Anthony Davis’ last chance at $24 million contract boost

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AUBURN HILLS, Michigan – Anthony Davis – not yet showered and with a horde of media waiting to interview him – sat patiently while a trainer wrapped ice around his leg in the post-game locker room. As Davis rose to handle his obligations at hand, a Pelicans staffer announced the team’s first bus would leave the arena shortly.

“Oh, I’m on that,” Davis said.

“No, you’re not,” the staffer quickly retorted.

The Anthony Davis bandwagon hasn’t surged forward quite as quickly as many hoped.

A season that began with MVP talk and playoff plans has devolved into reduced expectations for Davis and New Orleans. The postseason appears to be little more than a pipedream for the 22-33 Pelicans. But an important question remains for Davis: Will he make an All-NBA team, triggering the Derrick Rose Rule and an additional $24 million in salary?

When Davis signed his contract extension last summer, it seemed inevitable. Most outlets, including this one, simply described his extension as worth $145 million. Even today, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports called him “the $145 million man.” But for Davis to earn that much, he’d have to meet one of the Rose-rule conditions during his first four seasons:

  • Win MVP
  • Get voted starter of two All-Star games
  • Make two All-NBA teams (first, second or third)

Davis cruised to the latter two honors last season, his third in the leauge. He led Western Conference frontcourt players in All-Star votes, finishing third overall – closer to first-place Stephen Curry than fourth-place Kobe Bryant. Davis also made the All-NBA first team, receiving first-team votes on 119 of 129 ballots and second-team votes on the other 10.

It seems a little silly that alone didn’t qualify Davis for the Rose rule, but the categories run independently. Checking one in each box doesn’t satisfy the requirement. It’s two voted All-Star starts or two All-NBA teams, not one of each.

With the Pelicans off to a slow start, Davis received fewer than a third of the All-Star votes he got last season. He finished ninth in Western Conference frontcourt voting – behind Zaza Pachulia and Enes Kanter.

That gives Davis one final chance to trigger the Rose rule: Make an All-NBA team this season.* If he doesn’t, his salary projects to fall by more than $4 million next season and more than $24 million over the five-year extension.

*Davis could win MVP, but he obviously won’t do that without an All-NBA selection.

“All this stuff that everybody’s talking about, money-wise and contracts – I just go out there and play,” Davis said. “That’s not my M.O. ‘If I don’t make this team or don’t do this then I lose money.’ I mean, if you do what you’re supposed to do, all that stuff will take care of itself.”

Undoubtedly, Davis has played well this season, averaging 23.6 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.3 steals per game.  His 59-point, 20-rebound game yesterday – the one that had so much media waiting to speak to him in the Pistons’ visiting locker room – acted as a re-coming-out party. Davis answered question after question, smiling after his historic performance long after the first bus departed.

But Davis still suffers from outsized expectations. What he’s doing, as great as it is, often doesn’t seem like enough.

That’s not fair one bit.

Davis’ All-NBA chances shouldn’t be judged against by his prior seasons, but against his peers this season. And in that regard, Davis gets a boost for his chances, because he has plenty of peers.

Though Davis has started 53 of 55 games at power forward, he has spent 55% of his minutes at center (defined as playing without Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca or Kendrick Perkins). So, Davis reasonably could make an All-NBA team at either forward or center, increasing his chances of landing on one.

How does he stack up? Here are a few all-in-one numbers for a baseline:

Win shares

Forwards:

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Centers:

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PER-based Estimated Wins Added

Forwards:

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Centers:

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Real Plus-Minus Wins

Forwards:

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Centers:

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To recap these “catch-all” stats: Davis ranks ninth, third and 12th among forwards; fourth, first and seventh among centers. He must finish top-six among forwards or top-three among centers in All-NBA voting to trigger the Rose rule.

It’s difficult to see Davis passing Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green at forward, but that still leaves two spots up for grabs. Davis could also top all centers, though DeMarcus Cousins leads a fairly open field that could bump down Davis.

For what it’s worth, I’d place Davis fifth at forward (behind Durant, LeBron, Leonard and Green) or first at center right now, though Davis is probably closer to securing a spot at forward than center on my mythical ballot. Center is just that wide open with Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond. There’s plenty of time for Davis to rise or fall in the rankings.

The Pelicans haven’t made it any easier on him.

They’ve lost 159 player-games to injury this season – third most in the NBA, behind only Washington and Denver, according to Man-Games Lost. That’s a key reason they followed last year’s 45-37 record and their first playoff appearance in four years with a 1-11 start.

Just as the season got underway, New Orleans had fallen out of mind.

“If we were having a good year as a team, not being decimated by the injuries, I think there would be talk of him being the MVP,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said of Davis.

The nature of New Orleans’ injuries have particularly harmed Davis. Nate Robinson, Ish Smith, Norris Cole, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday have started at point guard. Evans is now out for the season, and Holiday has mostly come off the bench and is just starting to play more than limited minutes. The upheaval and lack of talent at point guard matters greatly to Davis, who – for a player of his caliber – still struggles to create his own shot.

Davis has had 73.8% of his field goals assisted this season, by far the most among the dozen players averaging at least 22 points per game:

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The other end of New Orleans’ lineup hasn’t done Davis any favors, either.

The slender Davis gets worn down guarding bigger centers, so he has played considerable minutes with Omer Asik or Kendrick Perkins. But those two centers clog the paint offensively, making it much more difficult for Davis to score.

“He’s always playing against two guys,” Gentry said. “I’d like to see him guarded by one guy and not being double-teamed, but that’s not the case.”

Gentry has gotten Davis more one-on-one matchups by pairing him with Ryan Anderson, a stretch four. But Anderson struggles defensively, putting more pressure on Davis on that end.

Alexis Ajinca is New Orleans’ only other big who’s a somewhat reasonable complement to Davis on both ends of the floor. But the 7-foot-2 center center has never played more than 17.0 minutes per game in a season (12.2 this year). It just doesn’t seem he can handle a heavy workload at his size.

To be fair, it’s also difficult to find players who can both defend big centers and space the floor. That skill set puts a player on a fast track to stardom, and stars don’t come easy.

New Orleans’ record will also likely hurt him in the eyes of All-NBA voters, who often – somewhat logically, somewhat as a crutch – rely on team success when assessing individual accolades.

Whether due to injuries or roster construction, the Pelicans just haven’t positioned Davis to succeed at peak levels this season. On a superficial level, that works against Davis. But consider another point of view: He’s still incredibly productive despite these setbacks. Imagine how well he’d play in a better situation.

But Davis insists he’s thinking about none of this – the shortcomings around him, potential politicking for postseason honors or the massive payoff that could come soon.

“If you go out there and do what you’re supposed to do,” Davis said, “everything will find a way to work out.”