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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.

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.

The Most Mutually Beneficial Loan Of All-Time

LeBron James going from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat and back to the Cavaliers is the most mutually beneficial loan of all-time.

LeBron and the Heat won two titles and were in the Finals as runners-up two additional times.

While all that outstanding success was happening, the Cavaliers accumulated assets by winning the lottery three times in four seasons as a very different type of NBA success.

Nearly everything you need to know about why LeBron left the Cavaliers in 2010 and returned in 2014 can be seen by examining at their draft history.

The Cavaliers drafted Luke Jackson at No. 10 overall in 2004, lost their 2007 first round pick in an ill-advised Jiri Welsch trade made by Jim Paxson shortly before he was fired that also took off their playoff protection for their 2005 pick that would have been retained had they been in the lottery.

Daniel Gibson was a one-dimensional shooter, Shannon Brown didn’t become a contributing player until he went from Charlotte to the Lakers and Danny Green was basically a D-Leaguer for a two more seasons until the San Antonio Spurs developed him into what he is today. J.J. Hickson showed some promise while LeBron was still there and was the player the Cavaliers refused to part ways with at the 2010 deadline and has bounced around since, while Christian Eyenga was a project in 09-10 and played in Poland last season.

The Cavaliers were short on standouts and blatantly failed to develop what was available, albeit a common problem for most franchises outside of the Alamo City.

The Cavaliers also had cap space to burn in 2005, which was spent on Larry Hughes after they were unable to get their preferred choice, Michael Redd, to commit to a deal.

Hughes eventually became Ben Wallace ahead of the 2008 deadline and then Wallace became Shaquille O’Neal almost at the beginning of LeBron’s final offseason with the Cavaliers.

Cleveland’s finishing piece ahead of the 2010 trade deadline was dealing Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the Washington Wizards for Antawn Jamison, thought of as a stretch-four that would open up Mike Brown's uninspiring halfcourt offense.

By July 1, 2010, the Cavaliers were out of ideas and out of viable routes to get better with LeBron on the roster. Only five players, including LeBron, from the Cavs 2010 playoff roster remained in the NBA at the end of this past season.

Cleveland needed LeBron to leave in order to create a roster with a realistic shot of winning a title with LeBron. The prime of LeBron’s career would have simply whittled away on 55 to 65-win regular season teams that would consistently be figured out in a seven-game series against teams that had more than one superstar.

While we can go pick-by-pick between 2011 and 2014 that the Cavaliers made in a vacuum to replace Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett with Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard, Andre Drummond and Nerlens Noel or some other combination of picks, the franchise was aggressive in accumulating young players.

The Kyrie Irving pick was a product of the cheapness of Donald Sterling as the Cavaliers won the lottery with a pick that came from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for taking on the salary of Baron Davis that was amnestied anyways just a few months later.

The one G.O.A.T. label that most people can agree upon in awarding LeBron is that nobody is capable of making his teammates better given his multi-faceted passing ability and capacity of guarding nearly any player in the game. The roster can be figured out either in the short-term or after LeBron is given a chance to feel what is there. LeBron is basically a human performance enhancer for his teammates with their production to all increase with the open shots he creates.

Whether it is through the exiting pieces, or some sort of combination of forthcoming moves, the Cavaliers have the ability to build a lasting title contender around him fairly quickly. Most importantly considering his age, LeBron is going from the youngish athlete to the elder statesman. LeBron will surely embrace keeping his regular season minutes in the 35ish per game range and can begin to take some maintenance nights off as Dwyane Wade has over the past two seasons.

Irving just signed a max extension and is the one existing piece we know will remain a cornerstone.

Andrew Wiggins isn’t going anywhere unless it’s for Kevin Love. Even then, I’m not sure trading Wiggins is worth it unless the Cavs are getting an All-Star level rim protector back. Wiggins is basically the most athletic player to enter the NBA since LeBron and his ability to be an off-ball threat and shutdown wing defender makes him a potentially perfect fit on the wing beside him.

Waiters as a second unit shot creator and perimeter shooter for when the Cavaliers go small has clear value.

Bennett is significantly better than he showed as a rookie season in which everything went wrong first physically and then mentally.

Thompson’s fit with the Cavaliers is complicated since he’s also represented by Rich Paul and he doesn’t make sense since he’s an undersized power forward that’s not capable of stretching the floor.

Hopefully Anderson Varjeao stays healthy, while we already know the Cavaliers will have no problem signing cheapish shooters whether it becomes Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Troy Daniels or some sort of combination thereof.

