DETROIT – Anthony Davis repeatedly entered and exited the visitors’ locker room after the Pelicans win over the Pistons on Sunday. At a time most players go from their locker to the shower and back then leave, Davis was busy. He visited with people in the hall. He breezed back by his locker then left to attend to other matters. He returned again and, before showering, turned to the assembled media.
“Y’all need me?” Davis asked.
Davis is used to getting pulled in every direction and still being needed even more.
The superstar is having another MVP-ballot-caliber season. Yet, New Orleans is just 15-15, 11th in the Western Conference.
It’s not for a lack of effort by Davis. He has expanded his game offensively. Playing center regularly, his defensive responsibilities are as great as ever. And he leads the NBA with 37.0 minutes per game.
“You don’t have Secretariat run half the race then step out because it might be too far,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “No. You’ve got a great player, you use him the best you can.”
New Orleans has little choice but to lean heavily on Davis. With him on the floor vs. off, the Pelicans score 9.7 more points and allow 6.2 fewer points per 100 possessions.
Put another way: New Orleans plays like a 59-win team with Davis and a 20-win team without him.
Here are the leaders in win-rate difference with off-court on the left, on-court on the right and difference between (minimum: 300 minutes):
It helps Davis plays a large majority of minutes with Jrue Holiday, who actually rates better by this metric. But Davis is clearly driving New Orleans’ success.
Not only does Davis lead the NBA in real plus-minus (+7.11), he does so with an unparalleled two-way efficiency. Nobody nears his combination of offensive (+3.73) and defensive (+3.38) real plus-minus.
Here’s every NBA player by offensive and defensive real plus-minus with the positive outliers’ photos:
Davis is producing in all his usual ways – 28.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals per game. But he’s also averaging 4.7 assists per game, more than double his previous career high.
The Pelicans increased their pace and passing last year, and the system did wonders for setting up Davis. But they lost key component Rajon Rondo in free agency last summer, and replacement starting point guard Elfrid Payton has missed most of this season due to injury.
So, Davis has stepped up.
He’s done it while continuing to protect the ball, an overlooked but important aspect of his game. His assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 2-to-1, impressive for a big.
Davis faces frequent double-teams and generates many of his assists by passing out of those:
After scoring so well in transition for so long, Davis is now taking advantage of his speed by playmaking in the open court:
Davis has also become adept at flipping short passes to a teammate then walking into a screen ball screen. That threat has sparked more creative options with Davis’ improved distributing abilities:
Davis’ teammates appear invigorated to receive his passes.
They run the court with him on fastbreaks. They cut actively. They re-position themselves around the 3-point arc to create passing angles.
With Davis attracting so much defensive attention, openings abound.
“He just finds me, and it’s an easy look,” said Nikola Mirotic, who’s shooting 70% on 2-pointers and 52% on 3-pointers off passes from Davis.
Davis keeps putting more on his plate. He said he has to play nearly perfectly for the Pelicans to win, and he hasn’t shrunk from that responsibility. In fact, he keeps raising his personal standard.
New Orleans is trying to keep up. The Pelicans are reportedly one of the most active buyers on the trade market, but they lack trade chips beyond their draft picks. Davis is propping up a mediocre supporting cast.
Of course, Davis will be eligible for a super-max extension – which projects to be worth about $240 million over five years – this offseason. That will be the moment of truth for his future in New Orleans.
Most players so good on teams so bad would have left already.
But Davis – for now, at least – is still with the Pelicans, still doing everything he can to carry them.
“Being the guy on the team, the leader, franchise player you say,” Davis said, “the team asks a lot of me. So, anything less than what they expect, it’s on me.
“Anybody who wants to be that great player, it comes with the territory.”