Anthony Davis and the impossible have been associates for a long time.
Davis’s shooting touch for a player of his size? Impossible.
His defensive quickness when switched onto guards? Impossible.
His statistical production as a 21-year-old last year, including a single-season PER exceeded by just three players in NBA history: Wilt, MJ and LeBron? Impossible.
Davis’s previous association with the impossible had always been positive. Now, though, the link is a bad one. His New Orleans Pelicans are failing in ways no one foresaw, posting one of the league’s absolute worst defenses, crumbling from injury (OK, we probably saw that coming) and generally performing worse than any team in the league to start the 2015-16 season.
Coming off a summer that was defined by unchecked optimism about Davis’s transcendence into superstardom, a new coach named Alvin Gentry who was supposed to help the organization take another step and, most of all, a virtually certain playoff spot after securing the eighth seed a year ago, the Pelicans must now consider whether it even makes sense to keep competing this season.
And that seems impossible.
But think about it: New Orleans must be very, very good the rest of the way to reach the 47 or 48 wins it typically takes to secure one of the final two playoff spots in the West. Even if you believe the Pelicans can flip a switch and resume playing like they did a year ago, they’ve erased their margin for error. A 1-6 start means it’ll take a winning percentage of roughly 63 percent the rest of they way. That’s a 51-win pace, and we’re asking that of a team showing nothing but scary signs in the health, effort and strategic effectiveness departments.
Tyreke Evans and Norris Cole are nowhere near ready, Jrue Holiday has to sit every other game or so and continues to be under a minutes restriction. Omer Asik is working his way back. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are healthy but shooting the ball poorly. Even Davis has been affected: His numbers are still those of a star, but he’s had his effort and ability to create his own looks rightfully questioned plenty this season.
So what do the Pelicans do here?
Bank on Gentry’s genius, and trust there’s some kind of karmic force that’ll magically provide health to perennially injured players, then work like hell for those 48 wins? That would seem to be the noble goal, and given all of the preseason expectations, that feels like what many fans (not to mention ownership) would probably prefer.
But what if the Pellies pull that off? What if they play markedly better than they did a year ago and manage to secure that eighth seed? All that gets them is a first-round date with a West superpower, one they’ll attend exhausted, probably broken down and perhaps as even bigger underdogs than they were last year.
And what if the Pelicans, after fighting through injury and leaning on Davis for huge minutes, don’t even make the playoffs at all?
Would it be worth it?
Because the Pelicans have such a generational talent in Davis, there’s a strong case to be made that the postseason should be the goal from now on. Period. You don’t waste seasons of a career like Davis’s, and a small-market team certainly wouldn’t want to risk upsetting the best player in franchise history by packing in a seemingly lost season.
But look at the Pelicans roster as it exists now and ask yourself where the star running mate for Davis’s future deep playoff runs is. It’s not Gordon, a free agent after this season and a role-player at best. It’s not Holiday, who can’t be relied on to stay healthy.
It’s not Anderson or Evans or Asik — nice players with identifiable skills, but certainly not stars.
Then ask yourself whether the Pelicans are likely to attract the kind of supporting pieces Davis needs through free agency. New Orleans hasn’t wrangled a legitimate star on the market, well…ever. And make no mistake: Davis will need at least one other star (great as he is) to make a serious series of title runs down the road. He’ll need a Klay Thompson or a Draymond Green to his Stephen Curry, a Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love to his LeBron James.
Nobody does it alone. And though it may not take much to give a talent like Davis enough help to win a title (and that should absolutely be the goal as long as AD is part of this organization), the Pelicans clearly don’t have what they need right now.
The ugly truth of it is that for New Orleans, the draft is the only place it’ll find a suitable partner (or partners) for Davis.
So do the Pelicans tank? Do they send away some of their veterans and free-agents-to-be in exchange for draft considerations? Do they waste a season of Davis’s early prime in the interest of possibly securing a high lottery pick?
Seems impossible, right?
Maybe, but it’s not insane. And it might even be the right play.