Anthony Davis balancing two sides of New Orleans: All-Star fantasy and Pelicans’ reality

AP Photo/Max Becherer
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Anthony Davis refused a question about playing with other All-Stars in the NBA’s annual mid-winter classic.

“I’m not going to talk about All-Star right now,” Davis said after his Pelicans lost to the Pistons earlier this month.

Instead, he wanted to talk only about the Pelicans’ task at hand. And in that respect, playing with other stars would have veered greatly from his desired conversation.

Basketball’s biggest names are descending upon New Orleans this weekend, creating a fantasy world for everyone, but especially Davis. He’ll take his home court with four All-Star teammates, and they’ll be thrilled to play with him. But then they’ll leave, some of them departing together back to the same team. And reality will once again set in for Davis.

By both traditional (27.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.5 blocks and 1.3 steals per game) and advanced (7.6 win shares, 27.3 PER, +4.25 real plus-minus) metrics, Davis is having another excellent year.

But his team is again not.

The Pelicans are 23-34, headed toward their fourth losing season in his five years. They have one playoff appearance and no playoff wins with Davis.

“He has a dedication to the city, and he wants to be in New Orleans, and he wants to win there, and he wants to be the reason that we win there,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “So, he’s not discouraged in that, if you ask him, does he want out? or any thing like that, no. I don’t think that’s the case.

“Management, they’ve got to do everything they can to try to get the right players around him. And we’ve got to put him in a situation as a coaching staff that they can be successful.”

Since entering the league in 2012, Davis, using win shares and New Orleans’ actual win totals, has individually accounted for 28.5% of the Pelicans’ victories. No player has produced a higher share of his team’s wins in that span. That’s especially remarkable considering Davis has missed 72 games due to injury. The leaderboard:

 

Since that game at Detroit, Davis has opened up about bigger-picture issues — his desire to stay in New Orleans, using All-Star Weekend to recruit. He’s beyond due for more help.

Davis has made four All-Star games without an All-Star teammate in his first five seasons. The only other players to do that were Michael Jordan and David Robinson.

Jordan made the All-Star game without another Bulls player in each of his first five seasons, but Chicago had already acquired Scottie Pippen, who became an All-Star in Jordan’s sixth season and developed into an All-Star mainstay. The Bulls eventually added Dennis Rodman, whose antics – not production – kept him from selection.

Robinson also made the All-Star game each of his first five seasons, though Sean Elliott accompanied him in his fourth (and later, seventh) season. Then, of course, the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan, who was briefly a great sidekick to Robinson and became a superstar as Robinson slid into a supporting role.

Where is Davis’ All-Star teammate coming from?

It’s doubtful that teammate is already on the roster.

The Pelicans’ second-best player is Jrue Holiday, who made an All-Star game with the 76ers. But that was four years ago, and Holiday hasn’t been healthy or productive enough since. Tyreke Evans falls even further short, and the rest of the previous core — Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson — plays for the Rockets.

New Orleans is also short on young talent after trading its first-round pick in the three years following drafting Davis. They dealt what became the No. 6 pick in 2013 and No. 10 pick in 2014 for Holiday and the No. 18 pick in 2015 for Omer Asik.

After bombing to 30-52 last season, New Orleans got a surprising extra crack at a high draft pick, No. 6. The Pelicans picked Buddy Hield, who’s having an up-and-down rookie year. But Hield is already 23 — older than every other 2016 first-round pick save Denzel Valentine and older than Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has already signed his rookie-scale contract extension. Hield’s window to show All-Star potential is shorter than his draft-class peers, and he has yet to do so.

New Orleans is on track to have max-level cap space next summer, though re-signing Holiday would exhaust it. The Pelicans are tied to Asik (three more years, $33,859,548) and Alexis Ajinca (two more years, $10,247,192), plodding centers who don’t fit Gentry’s system.

Last summer’s key signings — Solomon Hill (four years, $48 million), E’Twaun Moore (four years, $34 million) and Langston Galloway (two years, $10,634,000) — have collectively underwhelmed. Their long-term salaries make it difficult for general manager Dell Demps to pivot into another plan.

The Pelicans have their own first-round pick and the NBA’s eighth-worst record. It’d be disappointing to wind up back in the lottery for a second consecutive year after what appeared to be a breakthrough run to the 2015 playoffs. But that might be the best path forward.

Davis just hasn’t lifted his team like he did then.

New Orleans has played between a 22- and 33-win pace with him off the court each season of his career. But their win pace with him on the court has ranged from just 29 to 38 — with the exception of 2014-15, when they played like a 55-win team with on the floor.

“These guys follow my lead, and I know that,” Davis said. “I try to get these guys ready to play every night.”

New Orleans’ struggles and Davis’ injuries led to him not being voted an All-Star starter or to an All-NBA team last season — costing him $19,683,908 over four years ($25,434,263 if you count the fifth season of the contract, which follows a player option he’s likely to decline) he would’ve received through the Derrick Rose rule.

He’ll have a chance to earn another major pay bump by making an All-NBA team or two in coming seasons. The numbers are always murky that far out, but if Davis qualifies as a veteran designated player, a new contract beginning in 2020 projects to be worth about $231 million over five years

Not bad for someone who keeps saying he wants to stay with the Pelicans anyway.

Maybe this weekend will help convince another star to join him. In the meantime, once the 23 others All-Stars fly out and leave him in New Orleans, Davis will return to the Pelicans’ reality.

“I’m going to keep fighting,” Davis said.