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The Basketball Treasure That Nearly Never Was

Anthony Davis wears No. 23 and has the NBA’s best origin story since Michael Jordan was cut from the varsity when he was a high school sophomore. Reading that story with this visual of Davis in his Perspectives uniform, wearing glasses and working on his game in anonymity as a guard thinking he didn’t have a career in basketball since no scouts were coming to games in his junior season is astounding.

Two years later, Davis entered the NBA as the top overall pick of generational proportion with a national championship and Wooden Award from his season at Kentucky and an Olympic gold medal.

Davis is a basketball treasure that almost never was and is the NBA’s most incredible prodigy (possibly ever) despite that late development in which he almost left the game. Davis is a guard that loves the game and grew into a big just in time, whereas most bigs show up to play without the passion to be great to cash in their lottery ticket. 

Davis added muscle in the offseason as well as getting that USA confidence boost we’ve come to expect coming out of the summer for every player going through that program and is on pace to have a historical season statistically. Saying “a comparison of Davis to a young Kevin Garnett is an insult to Davis“ is no longer a blasphemous statement. Unlike Garnett, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Davis has the drive to become an all-time great without being psychotic in the same way as LeBron James and Tim Duncan. Being around Davis at this critical point in his career, you sense how well he's managing being a normal 21-year-old with his rise in the league.

Davis is simultaneously a savant on offense and defense with the type of overwhelming skill, length and athleticism to impose his force on all aspects of the game even while he’s still growing into one of the most unorthodox players that has ever played the game. Just as we’re figuring out where the limits may be for Davis, we’re watching him write his own tale of opulence. A PER of 35.0 for the season seems as plausible as the four-minute mile mark did before Roger Bannister. His Playstation-worthy per 100 possessions stats are 37.5 points, 16 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 3.2 steals and 5.5 blocks.

In another life, the Hornets were literally and figuratively OKC before OKC, playing games there after Katrina from 2005 until 2007 with a young core of Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler. Paul and West were drafted in 2005 and 2003 respectively, while Chandler came over in the J.R. Smith trade when the Chicago Bulls needed to unload his contract.

The finishing touches of a team that got as far as Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs came via older free agents like Peja Stojakovic in 2006 and Morris Peterson in 2007. The CP3 Hornets went out with a four-game sweep whimper in 2011 to a flawed Los Angeles Lakers.

This time around, the Pelicans have added pieces around their franchise player that are just slightly older via trade (Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik) and free agency (Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson). Austin Rivers is the Pelicans’ only other relevant draft pick and they already declined their third-year option on him, while Eric Gordon has to this point lost the part of his game that made him critical to the Paul trade that predated the arrival of Davis.

Davis didn’t wait to become one of the NBA’s best players and the Pelicans began working on putting a playoff-caliber roster around him immediately after he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Damian Lillard. Dell Demps has been the anti-Hinkie, and the Pelicans and Philadelphia 76ers uncoincidentally linked up on draft night of 2013 on a trade that set both franchises off on their current trajectories.

While the trade for Asik caused the Pelicans to forfeit another draft pick and not having younger reinforcements has famously been an issue for the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James’ first tenure with the club and also has contributed to the Lakers falling off a cliff so quickly, the move makes their defense better in a meaningful way while ensuring Davis can roam on that side of the floor. The Pelicans were forced into that trade after clearing cap space to sign Evans by dealing away Robin Lopez. Davis is a havoc wrecker on defense with his activity in deflections and blocks in the paint and on the perimeter. His defensive heat map covers so much floor.

The mix of Holiday, Gordon and Evans on offense, however, is problematic with all three players needing the ball in their hands to be effective while also not possessing the type of pick-and-roll, perimeter shooting or passing abilities that would be ideal with Davis. Holiday and Gordon are certainly passable three-point shooters, but are streaky and won’t kill you relative to the alternative. All three of those perimeter players are a difficult cover individually, but they become easier to stop collectively due to how their games overlap and their inability to stay committed to movement in the halfcourt.

