Left to navigate a vicious and unforgiving Western Conference without Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans are poised to discover the true meaning of short-lived optimism.
New Orleans announced that Davis suffered a "non-displaced fracture" in his left hand during the first quarter of a win over the New York Knicks. A definitive timetable for his return has yet to be determined:
Anthony Davis suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left hand. He will not return tonight. A timetable for his return is TBD— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) December 2, 2013
Injuries to star players are never ideal, but the timing of Davis' is especially bloodcurdling. Winners of five of their last seven, the Pelicans gradually worked their way into the Western Conference playoff conversation. Following their victory over the Knicks, they found themselves in a three-way tie for 10th in the conference, a game-and-a-half outside the postseason bubble.
That molehill turns into a mountain without Davis, who led the team in rebounds and blocked shots, and was second in scoring and steals before going down. Without him in the lineup, New Orleans' defensive safety net and offensive post presence are gone. History. Figments of the organization's imagination.
Davis was the one player the Pellies couldn't afford to lose. Not for a game or two, let alone indefinitely.
Spawned out of his strong play came postseason ambition, conjoined hope that will now die in his extended absence.
Understanding Davis' Injury
Not much is known on the extent of Davis' injury. No target date has been set for his return, and an update on his status isn't expected until he returns to New Orleans, per Jim Eichenhofer of Pelicans.com:
Anthony Davis will be evaluated Tuesday when Pelicans return to New Orleans. After the evaluation, the team will have an update on status— Jim Eichenhofer (@Jim_Eichenhofer) December 2, 2013
Still awaiting additional details, Bleacher Report's Will Carroll broke down the different scenarios Davis and New Orleans could be facing:
Anthony Davis' fracture is problematic for many reasons. The first is pain and function. With Davis leaving the floor in obvious pain, the initial worry is how serious the fracture is. Secondarily, it will be which of the many small bones of the hand is fractured.
The Pelicans have announced that the injury is a single, non-displaced fracture. That should indicate Davis will not need surgery. The Pelicans have not yet announced which bone is fractured. That leaves us guessing. On the outside, the fifth metacarpal (the bone between the wrist and pinkie finger, aka "karate chop" bone) is the worst-case scenario. Any of the others have more protection, though Davis would be exposed while shooting and rebounding.
The timetable is hard to say without knowing both the severity and the location. The best case is that the bone heals normally in a few weeks and he can return with a minimum of bracing or padding. The worst case is that he could miss six to eight weeks while the bone heals. The truth is likely somewhere in between. The Pelicans and Davis are likely to be a bit conservative. This is easy to manage and easy to check, so there should be no issues as he returns.
Looking past the long-term ramifications on Davis himself, even the best-case scenario has the one-eyebrowed whiz kid missing a few weeks. Depending on severity, he could be out two months—perhaps longer.
Preparation for life without Davis begins with an official prognosis. Understanding how much time he'll miss puts the Pellies in a position to understand themselves, what they've lost and how long they've lost it for.
What They've Lost
A shark. A sophomore phenomenon. A battening superstar. Davis was all of those to the Pelicans—and more.
The Times-Picayune's Jimmy Smith described Davis' absence as the following:
Davis is the team's final line of defense at the rim when he's on the floor and his absence quite likely will open up the paint for opponents.
The Pelicans are also thin in the frontcourt, especially in the middle, with center Greg Stiemsma out with a left knee injury. Davis missed his only appearance in his hometown of Chicago last season with a concussion. New Orleans travels to face the Bulls in Chicago Monday night.
Sorry, no hyperbolic slants here. Everything Smith said was true; he even sugarcoated it for us, because the Pelicans lost more than their last line of defense at the rim.
The 20-year-old Davis leads the NBA in blocks per game with 3.6, and his PER (28.2) ranks second among all players who have appeared in at least 10 games this season, behind only LeBron James (30.3), the reigning MVP. All of that—gone. Vanished. AWOL.
More tragically, so is Davis' profound impact on his teammates.
New Orleans' foundation is already shaky. Talent can be found up and down the roster, but much of it is redundant or conflicting. Ball-dominators abound; able-bodied two-way weapons do not.
Not even Davis could shift the Pellies' fortunes entirely. When on the floor, he could single-handedly prevent downward spirals, rendering his Pelicans a respectable (not great) aggregate.
Heading into their matchup against the Chicago Bulls, the Pellies were allowing 103.8 points per 100 possessions, the eighth-worst mark in the league, according to NBA.com (subscription required). Their offense was markedly better and ranked sixth in efficiency, rattling off 105.7 points per 100 possessions.
