Anthony Davis’ ascendance to best big man in the league status got put on hold during a terrible 2015/16 season. The Pelicans took a step back in the standings after making the playoffs and Davis’ weaknesses were exposed as he had to anchor a team missing key players to injury.
After being anointed as the next big thing, he faded from the public eye.
That could all change this season. Davis is healthy and ready to return to the elite. More importantly, Alvin Gentry has said that he will deploy him at center more often. That could elevate The Brow’s game even higher and help him make the leap into the MVP conversation.
The Pelicans had been very cautious about trotting Davis at center in the past, despite knowing he could do the most damage at that position. The back-to-the-basket behemoths might be largely gone, but battling for rebounds and stonewalling drives at the rim takes a physical toll. Davis, who entered the league with a slight frame, simply couldn’t handle that job full time. Both Monty Williams and Alvin Gentry sprinkled in some minutes for him at center, but neither them nor the front office committed fully to making a permanent change.
The large multi-year contract handed out to Omer Asik is proof that New Orleans wanted Davis to stay at power forward. Unfortunately, things didn’t pan out as expected.
Asik was supposed to handle the physical toll inside, so Davis didn’t have to. It worked during his first season. The duo did great on defense and on the boards, and it helped the Pelicans reach the playoffs in the 2014/15 season.
Then everything came crashing down. Last season Asik became a defensive liability whenever opponents forced him to defend outside the paint. His minutes went down. Now it seems like he might lose his starting spot to Alexis Ajinca and could be even more marginalized as the Pelicans embrace small ball.
It’s obviously not ideal to have big money committed to a backup, but the jump in the cap has made Asik’s contract tenable. He could still be useful in short stints, especially in units that need rebounding. A bounce back year is not off the table either. If his demotion means the advent of more balanced units, however, it will be worth it.
For the Pelicans to experience real success, Davis has to prove he can handle the duties of a center for long stretches. He should get the chance next season, likely next to two versatile power forwards in Terrence Jones and Dante Cunningham.
Yet the true test will be for him to find a way to thrive as the only big man in small lineups in which his athleticism and talent could truly shine.
The Pelicans now have the pieces to put around him in that role. New Orleans signed Solomon Hill, a defensive-minded forward who can guard perimeter players and is coming off a season in which he showed progress as an outside shooter.
They are thin at the wing right now but once Tyreke Evans returns they will have the shot creators needed to take advantage of the spacing those lineups will create. And no one will benefit more from the extra room that Davis himself.
It was painful to see Davis operate in the perimeter so much last season, considering he’s an elite finisher. Just like it happens with Blake Griffin in Los Angeles, he’s been asked to adjust to accommodate a traditional center next to him in the past.
Without that burden when he’s the one playing center, he should be able to punish opponents in the paint. There’s just no way to contain him in the pick and roll because of his ability to soar for alley-oops. His shooting makes him a tough matchup off the catch on pick-and-pops, as slower players have to crowd him and risk blow-bys.
On the other end, he should be able to play the part of a souped-up Draymond Green, a nightmare-inducing defender who can switch to the perimeter when needed and smother rim attacks when he’s in the paint.
A fully weaponized Davis would truly wreak havoc on offense. His defensive versatility is off the charts. If he’s fully engaged on that end throughout the game – something that didn’t happen always last season – the Pelicans could crack the top 10 in defensive efficiency to go with their typically solid offense.
Rebounding could certainly be an issue. Hill and the guards would have to pitch in when New Orleans goes small, and the traditional bigs need to own the boards when two share the court. Davis needs to stay healthy and engaged all 82 games. Despite those minor concerns, however, the Pelicans have a blueprint for success for the first time in a while.
Luck has not been on New Orleans’ side. Injuries could derail this season, as they did last. The team’s ceiling is a second-round out, at best. They need to replenish their talent level going forward before becoming a contender.
It’s hard not to get excited about the possibilities. If Gentry indeed goes through with going away from a traditional center when the situation calls for it and Davis is given time at that spot, the Pelicans could regain their lost status as the team to watch, and Davis could return to his former All-NBA level.