New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis is still waiting for his moment to shine
Down two games to none in a series nobody expects his team to win, the game still inside him, New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis needed to know why it didn’t work. Less than 30 minutes after his team’s maddening five-point loss, he stood towering over a fold-up, fiberboard elementary-school cafeteria table in a corner of the visiting locker room in Oakland’s Oracle Arena. On a laptop in front of him, a play happened, over and over. He watched, he clicked, he watched again, as if repetition could produce a different result.
It was just one botched play in a game filled with the NBA’s typical mash of exquisite execution, bungled opportunities and accidental successes, but Davis was determined to find an answer. Many of his teammates had showered, dressed and left the building. Judging by context clues — Davis was standing with a video guy in an off-limits corner that was visible but not approachable — the play was a late-game pick-and-roll with point guard Rajon Rondo, an odd master of patterns and tendencies whom Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr describes as “wicked smart.”
Davis called to Rondo from across the room, and Rondo said he wanted to shower first and talk later. Without looking up or acknowledging Rondo’s response, Davis said, “I thought you were going to go under, but you went over.”
Rondo looked up, replaying the play in the screens of his mind, and said, “Oh, yeah — Draymond was all over me.”
There was no emotion in either man’s voice; they were just two dudes having a talk about something that happened at work. Davis stayed in place, an immense man hovering over a laptop, watching the play again and again, searching for the origins of failure at a subatomic level. He pointed to something that evidently bothered him about the order of things before walking away and whispering something to Rondo, who nodded his assent.
You might take it for granted: The Warriors will defeat the Pelicans. Perhaps in four games, perhaps five if everything aligns cosmically and the Pelicans can force a return trip to Oakland after two games in New Orleans. But if you’re one of the best five or six players in the world, and you find yourself in the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time, those are not your articles of faith.
If you’re Anthony Davis, you want to know not only why, but why not?
A regular-season superstar is a lowercase superstar. It’s cruel, sure, but the bizarre notion remains: Championships are a required accessory of players of Davis’ station. A ring-less career is an eternal torment.
It should matter that Davis plays for a team with no appreciable history, its milestones marked only by the notable departures of its best players. It should matter that he has brought national attention to that team and become its most enduring symbol of hope since it arrived in its current incarnation in 2002. It should matter that the Pelicans are the most under-covered, underappreciated professional sports team in the country. That point is really not debatable. Just one local newspaper sent a beat writer to Oakland, and he had to return to New Orleans before Game 2 to get back to his day job at a consulting firm. The game story was farmed out to a San Francisco writer. Davis is the rare superstar who is known and appreciated more nationally than locally.
And his talent is futuristic, and transformational, and maybe the most outlandishly resistant to normal human defensive efforts. The concept of positionless basketball was hatched with Davis — 6-foot-10 with a downy shooting touch, a dexterous post game and a deft-enough handle — as an unattainable prototype. His catch radius is loosely defined as the arena. “The lobs are things people don’t completely understand,” Pelicans reserve Solomon Hill says. “When you’re on the court and see him create separation and then go up, it’s really hard to believe. He just keeps going.” Davis can cover the length of the court in a handful of strides, and his transition from defense to offense, from operating under one basket to appearing under the other, can seem impossible. In the first quarter of Game 2, he blocked a Steph Curry floater at the hoop to start a fast break and materialized at the other end to follow up a teammate’s missed layup. There is no one outside of LeBron James whose presence permeates all 94 feet the way Davis’ does. He’s good enough that any loss in which he scores less than 40 — he’s scored 21 and 25 in the first two games of the Western Conference semifinals — seems like a failure of the imagination.
“He’s not just a franchise player,” Hill says. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player. But the difference between him being a competitive, top-three player in the league, and people putting his name routinely in the MVP conversation, is him going out and doing work right here. If we can go to the Finals, then next year people are taking him seriously.”
If we can go to the Finals: Seven noble words with a lot of work ahead of them. Beating the Warriors four times, with the Pelicans as they are currently constructed, might take more than one once-in-a-lifetime player. And even then, the Rockets or Jazz would await in the Western Conference finals. Ask Davis about this opportunity — about whether it is important for him, on this stage and against this team, to elevate his game and seize the moment — and he will say it is vitally important for the Pelicans because the Warriors “are the defending champs, and they’re a great team.”