Immediately, that's a good sign. The Pelicans were already a team surviving on their offense; the loss of their defensive stud won't change that. But it will bind them on both ends of the floor.
Look at how the Pellies have fared on offense and defense with and without Davis this season:
When he's on the floor, the Pelicans are a plus-3.2 points per 100 possessions. With him off, they're a minus-1.9, the equivalent of a 5.1-point swing. They'll especially miss him on the defensive end, where they still allowed 102.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, a middling number good enough for 18th in the league. Once he stepped off, that number skyrocketed to 106.2, or 28th.
Therein lies the real problem: covering up for Davis defensively.
Before, it was him that cleaned up New Orleans' collective mess, transforming an abominable defense into a less-than-satisfactory one. What are the Pelicans to do without him? Cross their fingers? Hope for the best? Panic?
Chances are plenty of time will be dedicated to every type of reaction imaginable.
Replacing the Irreplaceable
There is no replacing Davis, because: obviously.
Coach Monty Williams ran with two different starting lineups this season before now, the most recent of which sits at 2-0 and comprises Davis, Jrue Holiday, Jason Smith, Eric Gordon and Anthony Morrow.
That combine has logged a grand total of 30 minutes together this season and was New Orleans' fourth-most used lineup when Davis sustained his injury. On the year, it's outscoring opponents by an average of 2.8 points per 100 possessions as well.
The most frequently used arrangement consisted of Davis, Holiday, Gordon, Smith and Al-Farouq Aminu. They saw a team-leading 182 minutes together, outscoring opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions of floor time.
Basically, seven of New Orleans' most-used lineups contained Davis, and no Davis-less five-man tandem saw more than 19 minutes of action together leading up to his injury. Playing without Davis will force the Pelicans to experiment, to journey into the unknown. Davis is such a big part of what they do, minutes played without him aren't being occupied by established units.
In their first full game without Davis against the Bulls, the Pellies ran with Holiday, Gordon, Aminu, Smith and Anderson to start. Before then, that group appeared in two games together for a grand total of 14 minutes. During that short time, they posted a minus-9.1 per 100 possessions.
For further perspective, here's a look at how that lineup compares to the previous starting fives New Orleans has fielded to date:
Small samples sizes are taboo, but they're all we have to work with—which is the point.
The Pelicans aren't used to playing without Davis for long periods of time, and the options they have are either statistically flawed or have logged fewer than an entire quarter together.
Sans Davis, the Pelicans should still find offensive respectability. Their starting five against the Bulls posted an offensive rating of 123.9 heading in. But it also allowed 133 points per 100 possessions, accounting for that massive deficit discussed earlier. So not only are the Pelicans venturing into uncharted territory, but they're also doing so with a lineup, with options, that hasn't stood up defensively.
I think I speak for all of us when I say: Good luck with that.
Western Conference Problems
If only the Pellies played in the Eastern Conference, then things could be different.
Only two teams out east sit above .500. Two. The Eastern Conference was supposed to have five good teams this year—Bulls, Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets. What they have is two. Out of 15.
But there's no using harping on that. New Orleans plays in a ruthless Western Conference, where powerhouses are the standard and mediocre outfits are swallowed whole.
Following Davis' injury, 12 teams, including the Pelicans, stood at .500 or better. And one—the Minnesota Timberwolves—sat one game within .500. Think about that; the West has 13 teams all currently vying for a playoff spot. Only the Sacramento Kings and tanking Utah Jazz have fallen out of the postseason picture entirely.
Will the Pelicans make the playoffs this season?
The Pelicans were staving off commonplace status to begin with. Even with Davis, they weren't great. What's to become of them now?
Glaring deficiencies won't be as readily apparent when the Pellies travel east, hence their ability to dispatch the Knicks without Davis (for the most part). But we've seen what the absence of one defensive stopper, one frontcourt mainstay, can do. How it can cripple his team.
The Memphis Grizzlies are gasping for air without Marc Gasol, and the Knicks have drowned twice and been waterboarded three times down Tyson Chandler. New Orleans now finds itself in a similar situation.
This isn't a veteran Pelicans team; this is a young, relatively inexperienced contingent. Playing in the Western Conference. Already a playoff long shot. Without its best player. Do the math yourself.
But don't take too long, lest the Pelicans' playoff hopes have already dissipated into nothing long before you're done and Anthony Davis returns.