At the young age of 21, Anthony Davis is already one of the very best players in the league. The wait for him to become a superstar was brief, but unfortunately for the New Orleans Pelicans, they've failed to ascend as a team with him.
While the lack of team success this year can be attributed primarily to injuries, there are legitimate concerns as to how the Pelicans will build around their franchise big man going forward.
Perhaps the most notable issue is the lack of cap space available for the last two seasons of Davis' rookie deal, which probably provides the most bang for the buck of any contract in the league at this point.
Beyond the cap concerns, the Pelicans will also likely have to forfeit this year's draft pick to the Philadelphia 76ers (top-five protected) as part of the Jrue Holiday acquisition.
Having limited means to acquire new talent around a franchise piece is a familiar problem, both for New Orleans and other teams around the league. As Grantland's Zach Lowe explains, there's a track record of teams failing to build around even the best and brightest stars:
The race to surround him [Davis] with the right talent, and to figure out his ideal positional use, is already on.
The Pelicans will have only limited cap flexibility in each of the next two summers, and the Magic and Cavaliers can testify about the fragile and fleeting chance of surrounding a true superstar with the right pieces — especially since that superstar will likely take his team out of the lottery.
It's far too soon to worry about Davis jumping ship, as no player in league history has ever turned down a max extension coming off a rookie deal, but there is certainly an incentive to add talent now before Davis' deal occupies so much of the available cap space. Once Davis becomes a max player, building a championship quality team around him will become all the more difficult.
What makes the situation in New Orleans unique is that the Pelicans really already pushed all-in and sacrificed nearly all flexibility for this current roster. If that sounds hasty, it's because it was. How can you properly build around a star when you're unsure of what he's going to be and therefore what he needs to be successful?
With that being said, we're still not quite sure what Davis is going to be, other than dominant. Davis is already fourth in the league in PER, behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. He's already a 20-10 guy, and he leads the league in blocks per game as well.
Davis is confounding in the best way possible. He could certainly play the 4 or 5, as he's mobile and fast enough to cover pick-and-rolls and protect the rim. He can switch on to perimeter players. He can operate from the free-throw line, low block and as a roll man. In a few years, he could very easily extend his range beyond the three-point line.
Basically, there isn't a whole lot Davis can't do, which is why the current roster around him is so confusing.
The Pelicans have multiple players who look for their own shot first and foremost. Whether it's Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, Austin Rivers and even at times Jrue Holiday, Davis can go through frustrating stretches where he doesn't even see the ball because it's in someone else's hands the whole possession.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, of the 14 players in the league with a PER of over 22, Davis ranks 13th of 14th in usage percentage. Other young frontcourt stars like DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin are seeing the ball with much more frequency.
Considering that Davis really shouldn't have to share possessions this much given the talent levels of his teammates, that 25.3 usage rate is far too low. And remember: This is without the full roster healthy for most of the season. What happens when Holiday, Evans, Gordon and Anderson are all on the floor next to Davis for a full season?
With that in mind, the first—and most important—step the Pelicans can take to build around Davis going forward is to find players whose main strengths have nothing to do with scoring. How much better on both ends would the Pelicans be with, say, Andre Iguodala and Nicolas Batum instead of Gordon and Evans?
And before you even scoff at the suggestion, as I'm aware that's an unrealistic scenario, it's more to illustrate the point that Evans and Gordon are making similar money as those players, and yet they are much worse fits.
Pelicans' head coach Monty Williams acknowledged as much to Grantland's Zach Lowe:
“What hurts him [Davis] now,” Williams says, “is that we just don’t have guys who can shoot. We have to add shooting. When we put more shooting around him, he is going to be unguardable.”
Again, not to beat a dead horse, but Evans is a 26.7 percent career three-point shooter who required the Pelicans to trade their one legitimate big body (Robin Lopez) just for the right to sign him to a four-year deal worth nearly $44 million when the Pelicans already had an injury-prone wing player on a massive deal.
And while Gordon is a perfectly acceptable shooter, he leaves a lot to be desired as a playmaker and finisher these days. On a deal worth $7 million a year, you'd love him, but Gordon is making twice that at $14.8 million next season.
The primary goal this offseason for GM Dell Demps should be simple: find players who can space the floor and defend.
The league is filled with capable 3-and-D guys (Danny Green, Wes Matthews and Arron Afflalo) who might be available via trade, and perhaps some team would still value Gordon or Evans highly enough to take on their deals if there were enough incentive (draft picks or salary acquisition) involved to make it worth it.
New Orleans has more than just the wing to worry about, though. Ryan Anderson is one of the league's best shooters, big men or otherwise, and so it's not hard to imagine there being a decent market for his services. Anderson has two years remaining on his deal at $8.5 million per year, so his contract is palatable even given the injury concerns after season-ending neck surgery.
The Pelicans have struggled horribly on defense when Davis and Anderson play together, but they’ve also scored at rates well above what the league’s best offenses produce. As Davis and the team mature, it’s appealing to see these guys as their own version of Miami — a smaller team that overwhelms with speed and shooting, and does just enough on defense to survive. ...
The ideal center for Davis would offer bulk and rim protection on defense, and be versatile enough offensively to stay out of his way regardless of which element — the pick-and-roll, posting up, driving — Davis happens to be emphasizing that night.
Davis allows for plenty of versatility, but it would help if New Orleans developed a style that fits him.
When you have one of the league's fastest and most dangerous players on the move, which is what Davis already is, you probably shouldn't be 22nd in the league in pace. The Pelicans often pound the ball and draw out the shot clock, which doesn't make teams pay for doubling Davis nearly as much as it should.
Who needs to go first?
If New Orleans wants to go small and keep Davis and Anderson together in the frontcourt, it's time to start playing like a small team by spreading the floor even more and getting transition buckets. Otherwise, it would be smart to bulk up defensively if Williams wants his teams to keep playing at his trademark slow pace.
Again, it's crazy to think how good Davis would be if New Orleans gave him the ball more and actually leveraged his strengths. This might be his floor considering his surroundings, which is terrifying.
To better build around Davis, the Pelicans need to truly make him the centerpiece, both in terms of roster composition and in terms of scheme. Any obstacles currently in the way of that need to be removed.
With better three-point shooting, better defenders at nearly every position (save for point guard) and a legitimate frontcourt partner with size, Davis can become even greater than he is now. In turn, although it won't be easy to accomplish, the Pelicans should follow.