Finding the Perfect Pairing for Anthony Davis

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Published: November 1, 2016

So far this year the Pelicans are winless, despite Anthony Davis having two monster performances to start the year. And right now, the future doesn’t look too bright.

Most people blame general manager Dell Demps. When New Orleans drafted Anthony Davis a championship or two was the expectation. He was the talent of a generation. New Orleans would be getting one ring at the minimum.

But the franchise has cycled through players and dealt draft picks to acquire others. Certainly, it cannot be this hard to build around a top 5 player in the league.  Davis is an athletic, well-rounded, do-it-all-bigman. Just look back to his line opening night; It’s almost a 5×5 game just with a massive point and rebound total. Almost no one else in the league is capable of that.

Not Knowing Which Way to Go

But maybe it is harder to build around such a unique player—and this isn’t a defense of Dell Demps. With a player like Andre Drummond, or Blake Griffin, it’s obvious what you need to put around them, the style of ball the team needs to play to see them succeed.

With a guy as athletic, unique, and well-rounded as Davis it becomes a lot harder to figure out the identity of the team. That’s why the Pelicans are onto Team II for Davis since he’s been in New Orleans.

For Team I, Demps identified a bulky big man (hellllloooo, Omer Asik!) as the proper archetype to pair with Davis. Davis lacked the muscle (and, potentially, desire) to handle bruising centers. Bringing in Asik to take that load off Davis made sense at the time. Defensively it also sets up Davis to roam a bit more and make use of his freak athleticism to go after blocks and other plays.

Asik hasn’t worked out for a lot of reasons. Injuries and being below average on offense being the main culprits for Asik. Being injured and not developing as was expected defensively for Davis.

But the Pelicans had another option. The league started going small with the Warriors “Death Lineup” at the forefront. Davis started seeing more time as a center. Pairing him in the frontcourt with Ryan Anderson, a stretch 4, made sense. But that lineup struggled on defense and on the glass.

And so, the idea for Team II was born. Have Davis bulk up. Use him as a small ball 5. Maybe not all the time, but increase it as he adds more muscle. Except Davis only plays center half the time he’s the tallest guy on the court.

When Davis plays center for the Pelicans, the power forward usually draws the assignment of guarding the opposing center on defense. The past two seasons, in the Pelicans’ version of a small lineup (that is, Davis at center) Anderson guarded the opposing centers. This year, in preseason and our small sample size of 3 games, it has been Terrence Jones or Dante Cunningham. Take a look at the table before for the net rating for different front court pairs.

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There’s some good in the table, but overall it’s a mixed bag. None of these bigs have been the correct one to pair with Davis and create a consistently good frontcourt. There may be some hope in a Davis-Cunningham pairing. But Cunningham has a similar skillset to Jones, and we see how that is going so far.

The Right Fit

Asik covers up Davis’ defensive inefficiencies, but pairs poorly on offense. Anderson pair well offensively, but the defense was a wreck. Finding another big that can stretch the floor while being able to go inside and play solid defense isn’t easy. Someone like Al Horford or Marc Gasol. But those types of players don’t grow on trees, are paid max salaries, and would command a war chest full of assets in a trade. Not things the Pelicans have. Like, at all.

Maybe Terrence Jones or Dante Cunningham will take a step up in their level of play. Maybe Davis makes a leap on the defensive end and is able to handle defending more physical big men. But given what we’ve seen over the past handful of seasons, that is highly doubtful.

It often takes time for a great player to start winning. And GM’s constantly tinker until the find the right formula (think about Kobe’s tenure with the Lakers. No Shaq, then Shaq, then no Shaq, then Gasol). The Pelicans formula requires a versatile big, who mimics and compliments some of Davis’ unique style of play. It won’t be easy to find, and with Demps potentially on the hotseat another first round pick might be on the move.

Demps certainly isn’t done tinkering, and there have been rumors of the Pelicans looking to trade for a dynamic, rim-attacking guard. But Dell Demps would be better suited to look for someone taller.

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