New Orleans Pelicans Season in Review: Anthony Davis

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Published: May 4, 2015

I couldn’t figure out where to start this article – for as much of the individual brilliance that I’ve witnessed from Anthony Davis over the past few years, writing about how amazing he is feels like trying to prove gravity.  Everyone already knows it exists, and everyone knows that Anthony Davis is on a trajectory that most max players don’t sniff in their 3rd contracts, much less as a 21 year old. The 2014-15 version of Davis continued his metamorphosis into one of the most unique players of our time. Never mind the PER – which is historically good, or any combination of advanced metrics that aggressively reinforce that we are witnessing the toddler phase of an NBA legend – there are equally exciting things about Anthony Davis happening outside of box scores and analytics.  For example, his fluffy midrange J, his incredible first step, his ability to beat anyone down the floor, his ability to erase shots, his ability to grab rebounds in traffic, his evolving passing, his ability to finish with either hand at the rim, or, more succinctly, his ability to impact the game in any way that he wants.

Beating the Warriors in a series was never going to happen, but it was clear as day that the Pelicans did have one thing working in their favor: the Warriors didn’t have anyone remotely capable of dealing with Davis.  Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green were 2 of the most influential defenders in the NBA this year, but neither was equipped to handle AD.

The NBA playoffs are sometimes a trying affair for young, up-and-coming stars, simply because their games haven’t evolved to a place where they can be consistently effective against elite defenses.  Conversely, for Davis, it was a testament to just how evolved his game already is.  Davis threw down 31.5 points per game on 54% shooting (61 TS%), 11 rebounds per game, and 3 blocks per game.  In his first playoff appearance.  Against the best team in the NBA.  Some of this is simply a result of playing more minutes–Davis averaged 43 minutes vs. the Warriors–but basically, Davis bested his regular season rates in very adverse circumstances.

 

And the league has taken notice. Players recognize the unique challenges that Davis poses, as Tyson Chandler notes in his Players Tribune article.

There is simply no game plan for this guy. His skill set is so pure and smooth. What I love about him is that you could drop him on any court and he’s going to get you 20 points and 12 rebounds just off of playing the game. They don’t even have to run plays for him. That’s not to say that they don’t go through him a lot in New Orleans, but it’s within a system. It’s not about set isolation plays. There’s certain bigs where you can sense, “OK, here comes his go-to play.”

Historical Significance of Davis’s PER (via Basketball Reference)


PER

These are the best single-season PERs of all time, which Davis has managed to crack at 21. I can’t wait to see what Davis’s PER will look like when his usage has another uptick.

Strengths

Shot-Blocking

Surprise, surprise.  Anthony Davis entered the NBA as someone who seemed predestined to lead the league in blocked shots.. and has led the league in blocked shots per game for 2 years now (Serge Ibaka blocked more total shots in 2013-14). Davis’ length and mobility are a rare package and allow him to block shots all over the floor. He also fouls less per block than any other player registering more than 1.5 blocks/game.  Davis blocks a whopping 1.42 shots per foul. The closest guy to him, Rudy Gobert, blocks 1.08 shots per foul. There are certainly times that Davis leaves his feet when he shouldn’t, but as you can see below, his timing is remarkably good.

Mid-Range Jumper

Davis’s jumper took a sizable leap this year and it allowed the Pelicans to adjust how they used him in pick and rolls.  Teams have decided that sending a 3rd man to cut off Davis’s run to the rim is certainly worth leaving another Pelican wide open, so the Pelicans adjusted by letting Davis float around the free throw line area and splash jumpers.  This is only possible because Davis has taken such strides in his jumper.  He had a cold shooting stretch to end the regular season, but for much of the season, his midrange FG% was hovering around 46%, which is elite for a player of any position. As you can see below, Davis finished with a very respectable 43.4%, which puts him in some nice company.

Midrange

Stealing the ball

Davis’s unparalleled physical tools also allow him to generate steals at a high rate.  Passing lanes change when Davis is in–his arms are too long and he is too quick to throw risky passes in his vicinity. Generally speaking, Davis does a good job of not gambling on steals too often (and thus exposing the defense), but there are times where he takes a defensive risk and the Pelicans get burned for it.

Finishing at the Rim

For big men, finishing at the rim is often cut down to dunking ability and post play.. but for Davis, it is much more than that. Davis excels at catching the ball on the move and can finish with either hand at the rim.  He is, of course, also an extraordinary lob threat, which is largely due to his amazing hands, leaping ability, and timing.  It’s no secret that the Pelicans ball-handlers are not the best at timing lobs and putting the ball in the right place, but Davis finishes them anyway.

Running the floor

I firmly believe that if Anthony Davis played in an uptempo system, he could probably score between 8-10 points a game in transition.  It seems like a stretch – Synergy says that Davis scores roughly 2.8 points per game in transition – but if you watch him play, you know how many opportunities are missed because the Pelicans don’t push the ball or the ball-handlers are not capable of finding him quickly enough.  Much is made of Davis’s leaping ability, and rightfully so.. but I don’t know if there’s a big man in the NBA who gets up and down the floor like Davis does.  His speed is amazing. He isn’t always rewarded, but he’s always putting in the work to run the floor.