Monty Williams says he’s “preaching ball movement” and wants Davis to “play off the dribble with his passing and ability to make other guys better,” but that rarely happens for the Pelicans in their halfcourt sets. Without Anderson on the floor to create space, Davis is too often stuck in higher degree of difficulty isolations and in the pick and roll, often not initiating that offense until late in the shot clock.

In their road win this week at the Sacramento Kings on the second night of a back-to-back, the Pelicans’ first half offense was an atrocious mélange of low percentage jumpers coming off the dribble after a possession in which there was nearly no ball movement. They turned the game around in the third quarter due to feeding Davis and Anderson on nearly every possession within the Gordon-Davis pick-and-roll, which created a string of wide open looks for Anderson and lanes opening for Evans off the dribble as a byproduct with the defense rotating. If Gordon could consistently become even 85 percent of the pick-and-roll player he was back in 10-11 with Blake Griffin, the Pelicans are making the playoffs and are a scary out.

Davis has talked about how he wants to remain patient on offense, but the Pelicans need to make him the center of their offense as the Dallas Mavericks have with Dirk Nowitzki. Davis has too many ways to unlock a defense not to give him more touches.

The Pelicans don’t have a lineup combination that fully unleashes Davis as the two-way MVP he’s already looking like he is despite the imperfections of the roster. When you consider the fact Davis projects as basically the best elite big man Swiss Army Knife ever, even accidentally stumbling across the right mix of players shouldn’t be too difficult in the long-term

The Pelicans have been above league average on offense with their Davis, Asik, Holiday, Gordon and Evans lineup, but that is largely due to the miracle that is the .618 True Shooting Percentage of Davis.

A three-man frontcourt of Davis, Asik and Anderson can’t work since Anderson can’t defend wings, while the Pelicans are compromising on offense without him on the floor and severely on the defensive end without Asik.

The Lakers had the same issue with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom during their 2009 and 2010 titles in which Phil Jackson couldn’t play the three together. But unlike Williams, Jackson gave those three all 96 minutes at center and power forward.

Davis has barely enough help to sneak the Pelicans into the playoffs, but he’ll need another superstar to eventually elevate the franchise into title contention. Fortunately, the Pelicans have the NBA’s golden ticket in the certainty Davis will be committed there long-term in 2016 and 2017 when the cap increases and Gordon comes off the books.

In the meantime, with the Pelicans playing just once on national television, Davis deserves a cut of League Pass subscriptions. Watching him and nobody else is worth it at this point. This season will be for Basketball Twitter what Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend talk about feeling when they first heard Jimi Hendrix and they realized that while the instrument was the same, the possibilities of sound were entirely different.

Coach's Corner: The Jerebko Conundrum

If you missed it last week on Grantland, Zach Lowe, in his typical thorough fashion, took a look at the early season form of the Detroit Pistons, specifically as to how it relates to the development of Andre Drummond. The summary of the story is simply this -- the Pistons are in a weird place right now. Thrusting new coach Stan Van Gundy together with a disjointed roster lends itself to all kinds of chaos before even factoring the delicate balance between trying to win and letting a young player with the potential to franchise cornerstone expand his game on the fly.

It’s that balance that (at least in my demented, basketball-obsessed brain) is what makes this year’s Detroit team so interesting. Sure, their actual on-court play, especially when Josh Smith is doing Josh Smith things, is ugly to watch, but their situation is far from boring. Somewhere in this eclectic mix of players, Van Gundy seems to have enough talent to mould a playoff basketball team, especially in the lowly Eastern Conference. It’s just a matter of pushing the right buttons.

One button that Van Gundy might want to press more often, is the one that unleashes reserve forward Jonas Jerebko off the bench. The early returns on Jerebko’s play in Van Gundy’s high-low system have been fantastic. According to NBA.com’s stats, the Swedish big man leads Detroit in overall net rating at plus 9.1 and features in six of the Pistons ten best two-man lineup combinations that have played at least 25 minutes together.

