Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans finally found the win column Thursday, managing to hold on in a hard-fought game in Milwaukee that marked their first victory of the season.
It took a lot longer than they would’ve liked. Before the win, New Orleans was 0-8 despite the dazzling play of Davis, who in the season opener posted a 50-point, 15-rebound, five-steal, five-assist, four-block performance. Through nine games, he’s averaging 31 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, two steals and two assists.
Davis’s off-the-charts, early-season numbers are essentially unprecedented in modern basketball for such a struggling team. If we look at Game Score — Basketball-Reference’s metric for a player’s contribution and efficiency in a single game — we can see that no player on a team that’s begun a season 0-8 has come anywhere near Davis’s average Game Score of 26.3 during that initial stretch of games in the 30 years for which the stat is available. (The Sixers, who haven’t won an October or November game since 2013, will seek to avoid an 0-8 start on Friday night.)
|SEASON||TEAM||PLAYER||AVG. GAME SCORE|
|’16-17||New Orleans Pelicans||Anthony Davis||26.3|
|’04-05||Charlotte Hornets||Baron Davis||19.2|
|’05-06||Toronto Raptors||Chris Bosh||16.6|
|’88-89||Indiana Pacers||Wayman Tisdale||14.7|
|’01-02||Memphis Grizzlies||Lorenzen Wright||14.6|
|’02-03||Memphis Grizzlies||Pau Gasol||14.4|
|’13-14||Utah Jazz||Gordon Hayward||13.9|
|’14-15||Philadephia 76ers||Tony Wroten||13.8|
|’85-86||Phoenix Suns||Larry Nance||13.6|
|’12-13||Detroit Pistons||Greg Monroe||12.4|
|’15-16||Philadephia 76ers||Jahlil Okafor||12.2|
|’11-12||Washington Wizards||JaVale McGee||11.1|
|’97-98||Los Angeles Clippers||Lamond Murray||9.6|
|’12-13||Washington Wizards||Jordan Crawford||8.2|
|’97-98||Denver Nuggets||LaPhonso Ellis||5.0|
While players from earlier eras — Artis Gilmore, Bernard King and Mark Aguirre to name a few — put up big numbers for similarly bad teams, Davis’s statistics stand apart because of how many different ways he’s able to impact a game. He has career highs in both usage percent and true shooting percent (despite shooting just 18.8 percent from three this season) — one of the rare instances where a player’s increased workload coincides with an uptick in efficiency. That’s thanks to a hypermodern post-up game that often sees him catch the ball near the free throw line, post his man, and either quickly turn to drive or face up and work from the dribble. While these may not be “post” plays in the traditional, back-to-the-basket sense, they’ve been effective — Davis is scoring 110 points per 100 possessions on post plays, according to Synergy Sports, after scoring 78.2 and 84.7 points per 100 the last two seasons.
While the 23-year-old’s average Game Score only covers about 10 percent of the season, consider this: If he finishes the season at his current level, Davis would surpass all but one MVP season over the past 30 years (Michael Jordan’s 1987-88 campaign, in which His Airness posted 35 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists a night)
The obvious question: How are the Pelicans — who also lost 11 of 12 to start last season, as Davis missed three games with injuries — this terrible with such a great player, especially with their defense having improved considerably from last season?
Several factors are to blame.
Perhaps the most obvious: Besides Davis, there hasn’t been enough offensive firepower, or perimeter shooting, to keep opposing defenses honest. Yes, some of that figures to change once floor general Jrue Holiday returns to the lineup. But without floor spacer Ryan Anderson, who signed with Houston in July, Davis isn’t getting much help from the Pelicans’ wing players just yet. Shooting guard Buddy Hield, for example, the Pelicans’ first-round draft pick who averaged 25 points per game during his senior year at Oklahoma, is taking almost six three-pointers a night, but is connecting on just 23.5 percent of them.
Teams have sent hard, aggressive double-teams at Davis on 9 percent of his post-up looks this season, three times as often as last year, per Synergy Sports. He’s done well when he opts to shoot over the double, but he hasn’t had a reliable shooter to pass to. Of the 15 times he’s passed out of a post-up double-team, the Pelicans have scored a total of four points and shot just 7 percent (1-of-13), according to Synergy. Defenses have been wise to ignore perimeter shooters: New Orleans is an NBA-worst 28.6 percent from behind the arc.
Another problem: The team is essentially playing without a point guard. The Pelicans have been without guards Holiday and Tyreke Evans (who is out with knee issues), and recently lost Lance Stephenson — who’d played well as a primary ball handler off the bench — to a groin injury, leaving journeyman backup Tim Frazier to handle things. The ailment was a setback for a team that has done surprisingly well, all things considered, when Davis is forced to take breathers. The Pelicans’ net rating, while still negative, has been better in the minutes that Davis is on the sidelines, according to NBA.com.
If there’s a saving grace for Davis and the Pelicans so far, it’s that they’ve been relatively unlucky to this point. According to NBA.com, they’ve lost a league-high six games in clutch scenarios, where the score was within five points in the final five minutes of play. They’re also the only team in the NBA with two overtime losses already, meaning they might be due for success in close games going forward.
But even if their record doesn’t bounce back and they do indeed turn out to be one of the NBA’s worst teams, Davis’s otherworldly performances might be reason enough to watch them play from time to time.