Runner

Certainly not the sexiest move that Davis has in his repertoire, but his ability to dribble left and unleash a runner before he gets to a basket is so important/effective. As stated earlier, Davis has a remarkably soft touch for a big man, and there are few places where it is more apparent than in his runner.  This is something that he has done in other years, but he has nearly perfected it now.  If his big man is giving him space on the drive and waiting to contest at the rim, it is a perfect counter and he is getting really, really good at it.

Hands

Probably one of the most underappreciated parts of Davis’s game. Catching bounce passes on the move can pose a problem for many big men, but Davis catches just about anything thrown his way.  Davis mishandling a good pass almost never happens and Davis not being able to corral a poor pass is equally surprising.

Weaknesses

Strength

Davis undoubtedly added some strength last offseason, and it is an area that he will continue to improve upon as he fills out his frame. He has managed to gain adequate strength – enough to hold off guys without advanced post games, certainly – but when he plays guys with the strength to establish post position and the skill to finish, there are times where he’s sort of powerless. Some watching the Warriors series noted that he should be a full-time 5, but as we know, Davis doesn’t like playing the 5 full time.  It’s fine to play him there versus teams like the Warriors, because although Bogut has some skill, the Warriors aren’t going to reinvent their offense to feed him in the post.  And sometimes, even though Davis is giving up strength, his length helps compensate for the strength difference.  But for someone who is sometimes touted as an All-World defender, Davis does have moments where he struggles to contain strong players 1 v 1 in the post.

Ability to handle double teams

Davis got better as a passer this season, but he still sometimes struggles to handle double-teams.  He got better as the season progressed, but against good defenses with length to trap him near the sidelines, Davis would sometimes awkwardly fall out of bounds as he attempted to pass out of double teams.  This will get better as he recognizes where the double teams are coming from (so he can see them/react to them earlier) and as he gets teammates who are smarter too.  The Pelicans don’t always have a lot of space to work with and very few of their players are smart cutters.  In theory, Davis should be a good enough passer, long enough, and smart enough to consistently beat double teams as they come in games.. because they will come. A lot.

Lagniappe

Nothing frustrates me more than listening to people rag on Jrue Holiday’s on-court play. Back in January, when naysayers were certain that the Pelicans sudden win streak was a result of Jrue getting hurt, I wrote an article saying otherwise. It’s sad that that article even had to be written, because it’s so blatantly obvious that the Pelicans are a better team when Jrue is healthy. And it holds true today. The table below lists Davis’s TS% with different core players on and off the court. It is not an all-encompassing look at who fits best with Davis, simply a quick/dirty way of seeing how Davis’s efficiency changed with different players on and off the floor.

Jrue

Moving Forward

As Michael McNamara noted last offseason, the New Orleans Pelicans will offer Anthony Davis a monstrous contract this summer.  Unless something changes, Davis should be here for the foreseeable future, as the NBA CBA gives superstar players remarkably clear financial incentives to stick with their teams through at least their second contracts.

Everyone is fascinated with the idea of Anthony Davis extending his range out to the 3 point line. The line of thinking seems logically sound: marginal decrease in field goal percentage, increase in efficiency from the added point per shot, increased space for his teammates, etc.. but I don’t buy it. Yes, the league is moving towards more 4s who can stretch the floor, but if you watched the series versus the Warriors, you should be drooling over the prospect of Davis’s post game. The post is a unique vehicle to good offense and Davis was money vs. Draymond in the post.

For now, the best way to stop Davis is to put a smaller defender on him and hope that his jumper (which the smaller player is unlikely to contest) is off that night. He can still hurt the opponents in pick/rolls as a lob threat, but you can mitigate that advantage by having 3rd defenders cut off those lanes to the rim. Countering that by pushing Davis to the 3 point line does nothing. Countering that by letting Davis post up smaller guys over and over again does. Surely, I’m not averse to Davis eventually stepping out to the 3 point line from time to time–there are certainly benefits to this idea–I just think focusing on his post game right now would yield greater dividends.

The Davis that we see right now is one primed to become a facilitator and scorer from the high post. As noted earlier, Davis is becoming a better passer and midrange shooter. I don’t think there will be a need for ball-dominant guards much longer, simply because Davis is going be creating so much offense in the near future and long-term. A simple pick/roll with Davis popping out to the free throw line area and receiving a pocket pass exerts a lot of pressure on defenses, and it’s something I expect to see more of as he continues to develop. He will also probably run a lot of side pick/rolls with the defense isolated on the other side of the floor and will also be attacking with his devastating face-up game. With that in mind, I think you surround Davis with guys who don’t need the ball in their hands to be effective, but are capable of creating as secondary options. And please, can we get some more wing defenders?

Whatever Dell Demps decides to surround Davis with, the Pelicans are in a great position. Davis’s insane versatility and skill are going to be a nightmare for opponents to deal with and he should be good enough to carry the Pelicans to ~50 wins almost by himself. Life is good with The Brow.

 

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