It’s also promising for the Pistons to see the impact Jerebko has on his teammates. DJ Augustin is probably the best example of the “Jerebko boost.” In 110 minutes with him on the bench, Augustin 28.2 percent on 29 attempts (again, small early season sample that could change). In the 105 minutes Jerebko is on the floor, Augustin is shooting 43.2 percent on 44 attempts. Not surprisingly, the Pistons as a whole are -41 when Augustin plays sans Jerebko and +13 when those two are together.

Now the all of these minute samplings are tiny as far as NBA data sets go. The 25-minute barrier in particular is obviously ludicrously infinitesimal as far as small sample size alerts go. A couple made 3’s for or against players on the court can drastically impact the net rating in that minuscule amount of time. Also helping matters is that because Jerebko only plays 15.8 minutes per game, primarily against other bench players. It’s unlikely this numbers are this impressive if thrust into a larger role.

As you’re probably expecting, here comes the “but.”

All of these numbers, despite being too limited to stamp as a trend, seem to reflect the type of player Jerebko has transformed into. He’s always been a high energy type, but Jerebko’s maturation into a player that can knock down 3’s (41.9 percent last year, 43.8 percent this year) and put the ball on the floor from the perimeter has changed his impact -- especially now that he is playing for a coach that knows what he’s doing. And because of surrounding personnel, Jerebko’s biggest flaw for a frontcourt player, a lack of a presence on the glass, is mitigated somewhat by the fact that two bigs he often plays with -- Monroe and Drummond -- range from good (Monroe) to great (Drummond) when it comes to rebounding.

In general, Jerebko is pretty much the anti-Smith in every way (both good and bad). This single play against the Nuggets is good example of their core differences.

This play is the Pistons' base motion offense. Van Gundy typically asks his bigs to stagger opposite each other, with one coming (or staying) higher on the floor whenever the other dives down to the block out of pick-and-roll. The reads for when Jerebko catches at the top are simple: look high-low (to Drummond in this case), shot/drive or go opposite. The difference between Jerebko and Smith in this spot is that Smith chooses to do the thing he gets killed for on a nightly basis -- launch a high-arcing jumper that misses far more often than not.

Jerebko, on the other hand, can not only hit those jumpers at a much better clip, but he opts to go opposite and engage the weakside guard, forcing the defense to shift and defend the second side of the floor. The result in this case is a deep paint score for Jerebko, but in general that’s the “Spursian” way to play. Move the ball, change sides of the floor and make the defense defend multiple actions. This is a primary reason why you can probably expect Jerebko to continue to post really good plus/minus numbers throughout the season.

Unfortunately for the Pistons, I’m not sure how much it’s going to matter with the presence of Smith, Drummond and Monroe. As Lowe pointed out, the early season trends show that Van Gundy is trying to build Drummond’s game on the fly. So expecting heavy minutes for Jerebko and Monroe, isn’t going to fit into that approach. Smith’s reputation, clout and contract are all reasons why he’s not going to be shifted into a secondary role at the expense of Jerebko. Especially when you consider that outside of shooting, Smith can do all the things Jerebko does -- pass, handle, drive, etc -- better, during the times he’s not frustrating us with his shot selection.

This weird mix of agendas and personnel are all the reasons why this Pistons team is actually somewhat fascinating, despite, ya know, their on-court play being so damn boring. At some point, due to a trade, injury or Van Gundy losing his mind, this team’s frontcourt (and rotation in general) might see a major shift. And if it moves in the direction of more playing time for Jerebko, we might see a Pistons team that’s actually worth watching.

Cheat Codes

The NBA has a soft cap with hard rules, while the NFL has a hard cap with soft rules. Managing the salary cap is a constant game of Whac-A-Mole across both leagues. One to three superstars take up a majority of cap space on most NBA teams, while most NFL teams have the salary structure of a pyramid with the quarterback alone on top. 