“Beating the Warriors four times might take more than one once-in-a-lifetime player. And even then, the Rockets or Jazz would await.”
It’s the perfect example of Davis’ almost physical aversion to public self-reflection. When attention focuses on him, it’s not hard to imagine the kid who stayed at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago — a math and science school that operates “with minimal athletic success,” according to Davis’ Wikipedia page — as a senior rather than transferring to one of the powerhouse schools that desperately sought the talent of a fast-growing teenager who went from unknown to the No. 1 recruit in the country over the span of five months.
Now, Davis’ willingness to submerge his ego allowed him to not only coexist but flourish next to fellow star DeMarcus Cousins, until Cousins tore his Achilles in late January. When that happened, “We had a pity party for ourselves for a little while,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry says. The party ended because Davis ended it — he hoisted the Pelicans on his back and carried them for the month of February. “As good as any month anybody’s ever had in the league,” Gentry says, “and that helped.” Davis’ 35 points, 13 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.2 blocks in 11 February games marked the first time since 1982 (Moses Malone) that a player averaged 35 and 10 in a month. Davis’ presence brought out the best in Cousins, who averaged 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds on a career-best 53 percent effective field goal percentage before his injury, and Cousins’ absence brought out the best in Davis. Cousins is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and the Pelicans have to ask themselves whether they’re better off re-signing Cousins or dispersing the resources in an attempt to acquire more depth to surround Jrue Holiday and Davis, whose max contract runs for three more years.
• LeBron puts on clinic, Cavs school Raptors
• Celtics show resilience in Game 2 win
• Mitchell slams door on Rockets’ comeback
• Kerr says Curry will start Game 3 vs. Pelicans
• Smart puts his unique stamp on playoffs
• Adams: Is ‘Playoff Rondo’ a real thing?
• NBA playoff MVPs: Ranking the top 10
• Injuries that are impacting the playoffs
• NBA offseason guides for eliminated teams
• Tickets on Vivid Seats
Perhaps to his own detriment, he is not demanding on the court. He chews his gum, minds his own business and slips into position in the post with such liquid grace that it sometimes goes unnoticed. He never seems to take it personally, which might be why his team can go long stretches without throwing him the ball. In the deciding three minutes of Game 2, Davis never touched the ball as the Warriors ran off 10 straight points midway through the fourth quarter. Quickly and permanently, a tie game no longer was.
He has shot just four free throws in the first two games of the series, a statistic that has become a burgeoning storyline and a mounting gripe in the New Orleans locker room. Does Davis get the kind of treatment that is commensurate to his talent? The Pelicans scoff at the idea. After Game 2, in which Davis and Holiday combined for 48 shots but zero free throws, Hill got dressed at his locker as Ian Clark answered questions from the media. When Clark was asked about the difference in the game, Hill shouted, “Free throws! Free throws!” Clark kept answering questions, issuing the sanitized version of the Pelicans’ irritation, while Hill stood in the background stripping away the varnish. “AD’s got four free throws in this series,” Hill said. “Quinn Cook‘s got four.”
The lament is nothing new. The day before Hill told me, “Back in my day” — just noting this: Hill is 27 — “we didn’t practice how to get fouled, but now you kind of have to. AD isn’t a guy who’s going to flop. It’s not in his game. He knows one way to play the game, and he’s not about to act out to get a foul. We don’t want guys trying to draw fouls, but when James Harden‘s out there leading the league in free throw attempts doing what he does, it’s tough. That’s one thing I really like about AD — he plays the way the game is supposed to be played, and the way he is taught.”
After the Pelicans concluded practice Sunday afternoon in Oakland, Davis walked across the court and into the tunnel with his eyes fixed on a distant point, ignoring everything around him. He was willfully ignoring everything and everyone around him, in a manner common among famous men not interested in being bothered. In Davis’ case, it was hard to tell whether he was walking toward something, or away.
“AD won’t show it,” Hill says, “but this is what he lives for. He’s been yearning for this moment.”
It can be tough to find the clues, but Davis needs this. He needs it the way he needs to decipher the granular details of a failed pick-and-roll. Fair or not, every superstar needs the validation that comes with winning.
Greatness for the sake of greatness is not enough. It’s just a prelude to something bigger.