Struggling Pelicans Need a Leader, and Anthony Davis Isn't Stepping Up

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 13, 2016

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 8:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans before the game against the Indiana Pacers during the game on January 8, 2016 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Much was given…

"I think Anthony Davis will win the MVP next year. That's my early prediction. Anthony Davis will win the MVP."
 Zach Lowe, Grantland

"Davis should be even better this season, cementing himself as the MVP and the NBA's best player moving forward."
 Tim Bontemps, New York Post

"Bottom line: Davis is either already better than [LeBron] James or just about eye-to-eye."
 Tom Haberstroh, ESPN

…so production of biblical proportions was required.

For the 11-26 New Orleans Pelicans, this season has been so hollow that all those rave previews for Davis readily echo.

The team defense has been especially disappointing, but the Pelicans' numbers on either side of the ball don't translate into a record this horrible. Yet there it is. Something is amiss, and it's simplistic to absolve Davis of responsibility because his individual stats are still very good.

This is a great example of how stats don't tell the complete story of who is most valuable, or most successful, in the NBA.

This isn't so much about my fellow NBA scribes' projections. There was no doubting the statistical dominance Davis achieved last season. Even now, amid the disappointment, he has remained in the clear upper echelon on offense and has been one of the league's hardest guys to score against, according to NBA.com.

What is missing, though, is real and crucial when it comes to becoming a basketball Jesus: leadership.

Until Davis discovers that important intangible part of himself, he'll continue to be flat-out overrated.   

Some victories always come behind his individual talent—no matter the new system, inconsistent lineups and just-OK personnel.

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 2: Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks posts up against Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans on January 2, 2016 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
Danny Bollinger/Getty Images

But for Davis to become what he can be, what so many believed he was on the cusp of becoming, he needs to figure out how to lead, no matter the particular style. 

We need to see him figure out whatever is best for his style.

This goes way beyond whether he sets a good example (he does) or is a great passer (he isn't). He's clearly more nice guy than tough love, which is fine.

To be the best of the best, though, the job entails knowing yourself and truly embracing your role as team leader.

Davis isn't used to that. He was a late bloomer from a tiny high school that didn't play serious ball. His Kentucky team won the NCAA title behind superior talent (four NBA first-round picks, two second-round picks) rather than Davis as the alpha dog.

He prefers to be just one of the guys.

Same as the media, everyone in the Pelicans' organization assumed Davis was ready to step forward further this season. That means owning his role as the franchise's everything.

It shouldn't be Alvin Gentry's offense and Darren Erman's defense coming in as much as it should be Davis' making everyone feel confident that he's got this now. We're talking about the guy 86.2 percent of the league's general managers would want if they were starting a franchise, according to the annual NBA.com survey. (Kevin Durant and James each got a mere 6.9 percent.)

Dec 23, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry and forward Anthony Davis (23) during the second half of a game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Trail Blazers 115-89
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Although few would agree with all of them, every major move the Pelicans have made has been to surround Davis with good fits: acquiring Ryan Anderson and paying Eric Gordon to space the floor for Davis inside, moving big men Robin Lopez and Nerlens Noel for Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday to give Davis pick-and-roll partners in their primes. Then Davis got his max contract extension over the summer.

Injuries, new coaches or whatever, Davis needed to be thinking about how to go next-level this season with something more important than his three-point shot: building a winning team.

Instead, Davis' personality has stayed even-keel while his on-court motor hasn't revved as robustly as last season. Operating in a small market he finds comfortable, with no traveling media aside from team employees, Davis hasn't had any pressure to grow mentally and seek out new answers to help the team win.

Despite a stronger physique and less banging in the paint, Davis has remained prone to leaving or missing games, too. That motor has revved more often lately than it did early this season, but when Davis chased a ball out of bounds Friday against the Indiana Pacers, he bruised his back.

He went through a solid pregame workout Tuesday at Staples Center but decided the bruise was bothering him enough to sit out again—and the Pelicans faltered late and lost, 95-91, against a young Los Angeles Lakers team that is the only one below them in the Western Conference standings.

If not for the consistent vouching for both his work ethic and enjoyment of the game, one might wonder if Davis has fallen into the average Joe career pothole of being a little satisfied after making sure he got paid.

It's more likely he's 22 and in his fourth NBA season—and he needs time to figure this stuff out.

Dec 18, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) reacts against the Phoenix Suns during the second half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns won 104-88. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

James did take his talent-poor team to the NBA Finals at 22 in his fourth NBA season. He, however, was far more prepared from high school superstardom for leadership burdens and complexities. Even so, James' team-building excellence now is far more advanced than what he knew back then.

Until Davis makes a leap in that sense, the current Cleveland Cavalier who is the most apt comparison to Davis is not James.

It's Kevin Love.

Love produced some eye-popping statistics but failed to inspire his teammates through all of those early years of team failures in Minnesota. Davis is better than Love, ridiculously so to those of us who put a premium on defensive excellence. Yet because of those Minnesota stats, Love garnered misguided talk as one of the very best in the game.

Much like defensive excellence, social intelligence is an underrated element in becoming one of the very best in the game.

The game of basketball is uniquely a team game.

And there's a massive difference in the NBA between being a good teammate and a great leader.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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