This was going to be the year that Anthony Davis took over the NBA. After three years of tantalizing us with his otherworldly talents and moving steadily up the list of the NBA's most valuable players, Davis was finally going to leapfrog LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and anyone else that stood between him and the title of Best Basketball Player Alive. That hasn't happened.
Accordingly, Davis' New Orleans Pelicans team has not ascended as expected. After 27 and 34-win seasons in Davis' first two years, the Pellies jumped up to 45 wins last year, and made the first Davis era playoff appearance, brief though it was. They'd improved their offensive efficiency in each of those seasons, and the hiring of Alvin Gentry this offseason was supposed to goose that even more while also finally turning around a lagging defense. Even with Jrue Holiday injured and on a minutes limit to start the year, most expected the Pelicans to be in or around the playoff picture for most of the season. That hasn't happened, either.
Instead, the Pelicans are headed for their fifth consecutive last place finish in the Southwest Division; with a record of just 20-33, they're on pace to win 14 fewer games than they did a year ago. And instead of going supernova, Davis has once again been merely very good; improvement isn't always linear, even for immortals.
New Orleans' offense has regressed under Gentry, and while they're playing faster by about 4.5 possessions a game, as promised, they haven't been as efficient with those possessions as they were a year ago. Curiously for a team pushing the pace for the first time, their decline seems to be rooted not in an increase in turnovers, but rather because of a nearly six percent decline in offensive rebounding. That decline can be explained by the fact that they're not chasing those offensive rebounds nearly as much—about 10 percent less often, per Nylon Calculus. That strategy which has helped their transition defense—they're allowing 2.5 fewer fast break points per game despite the faster pace, per NBA.com—but their half-court point-prevention has taken yet another step back.
Injuries—a lot of them, across the board—explain a large part of why they've regressed on both sides of the floor. Alonzo Gee is the only player on the team to appear in all 53 games. Davis and Holiday have missed six games apiece, Omer Asik has missed seven, Eric Gordon and Alexis Ajinca 12, and Tyreke Evans missed 26 before news broke that he'd miss the rest of the season; Quincy Pondexter, who hadn't played all year, recently had surgery that will keep him out for the rest of the season as well. They've been starting Bryce Dejean-Jones for their last eight games. If you've never heard of him, you're probably not alone. He's an undrafted rookie free agent out of Iowa State that is currently on his second 10-day contact with the team.
Because of all the absences, New Orleans' best group of five players has shared the floor for only 33 minutes all season long. Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Ryan Anderson, and Davis have outscored opponents by an insane 43 points in that time; they just haven't really had the chance to do more. With Evans out for the rest of the year, those 33 minutes are it until next season.
The result of all the injury issues and sagging play on both ends is a team that's 6.5 games out of a playoff spot with only 29 games left. Owner Tom Benson wants the team to make the playoffs, but with that much ground to make up—and three teams to jump before getting to eighth-place Utah—it doesn't seem all that realistic at this point. When you're as close in the standings to the Suns and Nets, the teams with the third-worst record in the league, as you are to the playoffs, it's probably time to accept the reality of a lost season.
Doing so means thinking about the future—determining which of the players on the team will be part of the next Davis-led playoff run and which are expendable, then making the expendable ones available on the open market and re-tooling around Davis. The Pelicans know what kind of players would most augment Davis' talents: penetrating ball-handlers, three-point snipers on the wing, and mobile bigs that can defend in space. Anyone that doesn't fit that description probably isn't going to play a major role in the contender the Pels are trying to build around Davis, and as such can be flipped if the price is right.
Right now, the Pellies are reportedly exploring deals for Gordon and Evans, but have "indicated little appetite" for dealing Anderson. Gordon's combination of outside shooting and ability to get to the rim will always be valuable when he's on the floor, but he's also (a) been available for less than 60 percent of his team's games over the last five years; (b) working on an expiring $15.5 million contract; and (c) not been able to penetrate quite as often the last few years as he's dealt with those repeated injury issues. It's tough to recoup "full value" for a player like that, especially given that he's currently sidelined yet again, this time with a fractured ring finger. The team doesn't seem all that likely to re-sign him this summer, so exploring possible swaps makes a good deal of sense.
The same is true of Anderson, who is also working on an expiring contract. His $8.5 million deal makes him a bit more affordable than Gordon, and the fact that he doesn't attend quite so many games in a suit makes him considerably more attractive. Anderson is sniping away from outside yet again this season (he's knocked down 38.3 percent of his 5.4 3-point attempts per game) but he's also as big a defensive liability as ever. The Pelicans' offense has died without him on the floor this year, but he doesn't really make sense at any frontcourt position on the other side of the floor. Still, he could help plenty of teams in the market for a stretch four. Considering the Pelicans just invested nearly $80 million in centers to play alongside Davis, Anderson doesn't seem like he is long for New Orleans, and the smart move would be to move him now, while the moving is good.
Davis seems like a center in the new NBA, which makes Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, the team's two comparatively retro seven-footers, expendable. It's just hard to see who, if anyone, would actually want them. Asik is owed just north of $43 million over the next four years after this one, with the final year of his contract (2019-20) carrying an early termination option; Ajinca is still just 27 and on a more reasonable deal (and has made 51 percent of his shots 16 feet and out this year), but he's also Alexis Ajinca. The problem with dealing either or both of those bigs is that lineups with Davis at center haven't fared well defensively. But when you consider that none of the Pelicans' lineups have fared well defensively, that seems like less of an issue.
Evans and Holiday are probably the most attractive trade targets, but they'd also probably be the toughest players for the Pelicans to give up on. The two big moves the Pellies made the offseason after Anthony Davis' rookie year were a sign-and-trade deal for Evans and swapping a couple of draft picks (which eventually turned into Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton) for Holiday. When they've actually been on the floor together, the Evans/Holiday/Davis trio has been really damn good, outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions during their two and a half years together. But they've all been healthy together for only 82 of New Orleans' 215 games in that time, and have shared the floor for just 1,367 minutes.
Holiday and Evans both have contracts that expire after next season, though, so there's not all that much time left for the Pellies to decide if they want to re-up them, either. And Evans will be considerably more difficult to deal now that he's likely out the rest of the year.
Cutting ties with any or all of these players will be tough. The Pelicans had high hopes this season, and it's painful to admit defeat when the season isn't officially over. But considering the position the team is in right now and the injury and contract situations of so many of the players that comprise their current core, it's probably the right move. For the Pelicans, exploring options and looking to the future doesn't have to mean blowing everything up, or tanking. It's more a matter of recognizing where they are in their development cycle and looking for opportunities to speed it up some. This season, and this particular version of the team, doesn't appear salvageable. Next year is another story. Anthony Davis isn't going anywhere; the job, now, is surrounding him with players who can help him take this team where they want to go.