There’s still a lot to figure out for David Griffin, David Blatt and Dan Griffin, surely in consultation with LeBron, but this is now a marriage that will last into the next decade when he’s entering his late thirties. LeBron couldn’t leave Cleveland for a second time and it is unlikely the situation will ever turn as bleak as it did in 2010. Nothing is mapped out for LeBron right now as it was when he joined the Heat, but he returns to Cleveland unburdened with two rings as an individual and with youthful athletic legs all around him as tides have turned from boos to cheers

James, now famously, has never been the highest paid player on his team and he will be now with the Cavaliers. James also has never played with anyone who is essentially younger than him physically. Most of his previous teammates with the Cavaliers are out of the league and Wade was only close to being his peer for a short stretch of their tenure together. The importance of James playing with a core from the generation younger than him is a vital component of his return.

Only The Elite Survive To Late May

While the apparently parity of the first round was a refreshing and encouraging development for the NBA, we saw the teams ranked first, third, fourth and sixth in net efficiency during the regular season advance to the Conference Finals.

The NBA's First Round As Prestige Television

With 72 percent of games decided by nine or fewer points, the first round has had a level of competitive balance that is an encouraging and overlooked consequence of the NBAís new collective bargaining agreement.

10-Year NBA Win Rank Snapshot

A 10-year season-by-season Win Rank snapshot for an NBA franchise creates an insightful visual narrative.

Expectations & Timelines: The Curry Warriors

The addition of Andre Iguodala looked a lot like Chicago's move for Ben Wallace on the surface, but the Warriors' timeline will remain dependent on how they remain in the 'deal flow' in constantly tinkering around Stephen Curry.

Notes From The 2014 Nike Hoop Summit

Five bigs with radically divergent styles could conceivably become the top-five picks of the 2015 NBA Draft, though it was a big point guard that had the best individual performance at the Nike Hoop Summit.

On Sloan: GM's Tell Riveting Tales Of Front-Office Dynamics; Will Silver Take The Wheel?

At Sloan, two of the most interesting panels dealt with the machinations of high-level negotiations between teams, and the problem of teams tanking which can be defined in two degrees of severity.

Notes From 2013 Adidas Nations

Jahlil Okafor, Kevon Looney and Stanley Johnson were the most impressive prospects of adidas Nations, but Theo Pinson, D'Angelo Russell, Myles Turner and Reid Travis were the ones to grind their way to the championship.

Grading The Deal: Pistons Sign Josh Smith

The NBA is clearly going more and more in the direction of smallball, but without the pieces to do it as effectively as teams like the Heat and Golden State Warriors, the Pistons will have more success in building a counter to the trend around Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe.

Grading The Deal: Dwight Howard Chooses Houston

Daryl Morey and the Rockets have acquired two top-10 players in James Harden and Dwight Howard in nine months to culminate a series of moves that has no real precedent in the NBA. Also receiving grades in this edition is Dwight himself and the Lakers.

Grading The Deal: Raptors Unload Bargnani On Knicks

Andrea Bargnani had been on the trade block for months, bridging the tenures of Bryan Colangelo to Masai Ujiri. In the GM seat for less than a month, Ujiri not only traded Bargnani but managed to pick up a few draft assets in the process to a Knicks' team limited in how to improve.

Grading The Deal: 76ers Start Over With Trade Of Holiday For Noel, 2014 Pick

The 76ers and Pelicans completed a draft night trade that will have ramifications for years as their two general managers revealed their very different strategies on how to rebuild.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Final Edition)

Draft day has finally arrived and while everyone pines for the 2014 class already, this one has the chance to be sneaky good in the 'many quality starters' variety.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Wednesday/Quality Of Opp. Edition)

In this mock, we include the PER of each player based on the quality of opponent. Even statistics in this context can only go so far, but helps move beyond the possibility of inflation against competition that isn't even close to being NBA caliber.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Draft Week Edition)

Entering draft week in a draft universally labeled as weak preceding the best draft of the decade, few people are talking themselves into falling in love with any specific player as fervently as usual.

Grading The Deal: Dwight To Lakers In Most Important NBA Trade In Over 30 Years

There is no doubt the Lakers, 76ers and Nuggets improved significantly with the four-team Dwight Howard trade, but here's why the future of the Magic is immediately more promising as well.

Grading The Deal: Steve Nash To The Lakers

The impact of Steve Nash on the Lakers will be enormous, in terms of title contention, Kobe's pursuit of the all-time scoring title and also what happens with Dwight Howard.

2012 NBA Mock Draft, Version 4.0 (Draft-Day Edition)

The Andre Drummond/Perry Jones effect on this draft before we make sense of picks seven through 30 just hours before a flood of draft-day trades shreds every mock.

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