Two weeks into the season, the New Orleans Pelicans are starting to feel like this year’s version of the Oklahoma City Thunder. With Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, Norris Cole and Quincy Pondexter all out of the line-up and Jrue Holiday not playing in back-to-back games, the Pelicans rolled out a skeleton unit in their loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday. They had nine players in uniform and they closed the game with two guards - Ish Smith and Toney Douglas - whom they signed off the street.
The NBA season is long but it gets late early. The Pelicans are off to an 0-6 start and they have a worse point differential (-12.0) than the Philadelphia 76ers (-11.7). They are digging themselves an awfully big hole and they don’t appear to be ready to get out of it anytime soon. They were the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference last season with 48 wins - to reach that mark now they will need to win the rest of their games at a 52-win clip. They will be playing uphill all season and by the time Alvin Gentry gets his full complement of players he’s going to have no margin for error.
If there’s any reason for optimism, it’s what happened on Friday, when Anthony Davis almost single-handedly carried them to a win over the Atlanta Hawks. Davis had 43 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks on 23 shots, looking like the MVP candidate everyone thought he would be coming into the season. Without Asik and with Alexis Ajinca playing only 9 minutes, Davis spent most of the game playing as a C, where he is almost unguardable. He is the only big man in 4 of the top 5 line-ups in terms of net rating that he has played in this season.
There isn’t much the other team can do when Davis is playing in space. With the other four players stationed around the three-point line, he has the freedom to roam around the paint and play 1-on-1 against the other team’s C. While shot-creation isn’t the strength of his game, his ability to face-up, knock down jumpers and take the ball to the rim means he can almost always create a good look for himself. He can get right around slower big men and score over the top of smaller ones and there isn’t a big man league in the league who is longer and faster than him.
Davis becomes even more dangerous off the ball as a center. He can cut to the front of the rim on the two-man game or when one of his guards is driving and the nearest help-side defender is all the way out to the three-point line. The more space he is in, it becomes harder to box him out, throw extra bodies at him or force him to give up the ball. If the help does come, it’s coming from farther away and it’s much easier to see who they are leaving open.
“Put him out there with four shooters and a sped-up game and it becomes even more of an athleticism type match-up and he’s going to win those most nights because of his length, balance, long stride and instincts and how he’s such a factor at the rim,” said Rick Carlisle.
You saw it in the numbers against the Hawks. Davis got to the front of the rim easily against a smaller Atlanta frontline and wound up drawing 16 free throws. The game was played at a fast tempo - the final score was 121-115 - and there aren’t many guards in the league, much less big men, who can change ends faster than Davis. Gentry was brought on board to get the Pelicans playing at a faster pace and the easiest way to do that is to get more speed and ball-handling on the floor.
Just as important as what it does for Davis is what it does for everyone else. The defense has to collapse when Davis is rolling to the rim, which creates driving lanes to the basket and open shots on the perimeter. Someone is always open when Davis is playing in space so it becomes a matter of what the other team is going to give up and it’s much easier to give up a shot in traffic from Asik or Ajinca than an open look from 3.
Their loss to the Mavs wasn’t because they weren’t getting open shots. Without much of a defensive presence at the rim, Dallas spent most of the game playing in a shell, packing the paint and daring New Orleans to beat them from the perimeter. Davis was 11-19 from the field while the rest of the team was 9-28 from 3. When guys like Holiday, Cole and Pondexter are taking those shots instead of Douglas, Smith and Dante Cunningham, things in New Orleans will look different.
However, for as dangerous as those small-ball line-ups can be on offense, Gentry has been cautious about using them so far. “Atlanta was a good match-up for us to try that because Al Horford is a 4 playing as a 5 like AD,” said Gentry. “We’ll try it some more along the year but we are not going to have him out pounding against the Dwight Howard’s of the world. We have guys who can pound with Howard and guys like that so we aren’t going to put [Davis] in those situations outside of short stretches.”
Just as important as the size differential is the increased defensive responsibility Davis has when playing as the sole big man on the floor. He has all the tools to be an elite interior defender but he still has a long way to go in terms of being locked in on that side of the floor over the course of 48 minutes and consistently challenging drives to the rim. When Davis does rotate over, there isn’t another big man who can have his back or box out his man. The Pelicans have the worst defensive rating in the league this season (114.1), which will make it difficult for Gentry to minimize Asik’s playing time when he returns.
The bottom line is that playing Davis as a 5 puts him in the spotlight on both sides of the ball. He would be on an island every night and every weakness in his game would be exposed. He would need to be a great shot-creator to take advantage of all those 1-on-1 match-ups, a great rebounder to pick up the slack for his smaller teammates, a great shooter to open up driving lanes for everyone else, a great passer to pick apart double teams and a great defender to protect the paint without any help. The crazy thing about Davis is that he’s a Top 5 player in the NBA who can significantly better in every aspect of the game.
Davis has often been compared to Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan but he’s playing in a much different league and a much different era of basketball. KG and Duncan changed the game by moving seven footers from the 5 to the 4. The way the league is going, it’s going to be the other way for Davis - 1’s are playing as 2’s, 2’s are playing as 3’s, 3’s are playing as 4’s and 4’s are playing as 5’s. The team with more speed and more shooting almost always has the advantage in the modern NBA and line-ups with Anthony Davis at the 5 start with a massive advantage in both departments.
“It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care about positions,” said Davis.
Davis may not care about positions but positions care about him. The position he plays determines the type of players who are guarding him, the types of players he is guarding and the types of players his team puts next to him. The encouraging thing is that he’s open to anything because not every 7’0 is willing to play as a 5 (see: LaMarcus Aldridge). Davis could end up being the Holy Grail of basketball players in his prime - a center who can shoot 3’s, protect the rim, switch pick-and-rolls and have the offense run through him from every part of the floor. To get out of the hole they have dug for themselves, New Orleans may need to find out if he can be that player right now.