Picking Anthony Davis as the MVP before the 2015-16 season made a ton of sense, even in hindsight. A lot of people were doing it for several reasons:
- He’s a freak of nature type of talent and physical specimen, who seems to have been engineered by a create-a-player mode in a video game.
- The New Orleans Pelicans were coming off a 45-win season and Davis’ first playoff appearance. Even after getting swept by the eventual champs in the first round, Davis’ first postseason berth was expected to open the floodgates for a team upgrading at coach with Alvin Gentry’s hiring and looking to capitalize on the experience.
- We didn’t know that the Golden State Warriors and Stephen Curry were going to have that regular season. And with MVP awards, it always seems to be about who can challenge the league’s elite next in showing their value. Nobody was more “next” than Davis after the 2014-15 season where he averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, while shooting 53.5 percent from the field.
- He had just finished fifth in MVP voting. The idea of him jumping Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden and Curry on the ballots was certainly ambitious but not crazy. The Pelicans weren’t the next “it” team in the NBA, but Davis certainly gave them enough to challenge for a good chunk of the national spotlight.
In 2015-16, Davis put up nearly the exact same stat line (24.3-10.3-2.0-49.3) as his previous season with just a couple of declines. And yet he didn’t garner a single MVP vote. He didn’t even get a fifth-place vote with virtually the same line as the previous year. P.J. Brown once got a fifth-place MVP vote and all he did that season was average 10.8 points and nine rebounds. So what changed so dramatically that Davis’ still-brilliant play couldn’t get him charging toward that individual hardware like many thought he would do just six months prior?
The easiest answer is that the Pelicans were much worse. It wasn’t so much a regression as it was a rash of injuries that left them decimated before they could even get to the regular season. They began their season with Nate Robinson and Kendrick Perkins in the starting lineup. Not the rotation. The starting lineup. And it wasn’t some kind of tribute night for the 2010 Boston Celtics. This team was just out of options from Day One and scrambling to piece together a roster that could be competitive.
Competitive they were not.
New Orleans began the season 1-11, which is pretty much a death knell for hopes of making the playoffs. Only a handful of teams have ever started that poorly and still made the postseason.
However, it wasn’t just Davis’ team struggling that took him out of contention. It was his play, as well. It’s not that he played poorly or actually regressed; he didn’t make another leap — a leap many were expecting to have dazzle them while thinking of Kevin Garnett 2.0 dominating the court. Instead, Davis put in about the same amount of production, only with less efficiency and the only new toy was his venture into shooting 3-pointers.
It’s funny how expectations color the way you view a player’s production though. Davis’ averages of 24 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks for the second straight year put him in rare company. Shaquille O’Neal used to average 24-10-2 quite a bit. He did it nine times in his career. Hakeem Olajuwon (six), David Robinson (five) and Patrick Ewing (four) all used to do it. Before them, it was reserved for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (seven times) and occasionally Bob McAdoo (twice) or Moses Malone (once).
Averaging 24-10-2 hadn’t happened in a while prior to Davis the past two seasons. Other than Shaq, Tim Duncan did it in his 2001-02 MVP campaign, K.G. did it in his 2003-04 MVP season and Elton Brand did it in 2005-06. It had been nearly a decade since anybody put up those averages and Davis has now done it in two straight years, and yet somehow it wasn’t nearly enough the second time around.
Davis’ scoring efficiency went way down. Some of that could have been the caliber of player he was next to on a nightly basis. There were rare stretches in which the Pelicans were throwing the starting lineup and rotations that they hoped to do all season, so that definitely helps to explain why Davis may have struggled a bit more with defenses preparing for him better and the talent around him ill-equipped to relieve that defensive pressure.
Looking at Davis’ Synergy Sports stats in seven different categories, you can see just how significantly he dropped almost entirely across the board.
(In each category, the top unibrow is the 2014-15 season and the bottom unibrow is the 2015-16 season for Davis. Each stat is measured in points per possession.)
Extrapolate these numbers over 100 possessions like you would with a team’s offensive rating and you’re looking at a significant drop. He was down nearly 10 points per 100 possessions as a pick-and-roll big. He dropped 6.5 points per 100 possessions as a post-up option. Isolation scoring fell by almost 27 points per 100 possessions. Transition scoring plummeted by 20 points per 100 possessions and as the cutter on a play, we saw his efficiency drop by almost 18.5 points per 100 possessions.
Where Davis managed to improve was as a spot-up option and coming off screens, but that was mostly influenced by him being a 3-point shooter (108 attempts in 2015-16, 12 attempts in 2014-15) and getting that extra point. He only shot a half-percent better as a spot-up shooter this past season than he did the previous season, but his effective field-goal percent rose by 4.6 percent. He was 1.2 percent better from the field coming off screens and 2.5 percent better for effective field-goal percentage.
After being the sexy, sleeper pick going into last season, I can’t imagine anybody picking Davis to be their MVP favorite going into 2016-17. The Pelicans still have injury concerns and while they managed to improve the depth of their roster this offseason, they lost some firepower in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon (both to the Houston Rockets). We also still don’t know when Tyreke Evans will be back, if at all (knee injuries and possible trade, although his value is very low because of the knee).
The Western Conference looks to be improved, too. The Utah Jazz are everybody’s new “sleeper” in the West. The Golden State Warriors brought in Kevin Durant. The Los Angeles Clippers are still quite good. The San Antonio Spurs are in the first year of the post-Tim Duncan era but loaded up to be a superpower. The Portland Trail Blazers leapfrogged the Pelicans last season. The Memphis Grizzlies got healthy and added Chandler Parsons. The Dallas Mavericks added Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes. The Oklahoma City Thunder lost Durant but they still have a postseason-bound team, as long as Russell Westbrook is ticking.
The Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves are looking to make a leap with their impressive young cores. The Sacramento Kings actually have a coach now. The Houston Rockets have retooled and hired Mike D’Antoni to make them a scoring juggernaut. The Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers … hey, look how tough the rest of the West is again.
Where do the Pelicans fit into all of this? If they’re healthy, do we think they can get back to the postseason or has that picture in the West become too crowded? That may not even be up to Davis at this point, no matter how good he is. And it’s not a knock on him if that’s the case; much like love, the West is a battlefield.
Davis is one of just seven players in the NBA to average 24 points over the last two seasons. Of those seven players, only DeMarcus Cousins has grabbed more rebounds during that time. The way for Davis to separate himself now and rejoin the MVP discussions is to take his game to the next level. Whether that means becoming the Defensive Player of the Year or a big guy who does rack up assists like Garnett used to do, the league will want him to do more as a superstar and his team will probably need it to stay above the fray.
He’ll also need to be healthy for the first time in his career. He’s never played 70 or more games in a season. He missed 21 games last season and has topped out at 68 (2014-15).
Being the freak of nature he is, Davis will always command the attention of the NBA and its fans. But in order to put himself back into the discussion with the elite of the elite, he’ll need more. More efficiency. More defense. More impact. More from his teammates. More from his coach. It’s an unfair and subjective criteria to have to endure for a player of his caliber, but that’s what it takes. Curry was just the unanimous MVP but all people remember is his team blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
Davis won’t have those standards to get to, but he does have seemingly impossibly high standards to still reach. Good thing he has those long arms to go get it.
Source: CBS Sports / Despite elite numbers, Anthony Davis will need more to rejoin MVP discussion