The only negative thing to come of the emergence of this new swath of young talent is how quickly we forget the once-in-a-generation players who, for all intents and purposes, just got here. The ability to watch a Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo on any given night has allowed the idea that we can watch an Anthony Davis on any given night escape us.
Davis is, at the absolute least, a generational, once-in-a-lifetime talent. If he reaches his full potential, he’ll become a diet version of Wilt Chamberlain. No matter how his career ends, his legacy among fans will only be a fraction of what it should be. Anthony Davis is the NBA’s most tragic figure who has had nothing short of a brilliant young career.
Every NBA player is flawed, some just more so than others — and some of the flaws in the NBA help push the conversation about that particular player. Take Lonzo Ball, for example. Father aside, there will be conversation about Ball's funky jump shot for as long as he continues to shoot a basketball. Even if his form improves and he shoots the 3-ball at a 40 percent clip, pundits and commentators will always point back to what his shot looked like before the dramatic improvement. Anthony Davis’s biggest flaw is that he exists on a team in a market that reduces the number of opportunities for us to talk about Anthony Davis.
Many of the young stars in today’s NBA are playing on teams that struggled early in their respective careers, but Davis has struggled on a team that hasn’t captured the collective hearts of hoops fans. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns joined Ricky Rubio, one of the NBA’s darlings. The Lakers' collection of youth belongs to a machine that can only exist in Los Angeles. The Knicks feature Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina, who apparently is already a folk hero. Ben Simmons and Embiid are a part of a process that, at one point, was much more interesting than any basketball being played in Philly. That leaves Antetokounmpo and Davis, and only one of the two has been able to step out of the shadows of his market into the spotlights that shine elsewhere.
It’s not that Davis hasn’t gotten any attention at all. He’s a four-time All-Star who completely owned the 2017 game with 52 points in New Orleans. It’s just that his play has heavily outweighed his perception despite him being one of the first of this era’s freakish, unique athletes — and maybe more than anyone else mentioned above, he does it on both ends of the floor.
It’s hard to contextualize what Davis has done, especially considering he’s still only 24 years old in his sixth year in the NBA. At 21, he was (and still is) the youngest player in NBA history to lead the league in PER (both LeBron James and Michael Jordan were 23 the first time they were tops in this category). At 22, Davis recorded his first game with at least 50 points and 20 rebounds, a feat only accomplished by Moses Malone (26), Chris Webber (27) and Shaquille O’Neal (28) since 1980. Davis has four games in which he’s totaled 40 points and 15 rebounds and three games in which he’s totaled 40 points and 20 rebounds.
He has seven games with 30 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, and in only one of those games did he not record an assist and a steal, too. Since he’s entered the league, only nine other players have ended a game with a box score this heavy, and Tim Duncan is the only other player to do this on multiple nights (twice).
The thing about Davis’s numbers is that, when you sit down and watch him play, none of them are empty. When he’s on, the number of players who can dominate a game on both ends of the floor can be counted on a hand with amputated fingers. He moves too well for a man his size, he shoots too well for a man his size and his defensive instincts are far too wise for a man his age.
Watch how he completely dominates this defensive possession late in the third quarter against the Clippers last week.
Blake Griffin, who is having a phenomenal season in his own right, begins to try to back down Davis, who does not budge off his spot. Griffin picks up his dribble as he pivots toward the center of the paint and gives Davis a pump fake. Davis doesn’t bite. Griffin kicks out to Jawun Evans, who is able to blow by Jameer Nelson’s god-awful closeout. On most possessions against most teams featuring most rim protectors, this ends up as an easy two points or a trip to the free throw line. Davis, who recognizes that Nelson is beat, patiently waits for Evans to gather before committing to take his layup into the seventh row of the Smoothie King Center.
There may be a glimmer of hope for Davis, though. The addition of DeMarcus Cousins has given the Pelicans an added layer of intrigue that the team couldn’t garner with Davis alone. Cousins, the volatile big man who is loved beyond measure, unironically, because of his flaws, is a fascinating pairing next to Davis. Many watched toward the end of last season simply to see if the two talented bigs could make it work with several duplicate skill sets. This year, realizing that both have the ability to play inside and out, many are watching to see how good this duo can become. As of Nov. 21, they’re playing a shade better than .500 basketball and would be the seventh seed in the Western Conference if the postseason started on this day.
With both Davis and Cousins on the court at the same time, the Pelicans are a plus-4.3 per 48 minutes, and teams are struggling to figure them out when they move with both men on the floor. The Pelicans are assisting on more than 65 percent of all made field goals with Boogie and Brow on the court at the same time, which is the sixth best for any two-man lineup in the NBA with at least 350 minutes together this season. They’re the only frontcourt tandem in the top six, and at least one of them appears in three of the next six two-man lineups. They’re proving that they can win games in a league that is perimeter-oriented, imposing their will through a combination of size, speed and strength.
However, the rate at which they’re winning just isn’t enough to make anyone in or outside of the organization feel great about the long-term viability of the current makeup of the frontcourt — which ultimately means that Davis could be left without Cousins as early as the trade deadline or, at the very latest, in free agency this upcoming summer with New Orleans getting nothing in return. Without Cousins, the Pelicans immediately revert back into a lottery team, and there is no guarantee that they ultimately don’t end up a lottery team even if Cousins remains for the full year considering the depth of the Western Conference. But more importantly, Davis loses the only player who has helped shine a little more light on how dominating he’s been and can potentially be.
Due to no fault of his own, Davis’s biggest flaw may flatten his multidimensional game once again as early as February. The world will still have the ability to watch an Anthony Davis, but it’ll, unfortunately, spend its time watching a Kristaps Porzingis or a Joel Embiid or a Giannis Antetokounmpo instead.