The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have been the most complete teams in the NFL over the past few seasons because they’ve had young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick making 15-20x less than their positional peers, which has allowed them to spend in ways that become prohibitive when they make the market rate. Kaepernick signed his new deal in the offseason and Wilson will get his this offseason, which means both quarterbacks will be asked to win with less as the cap casualties pile up.

Chip Kelly has possibly created a genius cheat code to give the Philadelphia Eagles a chance to compete for Super Bowls without that escalating salary with his up-tempo system that allows for smart, accurate and reasonably mobile quarterbacks to thrive. The Eagles can perpetually build a complete roster around a bargain quarterback and the thinking is that a Mark Sanchez can become a Peyton Sanchez with enough weapons around him in a QB-friendly system.

The NFL may be a quarterback league, but it is also one in which a superstar at the position is not needed with Joe Flacco, Eli Manning (twice), Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer winning Super Bowls since 2000.  

The NBA is a superstar league and there’s no sneaking in a championship with four seven-game series without one. At least to date.

Kelly’s closest confidant and similarly-minded coach in the NBA is unquestionably Erik Spoelstra and the pace-and-space system of the Miami Heat is a direct byproduct of their many dialogues. If anyone is the Chip Kelly of the NBA, it is Spoelstra, who looks to create space for his dribble playmakers by spreading the floor with shooters.

Spoelstra lost his version of Aaron Rodgers in the offseason when LeBron James left for the Cleveland Cavaliers. There is no reasonable facsimile on earth for what LeBron contributed to the Heat, but signing Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Shawne Williams, along with a bigger role for Chris Bosh and the addition of Josh McRoberts gives Spoelstra a chance to survive and remain at least a playoff team. Even winning a playoff series represented exaggerated optimism.

"I always have to get my yearly connection with Chip Kelly because he's so counterculture,” said Spoelstra to Jared Zwerling in October. “He constantly asks why. He really is a true contrarian in that speaking with him just gets me to look at things differently, and he always makes me extremely uncomfortable. A yearly dose of Chip always keeps things in perspective for me."

The idea of the Heat not taking a gigantic step back without LeBron is as fundamentally opposed to conventional NBA thought as it gets given the significance of a narrow set of superstars.

Deng cannot create individually to become LeBron Deng, but he can operate in a similar way if the expectation is to produce the broader brushstrokes. The perimeter shot has improved over his time in the league, plus he’s a smart two-way player that has done the little things at an All-Star level when healthy.

"It's one part of my game I really want to focus on and bring back,” said Deng to Jason Lieser in October about his shooting. “It opens the floor so much and it fits this system so well. So I'm staying behind after practice and coming in at night just because I really want to focus on opening the floor."

Deng has an eFG% of .608 over his first seven games, which will regress at least somewhat down toward his career mark of .526, but it is a sensible bet that this system will produce a career high. That type of production from Deng has helped the Heat remain a top-five team in offensive efficiency early in the season.

“The principles are the same,” Spoelstra told Zach Lowe. “How we do it is different.”

Bosh has also become Toronto Bosh again with his usage rate up to 28.4 after four seasons accepting a lesser role with the Heat. Bosh is not as athletic as he was back in 2010, but he's a much more well-rounded player with his extended range. Bosh remains a consensus top-15 player and in the conversation for best power forward on the planet. Bosh has a PER of 27.2, which would be a career high, as his points, rebounds and assist rates are way, way up.

Returning to the Finals for a fifth straight season is still unlikely with this roster, but the Heat trust the system and with enough of the components still there, Spoelstra has an offense that won’t be adrift without LeBron. The conventional wisdom was for the Heat to let Bosh sign with the Houston Rockets and rebuild, just as it is for Chip Kelly to get or keep a "franchise quarterback" at all costs. Spoelstra and Pat Riley badly wanted to keep LeBron of course, but they appear to have made a more sensible decision in not walking away from what had been built just because he left.

If the Heat were to even make the Conference Finals without LeBron, that cheat code would certainly trump Chip Kelly's.

