value in trade than Randle, so . . . .

I think they need to go after a guard that can defend and drive, some shooting, decent passer. I need a star, but not a superstar. I need a guy who will lead by example but does not need to be in the spotlight or prefers not to be in it. I’ve got an affinity for Beal and my `Smothercation’ defense, but I’m not going to pick nits on the details. They just need to make a major move this season.

It needs to be the right deal. I think we can wait because the cost of waiting is treading water, at least for now. The entire West in reach. I see the empty analysis from empty analysts saying stuff like, “These wins could matter because something bad might happen one day.” Thanks, when does your book about the relationship between water and wetness come out? Last season’s record does not matter that much either because . . . why? Oh! It’s this season. The expected wins do not matter that much because the wins matter less than the number of teams who win fewer games than you. Just stay in the mix, because you carry yourself like a champion, not like a loser (ahem), then you set the tone going into the post-season and you try to win the game the matters the most.

Davis.

Davis Davis Davis.

Davis.

If you want to win with Davis, then you need to win without Davis.

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