Coach's Corner: Stagnant Suns; Let 'Em Shoot

How the Suns replaced floor spacing and passing with more scoring by letting Channing Frye and Ish Smith leave and adjusting to that, while the Celtics tried to stop the Mavs by letting Monta Ellis shoot.

Forced To Learn On The Job, Solomon Hill Showing Promise

Solomon Hill played sparingly as a late first-round pick on a championship contender, but things changed very quickly this offseason.

Coach's Corner: Beware Of The Wolves, To Foul Or Not To Foul

The Wolves' roster is one of the few in the league that can be adjusted on a game-to-game basis to counter whatever the opposition throws at them, while we look at fouling up three.

Russell Westbrook Unleashed

The Thunder ran out of steam in the fourth quarter, but the first game of the Russell Westbrook experience was everything people hoped it would be. Westbrook is going to mount a full-fledged assault on the rest of the league and there’s no player more fun to watch in that scenario.

2014-15 NBA Season Tiers Preview

The Spurs, Clippers and Cavaliers enter the season as Tier One teams, while the Bulls, Raptors, Thunder, Warriors, Rockets and several other Western Conference teams are in that second tier.

Leroux's 2014 NBA Offseason Review

The Cavs, 76ers, Spurs, Nuggets, Hornets and Suns were amongst teams to have a great offseason, while the Thunder, Magic, Kings, Lakers, Pacers and Knicks had bad ones.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Southeast Division

Tobias Harris, Norris Cole, Cody Zeller, Otto Porter and Dennis Schroeder are five players in the Southeast Division that could offer their teams a boost by taking the next step in their development.

How Lance Stephenson Left Behind Pacers For Hornets

Before Lance Stephenson attended the Hornets' meeting and was handed team material on that July night in Las Vegas, pleas were made to find salary space and a shorter-term deal with the Pacers.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Central Division

Andre Drummond, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dion Waiters, Tony Snell and Solomon Hill are young players of the Central Division that can offer their teams improvement from within.

Why Anthony Davis Will Be The NBA's Golden Ticket

Only one NBA team has the true golden ticket: a young elite player that they can say with certainty will be there throughout the tumultuous time of an increasing salary cap.

Raptors Look To Build Upon Top-10 Efficiency On Both Sides Of Floor

Retaining the core of a 48-win team and solidifying the bench were the themes of the Raptors' offseason. A committed defense, offensive familiarity, and strong depth have Toronto set up for another successful regular season.

Breaking Down Protection Of 2015 NBA Draft Traded Picks

While the concept of tanking gets plenty of ink, the NBA has a more specific problem in that vicinity due to the rules concerning pick protection. We detail the potential issues that could rear their head this season, ranked in order of overall impact.

How Nikola Mirotic Rose From Soccer Destiny, To European Phenom, To The NBA

Nikola Mirotic’s grandfather pushed him away from a soccer path and onto basketball courts in grade school, pushed him to Real Madrid and he's now in the NBA. He discusses his basketball journey with RealGM.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Pacific Division

Wesley Johnson, Ben McLemore, Draymond Green, Alex Len and Reggie Bullock are young players that can offer their teams improvement from within.

Boston's Rebuild After 16 Months: Time For Patience And Optimism

Since Danny Ainge made his 180 in May 2013 by cashing in on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers, he has done a remarkable job of implementing a serious rebuild and putting the Celtics in a position to succeed.

Rondo Injury Leads To Experiment At Point Guard

Regardless of whether Rajon Rondo is out for two weeks or more than a month, Brad Stevens will be forced to improvise. That means more ball-handling duties for two newcomers -- Marcus Smart and Evan Turner.

Warriors Enter 14-15 With New Coach Yet Same Problem With David Lee

While Mark Jackson had a lot of success, he was far from a perfect coach, so there’s nothing wrong with replacing him with Steve Kerr. But if David Lee ends up having more job security than Jackson, the Warriors have been wasting their time. For as much press as coaches get in the modern NBA, basketball is still more about Jimmies and Joes than X’s and O’s.

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